The effect of the closure of Nigeria’s borders on the nation’s economy and that of some of its neighbours was again the major discourse at the highest diplomatic levels recently.
On Monday January 20, on the sidelines of the just concluded UK-Africa Investment Summit 2020 in London, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and his Ghanaian counterpart, Nana Akufo-Addo conversed on the continued consequences of the border closure.
At the meeting, Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo reportedly pleaded with President Buhari to expedite the process of reopening the borders, noting that the closure was adversely affecting his country’s economy.
“The Nigerian market is significant for certain categories of business people in Ghana,” Akufo-Addo noted.
But Buhari, while defending the closure, said it was necessary in the overall interest of Nigeria. He said the closure was not done solely because rice and some other food items were being smuggled into the country, but also because dangerous arms and ammunition, as well as hard drugs, were being freighted into the country through the land borders.
Buhari said he could not keep his eyes open and watch youths being destroyed through cheap hard drugs, even as the nation’s security was being compromised through the unbridled influx of small arms.
His words: “When most of the vehicles carrying rice and other food products through our land borders are intercepted, you find cheap hard drugs and small arms, under the food products. This has terrible consequences for any country. It is regrettable that the partial border closure is having negative economic impact on our neighbours, but we cannot leave our country, particularly the youths, endangered.”
He said Nigeria had remained the biggest victims of the influx of small arms into the Sahel region which also affects other countries like Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Buhari said a committee was working on the issue, assuring that the borders would remain partially shut until all the issues are sorted out.
He added: “We will get things sorted out. Our farmers, especially those who grow rice, now have a market, and are happy. We are also concerned about hard drugs and weapons. Once the committee comes up with its recommendations, we will sit and consider them,” the President said.
Nigerians woke up on Wednesday, August 21 last year, to the news that the nation’s land borders had been shut by the Federal Government. The government said it took the action as a result of the massive influx of illegal items being smuggled into the country. No date was given for the termination of the exercise.
Hundreds of businessmen and their container-laden trucks were stranded at the major points of entry into the country, especially in Seme and Idiroko. Since then, the borders have remained shut. Importers have found it hard bringing in items like rice, chicken, turkey and a number of others into the country.
Besides closing the borders, government also launched the ‘Exercise Swift Response,’ a joint border security exercise, to enforce the border closure. The joint patrol team comprises operatives of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), in collaboration with the Armed Forces, the police and other security and intelligence agencies.
The government said the exercise would provide a unique platform for the various participating agencies to jointly operate, thereby strengthening inter-agency collaboration and reducing animosity.
Lamentations from other lands
Since the closure, there have been complaints in some quarters, notably outside Nigeria, about the effects of the action.
Rice traders in Cotonue and Seme, in Benin Republic, have been bemoaning their fate. That is understandable, as the goods were, until the closure, being smuggled through the border into the country. The border closure also has effect in some rice-producing countries in Asia.
A trader in Benin Republic, Joseph Conde, lamented that Nigerians usually flooded Seme markets before the border closure to purchase rice in large quantities. That has since stopped, he noted.
In Ghana, it has also been lamentations galore. Before last Monday’s plea by the Ghanaian president, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Ms Shirley Botchwey, Minister of Trade, Allan Kyerematen and Ghana’s Acting High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mrs Iva Denoo had, in October last year, visited Abuja to plead with the Nigerian Government to reopen the borders with Benin Republic, which they said was negatively affecting their country.
Earlier, a former President of Ghana, John Matama, has also noted that the closure was affecting traders and businesses in Togo, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, among others.
But the Federal Government have also accused some of Nigeria’s immediate neighbours of not doing enough to curb smuggling of illegitimate goods into Nigeria. The government said some of the countries have consistently failed to comply with the various agreements on transit of persons and goods, including the ECOWAS transit protocols and the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS).
Said the Information minister: “Discussions on doing legitimate trade between Nigeria on one hand, and Benin and Niger on the other, started in 2005. The discussions have led to MOUs in 2005, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, all designed to facilitate free movement of goods manufactured in their respective countries and work out the modalities through the Ministers of Trade of both countries for the realization of these objectives.
“It worth noting that there has never been legitimate transit trade between Nigeria and the two countries (Benin and Niger) For clarity, the ECOWAS protocol on transit demands that when a transit container berths at a seaport, the receiving country is mandated to escort same without tampering with the seal to the border of the destination country. Unfortunately, experience has shown that our neighbours do not comply with this protocol.
“Rather, they break the seals of containers at their ports and trans-load goods destined for Nigeria from the original container to trucks. In most cases, five containers loaded onto one truck and duty paid as one truck. This improper trans-loading of transit goods makes it impossible to properly examine such goods, resulting in the importation of illicit goods, including arms and ammunition, without being detected. Because goods are not examined, misclassification and a resultant loss of revenue become the ultimate consequence of this illegitimate transit trade.”
“As we speak, we have ships loaded with rice waiting to discharge (in Benin) and the target market is Nigeria (for Christmas). We have (MV Africana Jacana with 40,000 metric tons of rice, MV Zilos with 20,000 mts and MV Sam Jarguar with 45,000 MTS and others,” the Minister said.
But many stakeholders and analysts in Nigeria have insisted that the gains being recorded by the Nigeria in the continued partial closure of the borders far outweigh the pains, which they noted were temporary.
Among such benefits of the closure, it was gathered, are a higher import revenue, lower domestic fuel consumption, curbing of arms smuggling for terrorism and banditry, reduction in the smuggling of goods and illicit drugs, reduction in illegal immigration and increased rice production by local farmers.
Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, noted that since the closure in August, the monthly import revenue, instead of recording a decrease, has increased by 15 per cent. He noted also that the consumption of fuel has dropped by 30 per cent due to reduced smuggling of petroleum products to neighbouring countries.
The smuggling of dangerous weapons into the country has been an issue for long. The smuggling of small arms into the country has, for years, been cited as one of the major enablers of the dire security challenge the country has been passing through.
In 2017, the United Nations (UN) released a report which noted that there were no fewer than 350 million illicit small arms and light weapons (SALW) in circulation in the country. The report further asserted that of the estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation in West Africa, 70 per cent was domiciled in Nigeria.
A huge number of such weapons, it was stated, was getting into the country illegitimately through smuggling through Nigeria’s poorly manned borders.
Lai Mohammed added: “It is important to note that 95 percent of illicit drugs and weapons that are being used for acts of terrorism and kidnapping in Nigeria today come in through our porous borders. However, since this partial closure, these acts have been drastically reduced. Our conclusion is that the arms and ammunition these terrorists and criminal elements were using no longer gain access into the country. In addition, the importation of the drugs which affect the well-being of Nigerians have equally been reduced.”
Corroborating his views, Director-General of the Department of State Services, Yusuf Bichi, agreed that the closure of the Nigerian land borders had helped reduce arms smuggling.
He said in spite of the criticisms trailing the closure from some West African countries, the “closure of our borders so far has succeeded in checkmating not only smuggling of goods that are illegally brought into the country, even firearms and then checkmating the movement of people that are likely to undermine the security of this country.”
The Comptroller, Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Oyo/Osun Command, Abdullahi Zulkifli, concurred with the assertion. He said the closure of the land borders by the Federal Government had reduced smuggling of illegal arms and ammunition into the country.
The Federal Government said the closure of the land borders also comes with economic gains for the country. It stated that the Nigeria Customs Service now generates up to N8 billion daily from N4.5 billion daily it was generating before the closure and the joint border patrol.
Boom for rice farmers
He noted also that the hitherto unrestricted smuggling of foreign rice and other prohibited items into the country had been considerably curtailed.
”There has been an enhanced production and milling of Nigerian rice. Patronage of Nigerian rice has also increased and farmers are expanding their farms as well as engaging more hands,” he said.
Perhaps the major area of success in the border closure by the Buhari administration is in its rejuvenation of local rice production. The border has been a blessing for local rice farmers and businessmen trading in rice. Right now, many Nigerians who hitherto could never have contemplated ever feeding on the local rice, have become virtually addicted to it. During the last festive season, local rice farmers and millers made great sales, as the local rice was in demand. Many were they that testified to the goodness of the Nigerian-grown and packaged rice, which is said to be packed full with great health benefits.
Why borders must remain shut for now, by stakeholders
Many stakeholders have commended the closure of the borders. They urged the Federal Government not to be blackmailed into a hurried reopening of the borders.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Sabo Nanono, noted that the closure has increased the demand for local rice, fish, chicken and textiles.
A report by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) quoted him as saying: “In the southern part of this country, people do not eat foreign rice anymore. In fact you can perceive the aroma in the milling plants as opposed to the ones imported into the country that do not even add value to your health, that is not even nutritious.”
Chairman, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Abdullahi Adamu, said the border closure was a right move..
“It is one of the few occasions that Nigeria has stood up to protect the interest of Nigerians. Yes we believe in good neighbourliness, but if we continue to listen to the cries of people who are shedding crocodile tears about the border closure, we will not be able to ensure that we develop policies deliberately to protect the interest of people that we are to protect.”
Mrs Mary Afan, President of Small Holder Women Farmers Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON), also praised the border closure.
Her words: She noted: “The border closure is giving us strength to see how we can stand.
“We can actually feed ourselves and we can produce what other people need.”
A public affairs analyst, James Ojo Akinjuyigbe, urged the government to ensure that all the borders are shut. He noted with concern the accusations that some illegal activities were still going on at the entry points to Nigeria in some Northern states.
He praised the Buhari administration for insisting on a Nigeria First foreign policy, noting that the primary responsibility of the government should be the welfare and wellbeing of Nigerians, not that of the citizens of other countries.
Mr Anibe Achimugu, President, National Cotton Association of Nigeria (NACOTAN) said the closure of the borders has not only curtailed importation of smuggled textile materials into Nigeria, but has boosted the reviving of the Cotton, Textile and Garment (CTG) sub sectors.
Achimugu said that the reduction in the influx of textile materials into the country has boosted the morale of players in the sub-sector.