As if he was at his wit’s end, President Muhammadu Buhari, big brother to fellow African leaders, showed his anger in August when he unexpectedly closed his country’s land borders against the neighbouring countries.
With the closure, he had, so it would seem, dealt a big blow to smuggling, especially smuggling of rice and petroleum products across the borders. Though it appeared to be unexpected, those who have been reading the President’s body language were not surprised. To protect the locally grown rice and the farmers who toil to eke their living from it, the president on coming to office in 2015, denied rice importers access to foreign exchange. The idea was to conserve the badly needed foreign exchange and at the same time protect local production and encourage local consumption, as in ofada rice that is now becoming fashionable at social functions.
But this current border closure that has lasted nearly three months has its genesis in the meeting he had with his Benin Republic counterpart, President Patrice Talon at the Seventh Tokyo International Conference for African Development held in Yokohama, Japan last August.
As an aside at the conference, President Buhari compared notes with President Talon. Like a clairvoyant, he carefully surveyed the chances of increased rice production given the ceaseless and undiscriminating heavy rainfall in the country this year. He expected bumper harvest. The local rice farmers therefore needed to be encouraged and protected. Something, he thought, must be done to avoid competition with Thai rice and the Taiwanese rice as well as the ones from assorted sources in other Asian countries, which are usually warehoused in Benin Republic, now the smuggling hub of West Africa.
With the snap of his finger, he announced the immediate closure of the land border with some faint emphasis on its temporary nature. On hand to amplify and explain the implication of this sudden decision was the Comptroller General of Customs, Colonel Hamid Ali, the seemingly apolitical technocrat who has been doing a yeoman’s job since he assumed duty at Customs. Without the politician’s predisposition for doublespeak, as in talking from both sides of the mouth, Ali explained that the closure of the border, with its attendant pain and discomfort, was to enable Nigeria take control over what comes in and what goes out of the country.
Many Nigerians have given kudos to the president for this bold and pragmatic measure with some people expansively urging him to make the closure permanent. They have only stopped short of urging him to construct a wall, Trump-style, as an earnest of his patriotic steps.
But this closure, as some clear-eyed observers have pointed out, affects in equal measures the prohibited goods as well as goods that hitherto came into the country legally. Even that is not exactly the point of contention here. In the euphoria that attended the closure some points were overlooked. One, that this unilateral land border closure goes against all the commercial and freedom of movement treaties among the various countries in the ECOWAS group. Also overlooked, in my view, is the fact that the closure exposes the underbelly of international agreements and our trustworthiness. No matter how good, it casts a huge shadow over the African Continental Free Trade Area, AFCFTA, agreement which our president signed in Niamey last July. One of the objectives of the agreement, as I pointed out on this page on July 10 this year, is the establishment of a single continental market for goods and services with a free movement of business professionals and investments. Following from this is the expansion of intra-continental trade. I tried to bring the message home to the ordinary Nigerians who may not be familiar with the mandarin jargon of the classroom economists, that this historic agreement would allow the traders from Togo, Niger or the Republic of Benin, for instance, unfettered access to Oke-Arin, market in Lagos, or any other Nigerian market, to buy and sell and haul their goods across the border without let or hindrance.
The agreement, a product of the Kigali Summit in 2018 at which Nigeria was avoidably absent, came into effect last July with 54 of the 55 African countries appending their signatures. In summary it encourages continental integration, to promote free trade, free movement of persons, goods and services within the continent – emphasis is on integration, continental peace( sans Boko Haram insurgency), security and economic development.
But border closure, planned or unplanned, no matter how pragmatic, would put a chill on movements of persons and goods.
But hold on…. this is by no means an attempt on my part at poo-pooing this great Buhari- Hamid Ali-inspired idea of controlling smuggling, halting, if they can, illegal arms importation and the hauling of our precious dollar-denominated petroleum products stealthily across the borders; not to repeat the fact about the saturation of the markets with Taiwanese rice or Thailand rice to dilute the locally produced rice with one of its biggest mills in Kogi State which the ebullient Governor Yahaya Bello said would soon become the rice hub of Africa.
Counting the cost of the border closure as well as its gains, the said Hamid Ali has come with the cheering news that his Customs Service now boasts of a healthy monthly revenue of more than N5bn since the closure. Those goods hitherto smuggled through the land border are now shipped through the sea ports manned by the eagle-eyed Customs personnel. And all the Custom duties accruing from the imports are diligently collected and paid into the Single Treasury Account, not embezzled. This mouth-watering monthly windfall is, to say the least, tempting.
And what’s more, the Immigration department has had a harvest of a whopping 200 illegal immigrants. These illegal immigrants may not include the much dreaded foreign herdsmen, the so-called trans-national Fulani from Niger, Chad, Mali etc who have found attraction in Nigeria and who have been blamed by our leaders for the atrocities that have given the local herdsmen bad name.
Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, exhaling and apparently jubilant about the efficacy of Buhari’s big brother pragmatism, has urged that the closure should be extended to the trans-national herdsmen who have no home in Nigeria. The point Ortom has not made however is that our local cattle, like our local rice, need to be protected. They should not be polluted by the imported cattle from across the land borders. For emphasis, the efforts of the local herdsmen, who have lived peacefully with their local hosts, should not be in vain. They too should be shielded from the foreign herdsmen who are violent with their remorseless recourse to the use of AK47.
But in the din occasioned by this euphoria, some voices of reason or even of dissent are likely to be drowned. Senator Ibikunle Amosun, former governor of Ogun State, has cautioned against prolonged closure of the border because it would have negative effect on those who have been doing legal business across the borders. Senator Gabriel Suswan agrees with him and was quick to draw the attention of the border control Sherriff to the various bilateral and multilateral agreements that Nigeria is a signatory to which permit free movements of goods and services.
But from all indications, Nigerian authorities do not intend that the closure should be permanent. Nigeria, in a global setting, cannot afford to live in isolation. Fortunately for us, President Buhari is not President Trump with his offensive native nationalism. Truth is Nigeria is not bloodthirsty enough or sadistic enough to inflict pains on its neighbours. Benin Republic is in deep pain over the closure. But sometimes we may have to be cruel only to be kind to ourselves. Even then, and we have the assurance of Hamid Ali for this, Nigeria is hoping that within this period of closure, the countries in the ECOWAS sub-region would have perfected the protocol on transit goods and stop using their territories as launch pad for smuggled goods into Nigeria.
And when that happens, we hope that Big Brother will temper his anger with empathy and mercy.