By Cosmas Omegoh
Monday wore a certain mournful mien on his face. He cut the image of a man collapsing under a heavy load. It was later learnt that he is approaching 50 years, but his wrinkled face suggested a man in his mid-60s. The air around him was that of pain and anguish. Both spoke loudly about the harsh wave of agony buffeting him. Over the past 16 months or so, he admitted that he had been in dire financial strait. His situation was grim and it showed.
Monday is one of the many trans-border traders who received the news of the Federal Government’s recent decision to reopen four of the country’s international land borders with a bag of mixed feelings.
The traders who clearly acknowledged that they and their livelihood were dealt a deadly blow from which they feared they might not recover easily, gave chilly accounts of what they had been passing through. They wished that few of them who would manage to still strewn their bits and pieces together to return to their trade, would find the courage to do so and then soldier on.
For them, the news of the reopening of the country’s borders was a cheerful one. But it came more like a pyric victory. The pain they had suffered over the past 16 months had blighted the joy they received when news filtered in that some select borders had been reopened. It was a positive development. But some of them who claimed to have had a fairly thriving legitimate business before the border closure, now do not know where to begin from. So much ground, so much money and other resources have been lost, they claimed. The past 16 months have been like a lifetime.
The Federal Government on August 20, 2019, closed all the land borders in a sweeping move, it claimed, was to fight smuggling, protect local rice growers and to further combat corruption.
The Federal Government move had triggered a wind of reactions for and against the exercise it code-named “Ex-Swift Response.”
Hameed Ali, comptroller-general of the Nigerian Customs Service had declared that the borders were to remain closed “until we have total control over what comes in.”
But 16 months down the road, the government on December 16, decided to reopen only four of the main borders. They include Seme in Southwest with Benin Republic, Illela in the Northwest, Maigatari in the Northeast with Niger and Mfum in the South-south with Republic of Cameroon. The rest of them are to wait until the government sees that the reopening of the said four borders is achieving the right purpose.
“Yes, I have heard that the Seme border has been reopened,” Monday, who claims he trades in auto spare parts in Cote d’Ivoire, said.
He added: “I have asked a few of our colleagues who admitted that the border is open now. But I have not confirmed that myself.
“It is a cheerful piece of news for those who still have the resources to continue with the trade. Before the border closure, things were already getting tough for me. I was only barely able to buy some quantity of goods which I handed to our colleagues to help me sell and then return the proceeds with which I managed to sustain myself and my family. That was the kind of brotherly collaboration we all have.
“But the moment the border was closed, everything we were doing came plummeting to the plains.
“Sadly for some of us, the very day the border closure was announced, our goods headed for Abidjan had left a few hours earlier. On getting to the border, the vehicle conveying them was held. For months we waited.
“Those who managed to visit the Seme border said there were hundreds of stranded trucks both on the Nigerian and Beninoise sides of the border. It was down to if you could play ball with the Customs and get your goods across the border. In our case, it was not so. So, our goods were abandoned there. I could not assess the little money I was trading with.
“To be honest with you, over the past months, I have been stranded. To afford a square meal has been as difficult as water flowing uphill. On top of that, the Coronavirus pandemic stormed in and compounded the situation.
“Even the goods that were abandoned at the Seme border, I’m not sure of what has become of them. We heard that petty thieves used to vandalise the vehicles and cart away goods; I don’t know what is our fate now until our colleagues in Abidjan confirm that the goods have arrived and in good condition.”
Another trader, Okwy, who claimed he was trading in semi-perishable goods, lamented that the truck conveying his goods was also held at the Seme border.
“As soon as the vehicle left Accra that day many months ago, we received the bad news that the Nigerian border had been closed. On arrival at the Benin side of the border, it had to pack.
“My goods are semi-perishable. After the goods had spent more than six months at the border, it was obvious that everything was gone. I was simply ruined. I’m talking about millions of naira worth of goods which I used to distribute in various markets across Lagos. Everything is gone.
“We simply had to fall back to my wife’s small grocery shop for sustenance. If not for that small shop, our situation could have been too bad.
“But to tell you the truth, things have not been easy with some of us whose goods were stranded following the border closure.
“I just pray and hope that some of us will recover. That’s it,” Okwy said.
Another trader who preferred to be identified as Tony also lamented what befell the trans-border traders following the closure of the Seme border.
“Failure of my goods to come in several months after they got stranded at the Seme border almost broke me. It was a huge disappointment for me six months after which the goods could not come in.
“At some point, some of my colleagues started finding a way around it. But it was very costly to do so. Then I followed suit. After that, I quit the trade. It was a costly decision to make, but I had no choice than to do so. I thank God I did because the whole of my capital almost went down. It was a debacle of some sort. It was so devastating.
“The government decision, no matter how good it seemed, brought its own misery. Prices of goods and raw materials rose astronomically, shooting through the roof. We are talking about goods whose owners managed to bring them in. The prices of such goods became something else.
“Government said the border closure was to prevent rice from coming in, but some people were still managing to bring in rice. But the price was very expensive,” he pointed out.
Close border, never again
Monday had harsh words for the government, describing its decision as insensitive.
“But why would this government think of shutting the border in the first place?
“That was so insensitive of the Nigerian government. I thought they say there is an existing ECOWAS charter on free trade? Does that permit Nigeria to wake up and close the border which it shares with Benin? In the spirit of ECOWAS, I thought Ghana and other countries too should have had a say in that, since Nigerians are not the only ones using the borders.
“You could see how Ghana responded to the border closure by imposing strict restrictions on Nigerian traders in Ghana. That was part of the consequences we now have to suffer.
“See now, over the past months, so many legitimate trans-border businesses have been ruined; families have been left in quandary. That is sad,” he said.
Tony told the Federal Government not to, at least, in the near future – not to mull future border closure, judging by the pains genuine traders experienced while the previous one lasted.
His words: “It is needless. The government said it was fighting rice smuggling yet a large quantity of rice was still coming in. Even the locally-produced one government said was available was very expensive.
“If the government wants to be sincere in what it wants to do, what it should do going forward is to ensure effective policing of the borders. Those it has asked to do the job should be sincere enough to ensure that government objectives are fully realised.”
But despite the pains any trader might claim to have felt, the Federal Government said it was satisfied with the gains of the border closure.
Minister of Industry, Trade, and Investment, Otunba Niyi Adebayo said: “We have many advantages to the border closure; it has given the security agencies an opportunity to access the problems at the borders, particularly with regard to smuggling.
“As you are all aware, before the border closure, a lot of petroleum products were being smuggled to West African countries and the border closure has created a situation that has tactically stopped that; they have been able to calculate the number of petroleum products being smuggled out by calculating the amount that is being lifted now compared to what was being lifted before.
“The issue of smuggling of rice to the country has reduced drastically and we are hoping that our agencies will be able to sustain that so also is the issue of poultry smuggling.“