Nigeria Border Closure: A blessing or a curse? by Lateef Adewole

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President Muhammadu Buhari directed that the borders be closed
President Muhammadu Buhari

The Insight by Lateef Adewole

There is this scenario that plays out on the football playing ground among children. Whenever the ball belongs to a boy, who probably is not a very good player, the others are compelled to select him, whether they like it or not. And in the course of play, no one dares offend him or tackles him harshly.

In the event of such misdemeanour from anyone, such “ball-owner” can suddenly interrupt the flow of the game by picking up the ball and seizing it. Then, every other kid will begin to beg him. There is usually this sense of arrogance, possessiveness and superiority that such kids exude.

This is what I likened the situation in Nigeria to, with regards to the ongoing closure of its borders since August. Nigeria being that “ball-owner” boy.

In the past weeks, I have watched, listened to and read many speeches from different agents and officials of the federal government of Nigeria. From the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retd.), to the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama and so on. Even, the Chairman of the APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, “no carry last” (as they say in local parlance).

They all spoke with “dignified” arrogance, talking tough, with a sense of triumphalism, in manner the ball-owner boy often does with a “feel-good” mannerism. Oshiomole even told us that the visited guest from Thailand came to “beg” them to open our borders so that Thailand can sell their rice, a proposal which he claimed “he rejected”. Rejected? As who? In what capacity? Because, at the last count, he is not an official of Nigerian government but a political party official. He cannot speak for Nigeria. Though, the story narrated by that visitor was different sha!

The CBN governor was no better. When I listened to him, I “temporarily” forgot he was not the president of Nigeria. He seemed to be fascinated by the limelight that the euphoria provides. He spoke with authority, almost “political”.

One well articulated response I have watched was the video, now in circulation, of the CG of Customs, Col. Ali, while answering questions at the National Assembly (NASS) on the issue of the border closure. I was pleasantly surprised and at the same time, impressed with him. He highlighted issues that led to the closure and the gains so far accrued to the country from it. It was a beautiful presentation.

In truth, many countries have suffered from the closure and they are making frantic efforts to get Nigeria to reverse it. They include the Republic of Benin, Niger, Ghana, most ECOWAS countries and some Asian countries. But for what reasons exactly? It is no more than how the rest of the kids in the football game will “beg” the ball-owner boy to release the ball so that play can continue, and not necessarily because, he is of much value on the field of play. How do I mean?

When you own the ball without talent, the teams will only select you “reluctantly”. They try to avoid picking you as much as possible. Whereas, the same teams will scramble to pick a talented kid even if he comes last. Even when he does not own the ball. Everyone wants the star on their side.

Mr Abebe Selassie, the Director of the African Department at the IMF has backed Nigeria's border closure
Mr Abebe Selassie, the Director of the African Department at the IMF has backed Nigeria’s border closure

All these countries pleading with Nigeria are doing so not because of “real value” that Nigeria provides or its importance in the “international productive economy” but because we have what they need to achieve their own economic prosperity, something we do not put to proper productive use as a country; our population!

In spite of our population, with so much education and brilliance of our citizens globally, the vast natural resources that we are blessed with, on the ground and below it, in the sea and beneath it, even in the sky (the kind of climate), we have almost everything we need to be great. But how did we deploy them? We wasted and still wasting them! We now depend on smaller countries, many of which are not up to a state in Nigeria, for our basic needs, one way or another. They exploit our “fallow” strength to their own advantages.

Few days ago, in company of some other government officials, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, rolled out some conditions that must be met before the borders can be opened. My first reaction was that, are these conditions new? Definitely no! They are standing rules and agreements between Nigeria and neighbouring countries. But what happened to them? They were observed in breach. And what have we been doing about it? Nothing. Why? Because, there were institutional failures on our part. How?

The border closure is like cutting off the head because of headache. Were the goods being smuggled to the country not through the borders? Or the aliens who found themselves in Nigeria not through there? Were the borders not “supposedly” manned by different government agencies like customs, immigration officials, and any other security agent as assigned? But what happened? Criminal collusions. It is undeniable that no system can be perfect but in our case, it has collapsed. The quantum of smuggled goods into Nigeria can only be categorised as “institutional”!

Since the closure of the borders, there have been many “juicy” stories of the gains. The majority opinion is that it is a blessing. I also align with this to a large extent. There has been reduction in the toxic goods, like those terrible frozen foods (chicken and turkey), that were usually smuggled to Nigeria, which unknowingly, have been killing our people.

There seems to be slowing down in the insecurities as well. The closure must have reduced the impunity with which the proliferation of small arms and ammunition get into the country, as well as the gusto with which criminals cross the borders in and out of Nigeria to perpetrate their heinous crimes. Some level of sanity has been restored. Local manufacturing is picking up. We have also earned respect from our neighbours.

These are apart from how farmers, particularly the rice and poultry, have now been smiling to the banks, even if it is at the painful cost to the citizens, due to the prices shooting out of the roof. I also read what the CG of Customs said about Nigeria raking in a “kill” in revenues from our ports now. He said that some weeks ago, an unprecedented 9.2 billion naira was received in revenue in a single day. And that between 4.5 and 5.5 billion naira has been the average daily collections at the port since the closure began. That is a beautiful song in the ears of the government, I supposed. But, what will be done with it is the concern of the citizens. Hope it will not be used to finance their profligacy.

Likewise, NNPC claimed that a whooping 11 million litres of petrol was saved from being smuggled out in first month of the closure and that has continued subsequently. This is expected to substantially reduce the subsidy claims by the NNPC, which has been frittering away our already inadequate funds. They have now stopped petrol from going to any filling station within 20 kilometres of the borders. Places like Jibya, Idi-iroko, Badagry and many other border towns should not expect petrol again.

Seme Border

However, on the flip side of all these, many genuine businesses (importers and exporters) and travellers across countries through land borders have suffered immensely due to the suddenness of the closure. They were not carried along. Many people and goods in transit are stranded at some borders.

The Director General of the Lagos Chambers of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Mr. Muda Yusuf, on many occasions on television, expressed the worries of business people in the private sector who are suffering from the closure, and the attendant loss in business revenues in billions of naira. It is massive.

Unfortunately, the government officials are only fixated on “their” own side of the equation. They are not seriously bothered about the actual implications of such actions on the private sector, which actually drive the economy, provide goods and services, as well as employment.

Col. Hameed Ali (Retd.) even queried why people should say the closure brought hardship on the citizens. I could not blame him since many government officials live on public funds, and may not buy anything with their hard-earned “personal” money. He may not know what the costs of basic goods are in the market now.

In my assessment, I believe the border closure is a “blessing” to the extent that it has reawaken us as a country, to refocus on our priorities. It has exposed our vulnerability. We cannot feed ourselves, as against Nigeria attaining food security we were previously told. We depend on other countries to survive.

The need for massive increase in our local capacity in various sectors is never more critical at any time than now. We need massive investments in modern agriculture practices, processing of agricultural produces along the value chain, industrialisation, and manufacturing. We must produce what we consume and consume what we produce. Enough is enough!

And this must begin from the top political echelon and cascade down to the whole of the citizens, whichever way that can be achieved. Or, how can a government that is propagating local patronage abandon Innoson Motors, and budget billions of naira to buy foreign cars as proposed by NASS recently? The president’s latest “acquisition” (official car) was not different.

Last week, the president laid the foundation of a Turkish garment factory in Kaduna, with a directive that once they begin production in 2021, all the military uniforms should be produced by them. Then I asked; what happened to all the already existing and functioning garment factories that litter Ariara in Aba, Abia state, and other areas?

Ajuri Ngelale, a Special Assistant to President, tried to justify that action of the president on Twitter few days later in response to queries like this. He said it was because the military uniform is not “ordinary” and needed “special” producer. Many people were disappointed at his justification. He needs to be taken on the tour of Aba to know better, instead of speaking “grammar” while sitting in Abuja.

Our leaders, who are paid with taxpayers’ money, used foreign goods (clothes, shoes, caps, watches, etc), eat foreign foods, including rice, go to foreign hospitals, send their children to foreign schools, and so on, but continue to mouth “local patronage”. What is that if not hypocrisy?

The failure of the institutions is at the root of our problems. It needs to be addressed. Closing our borders cannot solve the problems permanently. It may be palliative. There is need to reform and then enhance the capacity of our border agencies (Customs and Immigration officers). Technology should be deployed to manned our borders. Solely using humans to police the borders is becoming outdated, ineffective and inefficient. There is limit to the capacity and reach of human beings.

And the cumbersomeness of the activities at Nigerian sea ports could have driven many importers to neighbouring ports, especially Benin. This must be quickly addressed. Cases of multiple and high tarrifs and duties on imported goods discourage many importers from using our ports.

But the political leadership must be sincere about truly wanting to manned the borders. We hear of stories of how easy it is to move across many borders in the northern Nigeria, which are facilitated by the similarity in the languages spoken in the northern Nigeria and those neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Northern Cameroon, unlike in the south. Many northern Nigerians even claim relationship with them. How then can such people see “their” people from those countries as foreigners?

In the last general elections, accusations were thrown about how some politicians went to recruit foreigners from our northern neighbouring countries to register and vote during the elections. Such remained to be verified, as we did not hear of any investigation into that issue. If it is true, how can citizens of such countries be suddenly seen as “foreigners” again by the same people in Nigeria?

Also, Nigeria must do proper evaluation of our strength in agriculture as against the rhetoric that filled the airspace, especially pertaining to rice production. Do we truly have comparative and competitive advantages in rice production? From what I have read, I do not think so. Our soil is said not to produce optimal yields. Why can’t we then focus on other agricultural products where we have global comparative advantage, like in cassava, yam, millet, sorghum and so on? Instead of “burning” scarce cash in supporting rice productions?

To advance as a country, private sector is the key. But now, private sector is groaning under the pains of infrastructure deficit. Power, roads, rails and so on, are big problems. They are dilapidated. These should be the major focus of the government. In all sincerity, the current administration has been making great efforts to improve on the infrastructures and improve the situation. They should be commended for that. Such efforts must be scaled up and sustained. That is how we can get to the envisioned “next level”.

So, while the measures to curb all the anomalies that befell Nigeria are being handled through the border closure, more fundamental and permanent solutions should be evolved. “Ori bibe ko ni oogun ori fifo” (cutting off the head is not the cure for the headache).

May God continue to guide us aright.

God Bless Nigeria.

Lateef Adewole is a political analyst and social commentator can be reached by email lateefadewole23@gmail.com or via WhatsApp +2348020989095 and @lateef_adewole on Twitter

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