One morning, a few weeks ago, Nigerians were suddenly told that Seme, one of the busiest borders in Nigeria, had been closed. They thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t really a joke. So many traders who shuttled between Benin Republic and Nigeria were suddenly stranded at the border. The customs officers at the border had been asked to concentrate on stopping the flow of fraudulent export of petroleum products and the importation of second-hand vehicles, rice and some other commodities through the borders.
Several trucks of major consumer-companies that hoped to move goods into neighbouring regional markets got stuck at the border. Nigeria closed its border, with the hope of stopping the smuggling of rice and the movement of smuggled goods like cars and car spare parts from Benin, Niger and Cameroon. The action literarily halted the flow of illegal trade particularly with its ECOWAS neighbours, or so it seemed.
The shock was that President Buhari’s action came just three months after Nigeria signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). And that was why it raised poignant questions about the seriousness and future of the planned regional trade integration in Africa. With its 55 member-countries, a combined GDP of $US 2.4 trillion and a total population of 1.2 billion people, the agreement was expected to create the world’s largest free trade market aiming to promote trade among African countries, a trade which many observers considered as dangerously discouraging at its current 16% standing.
To many pundits, President Buhari’s restriction of trade flows almost immediately after his country’s promising agreement with 55 other African countries was a major setback to integration efforts. It showed, perhaps, how unprepared some African countries actually were for free trade after all, especially when viewed against the backdrop that economic activities between those African nations were planned for a boost of up to 60% by 2022.
It reminded me of what my father used to say to me: “my son, learn to change tactics to be able to confront changing situations.” It was difficult at first but I had to learn. I was teaching in a girls’ secondary school at the time. The principal of our school was worried to the marrow that most of our students had the raw habit of escaping through the fenced school premises to town, especially during weekends. If you came into the classrooms at night when the students should normally be engaged in their preparatory studies, you would scarcely see anyone. They had all gone to town.
Some would spend the night outside school and stealthily return the following morning. Some would even spend the entire weekend outside the school compound. And then, there were some of the senior students for whom sleeping in town had become a daily ritual. It all made the principal sad. So she decided to fortify the school’s perimeters. She reinforced the walled fence with barbed wire, hoping that the girls would then stay back in school and read, which was why they were in school in the first place. But the action didn’t deter the girls.
Some of the “rich” students bribed the security man at the gate to let them in and out of the school premises. Those who were not making good of their exploration outside school found a way to destroy the barbed wire so that without paying the security man at the gate, they could still escape to town and come back through the same way they went out. The principal’s daily admonition was like pouring water on a dry stone. As the stone couldn’t hold the water, so she couldn’t hold the girls back in school.
The principal changed tactics. She announced during the morning devotion period of that fateful Monday that from then on, the gates would be left open 24 hours a day and that students were free to go to town as they liked, come back when they liked and no one would be punished for exercising her “fundamental human rights”. It was a strange decision but it made the girls think again. For the first two weeks, the girls caroused in their new-found liberty. But after that, they became bored. No one wanted to go to town again, now that there were no restrictions. They preferred to stay back in school to read. That experience while teaching in the girls’ school brought home to me the lesson my father taught me. And I think that this narrative could perhaps be applied to what is happening along Nigeria’s southern borders in recent times.
One important reason is that the closure of the southern borders could inadvertently generate a lot of misunderstanding among Nigerians and once again fan the south-north dichotomy. While some Nigerians see the closure as a positive move, others see it as discriminatory and uncalled for.
On the one hand, exponents of the action, like the Rice Processors Association of Nigeria backed the government closure of the borders, claiming it would save the country about US$400 million spent on smuggling rice into the country. Along that line, Hameed Ali, the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service argued that for anybody to say border closure was why Nigerians were experiencing hardship was “dumbfounding”. The country, he said, had always had poor people prior to the closure. There were people who couldn’t afford three square meals before the closure and so it was wrong for anybody to say border closure resulted in hardship. Before the closure, Nigeria had people who couldn’t find jobs. So, for anybody to believe that the border closure was the reason for the hardship in the country was completely dumbfounding. There were no statistics to support the claim. The border closure was a win-win for Nigeria, he was quoted as saying. Mr. Ali tried to explain that farmers in Abakiliki who could not sell a truck of millet a week, now did so in a day. “Go to Kebbi and ask those farmers how business is now. People are beginning to invest in our agricultural system”, he tried to assure Nigerians.
Reacting to the closure of Nigeria’s southern borders in his twitter handle on the other hand, Nigeria’s former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode , criticized the action and described it as the biggest con in a decade. According to him, the closure of Nigeria’s southern boarders until the end of January was the biggest con in the last ten years. It presented a very real economic challenge to Nigeria’s neighbouring countries. It was ill-motivated. It was ill-conceived and there was far more to it than met the eye. Fani-Kayode wondered why the border closure should affect only the southern part of the country and not the north. All through the north, the borders were open and businesses were going on as usual. He wondered why the border closure did not affect the north.
In the midst of all the controversy, Abubakar Aliyu alerted Nigerians in his twitter handle that it appeared Buhari did not know that the borders were not really closed after all. He said he was at Seme border and discovered that one only had to offer some money to the customs officers and they would let the one go on – N50,000 for small cars and N100,000 for the bigger cars without any receipt. He concluded that all those customs officers at the border were making huge sums of money daily.
The special assistant to President Buhari on social media, Ms. Lauretta Onochie, expressed her thankfulness for the information “as if she didn’t know” said one concerned Nigerian. Another Nigerian said the country’s system was so damaged that all agencies of government had become compromised. He suggested that if President Buhari wanted to succeed, there was a need for him to adopt a system of secret surveillance on all law enforcement agencies with very severe consequences on any saboteur caught. Another asked: “who will do the secret surveillance?” In today’s world, who can actually be trusted? But then, like the principal, what if President Buhari changed tactics?
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