Nigeria’s countless and unheeded calls to her neighours to stop aiding and abetting smuggling, which is damaging her economy, led to the closure of her land borders in August. The action, earlier meant to last for 28 days, has entered the third month with its end date still indeterminate.
At issue is the unremitting smuggling of diverse products across the country’s borders, including the smuggling of rice from Benin Republic. Benin imports 1.2 million metric tons of rice annually, against the backdrop of its population of about 11 million people. The country is not alone: Niger Republic, Chad and Cameroon form the other members of the devious quartet in this sabotage. This is seriously threatening Nigeria’s domestic rice production, which has unprecedentedly spiked with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s rice Anchor Borrowers Programme. As one bright spot in the economic recovery effort, it has helped official rice import from Thailand to plummet from 644,131 metric tons to 20,000 MT annually, as of 2018, said the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed.
Undoubtedly, the closure has opened Nigeria’s eyes to new economic realities; and enamoured of them, the authorities have vowed not to reopen the borders until the affected countries learn to conduct themselves responsibly and in line with the principles that undergird the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of goods and services.
The Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali, at a recent meeting with the Senate and House of Representatives Joint Committee on Finance and National Planning, lauded the initiative. He said, “There was a day in September that we collected N9.2 billion… It has never happened before.” Currently the country ratchets up between N4.7 billion and N5.8 billion daily revenue from imports. According to the Customs boss, with borders closed, cargoes that used to go to Benin Republic to berth en route to Nigeria “are now forced to bring their goods to either Apapa or Tin Can Island, and we have to collect duty on them.”
Equally revealing is the drop in fuel consumption by eight million litres a day, says statistics from the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva. Smugglers ferret out this volume of fuel daily across the borders. Besides the halt in rice and fuel smuggling, the border closure has become a boost to the local chicken market, while car malls with suspected smuggled automobiles are being raided by Customs to compel payment of duties. So far, the operation has been successful, largely due to the joint nature of the taskforce; Customs, immigration, police and military personnel are involved, coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser.
President Muhammadu Buhari is excited about the revelations from the operation and has threatened not to end it as long as our neighbours do not play by the rules. He should not capitulate to diplomatic pressure or the misguided nudges of local mercantile operators to end it until he is satisfied that the border haemorrhage is under control.
However, since the closure is not a permanent solution to this unabashed bazaar, government should not lose sight of the original intention of the action: to allow security agencies formulate effective strategies to stem the scourge. That blueprint ought to have been designed by now. Nigeria has one of the most porous borders in the world, aggravated by corruption of Customs officials and other state actors. The deployment of hi-tech in Nigeria’s 84 land borders is critical to addressing this systemic breakdown of border controls, while the challenges from the over 1,400 rogue routes, according to the Immigration authorities, should be faced squarely too.
Ali was forthright to admit that compromised Customs officials and the police helped to promote trafficking in contraband at the borders. He warned such officials of dire consequences if caught. But such thunderous countenances have not been in short supply from him; what the situation needs is a deliberate measure, not happenstance, to weed out tainted officials from the system. Without it, sanity will never prevail.
Nigeria’s “big brother” posture towards her neighbours has become ruinous to its economy and corporate existence. Therefore, enough is enough! With its small population, it is difficult for Benin to justify why it is the world’s sixth largest rice importing country, according to statistics by Worldatlas, if not for its illicit border trading activities, with Nigeria as the target. Through these breached borders, illicit arms are also trafficked into the country – a fillip to the epidemic of banditry, armed robbery, cattle rustling and, above all, Boko Haram jihadists who have killed about 100,000 people in their 10-year-old campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate.
No serious country allows its economy to be sabotaged by neighouring countries. ECOWAS protocol is hinged on free movement of “legal” goods and “legitimate” services. Nothing more. As economically advanced as the United States is, it is still deeply concerned about how to effectively police her border with Mexico to ward off illegal immigrants and prevent smuggling of contraband. Now that Nigeria seems to have woken up from her slumber, the border mayhem cannot be eradicated without systemic ports reform. No question, Apapa and Tin Can ports are disincentives to business in their present state: scanners are scarcely available, physical contacts of persons govern daily operations in this digital age and cargoes are not evacuated through rail transportation, but by tankers and trailers that queue for months, mired in bad roads. Many countries have corporatised or engaged the private sector in their operations for optimal efficiency and profit-taking. Massive technology deployment and decentralisation of tank farms are critical.
From the seaports of Antwerp, Belgium, Singapore, Amsterdam in Holland, Nigeria has a lot to learn in 21st Century port reforms to boost her economy. In the present circumstances, therefore, decongesting the Lagos ports by opening up the under-utilised Warri, Port Harcourt and Calabar channels has become inevitable.