The Upper Crust

Border: Shall we shut everything instead?


With Uche Nnadozie

The question has become relevant following federal government’s announcement days ago that the Nigerian border with Benin Republic should be shut. The threat of shutting our border with our neighbours isn’t a new thing. It is our standard response whenever diplomacy fails. Since the current government made agriculture an alternative source of revenue and employment, it has tried to take serious whatever it is that happens across our border. The main part of our border that breeds economic problems for us as a country is our western border. This runs from the Atlantic in the south, till the northern savannah region.
What is more, we have closed the same border a couple of times in the past. One of the more recent one was hinged on insecurity. Nigeria accused Benin Republic of habouring criminals who seamlessly move across the border into Nigeria, commit crime then go back to their country to enjoy proceeds of their crime. It was as if Nigeria was an extension of that tiny West African nation. Olusegun Obasanjo had to close the border for a couple of days. That singular effort led to the arrest of majority of Benin Republic based armed robbery gangs who terrorised some Nigeria cities with such ease.
This time, with the money Nigeria has spent on agriculture, anyone or country whose action or inaction plays to the disadvantage of Nigeria is committing serious economic crime against the country. It is that simple. Especially so when we have not only spent money in rice farming, we have made substantial progress. Yet the progress isn’t being felt by ordinary folks. Part of the reasons for that is smuggling! It is like Benin has made their country the haven for criminal economic saboteurs. It does not pay us and I believe it is time to squeeze our neighbours.
My investigations revealed that many foreigners have set up shops in Benin principally to smuggle rice into Nigeria. Citizens of Pakistan, China, India, etc are unrelenting in their rabid bid to make nonsense of our rice policy. This has become necessary since the government placed an embargo on land importation of rice into the country. Unfortunately, part of the problem has to do with the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS protocol which encourages free movement of goods and services in the West African sub region; or at least among ECOWAS members. One of the drawbacks of that policy is smuggling. The other is flooding of foreign goods in member states, but which unscrupulous citizens take advantage of to promote as home grown goods.
Benin Republic is so brazen about these policies at the level of ECOWAS. Cars, fruit juices, wines and spirits are just a few of foreign goods which find their way through the borders into our country. The double challenge is that these goods are smuggled, thus effectively depriving this country of import duty and other tax earnings. Benin earns duties on this goods, but do not care how these goods get into Nigeria. This is not exactly how to be a good neighbour.
Truth is told, without smuggling into Nigeria, Benin’s economy would have collapsed irretrievably. All the same, there has to be another way to do these things.
This country can no longer continue to suffer simply because she wants to play a so called big brother role to other African countries without commensurate respect or business advantage. Benin republic can offer to help us collect import duty on goods destined to Nigeria; because in Benin for example, duties are mostly not collected at the ports. It is at point of purchase that buyers pay for Benin import duties. This encourages transparency and ensures their ports are free of congestion.
Whereas on our part, our ports are not just congested, they are a disgrace to modernity. Facilities are poor, corruption is high and there is a grand red tapism going on there. These discouraged foreign importers from patronising our ports. Therefore, even if we close our border as a result of the rice sabotage, it will not solve the problem until we fix our ports and banish corruption by deploying technology at our ports. Closing the border may force political intervention and a pledge of good behaviour by Beniniose authorities, but the undercurrent issues will remain.
Even so, I am a strong supporter of closing the border to show that we can bark, and we can bite. We close the border, meet with Benin to ask those dubious foreign rice merchants to close shop. If they really love Africa, they should come and set up farms and milling facilities here. That will be a win-win situation. I say this because, the price at which the Benin rice merchants sell will never allow Nigerian rice farmers make any progress. My investigations reveal that a 50 kilo gram bag of rice gets into warehouses in Nigeria at N7, 000. And I am not talking about inferior species, I refer to the very good medium market species that a 50 kg bag currently sells for more than N13,000. This is a 100 per cent difference. So how can the local rice farmers ever cope with what is happening at our border. Government needs to be decisive on this.
There has to be a bi-commission set up by both countries to help resolve this impasse. Of course, where a border is closed, it will not only affect criminal business people, it will also affect genuine citizens from going about their businesses. Our Customs service needs to find new ways of securing the border. We can also attempt to set up the Border Patrol whose duty is to secure the borders. A visit to any of our official borders is a disgrace. The things that go on there, requires another article. Nevertheless, government should be strategic in handling this, so that in the end, we will come out on top. That is what international relations is all about; the promotion and protection of national interests.

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