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Beyond border closure and its discontents

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The prolonged closure of Nigerian land borders has been generating more reactions from our neighbours and the citizenry. But beyond the age-old clampdown measures, it is high time the Federal Government shifted from undue rhetoric to action. This is also a time to deal ruthlessly with inefficiency and complicated graft at the ports and the Nigeria Customs Service. We have not been discussing the role of the two agencies in the deals that led to the controversial closure of the borders.  
 
A recent announcement that the borders would remain under lock till January 31, 2020, has set economic tongues wagging in neighbouring Benin Republic, Niger, Togo and Ghana. Their citizens are hurting and no longer at ease as tonnes of Nigeria-bound imported supplies have littered ports and streets in vestiges.

International emissaries are taking remedial turns to persuade “the big brother” to soften up and save the day. Extreme outburst of frustration has led Ghanaians to issue quit notices to Nigerians in some parts of the city. Across the board are economies on a halt and a people in pains.

A former President of Ghana was in Nigeria this week to deliver a lecture at a media event and one of the most significant posts from the lecture was an appeal to the Nigerian authorities to resolve the border closure as soon as possible in the interest of West African trade.  
 
But the feeling is mutual, though slightly mixed on the Nigerian side of the divide. While local farmers and surviving manufacturers have suddenly found a market for their produce, whatever it is worth, shortage in supplies and attendant inflation have further pushed prices beyond the reach of average Nigerians. In fact, it is already looking like a dry Christmas ahead for many homes, with no signs of Thai-per-boil rice and frozen chicken in major markets. 
 
Indeed, the rationale for such old-fashioned border closure would always be questioned. This is coming at a time the African continent has just laid the groundwork of a single open market through the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). Nigeria is a signatory to the two pacts much like she is to ECOWAS protocols on the free movement of persons and trade. 
 
On the home front too, the import substitution and the goal of solving all problems through closed borders are not adding up. The self-sufficiency in food production as earlier bandied by state officials has turned out as either wishful thinking or exaggerated. The reality is that since the borders were closed in August, demand has overwhelmed supply with food prices hitting rooftops to further stake the odds against already impoverished masses. In fact, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has just put inflation at 11.61 per cent for the month of October – an increase of 0.37 per cent on September’s 11.24 per cent point.
 
On the flip side of the coin, however, there is a sense in the border closure beyond the loss of revenue and grumpy neighbours as we noted in our first comment on this hot potato. The move was apparently an expression of Nigeria’s sovereignty and the government’s duty to protect local farmers, manufacturers and industries alike. It is in this sense that our freeloading neighbours must realise that the trans-border movement of trade and persons is just a diplomatic privilege that should be used with all sense of responsibility. 

 
Neither ECOWAS protocols nor open market treaties confer rights on smugglers to ferry illicit nocturnal trades from all parts of the world into Nigeria. With every smuggled item that comes into Nigeria is a dire consequence for a local manufacturer and the economy at large. So, it amounts to enlightened self-interest to put Nigeria first, enforce sanity at the borders and define relationships with the neighbours.
 
The fresh support for local manufacturing is encouraging, though belated. The Federal Government must go the whole hog to fully operationalise movements of legitimate trades via Nigerian ports to discourage backdoor arrangements that sustain smuggling and bunkering. As this newspaper has repeatedly noted, the Port of Cotonou in the Benin Republic is attractive to Nigeria-bound imports not because it is convenient to merry-go-round but due to the chaotic nature and bureaucracies at major ports in Nigeria. After all, what choice do importers and exporters have when the infamous Apapa Port in Lagos is perpetually on lockdown and getting in or out is a perennial nightmare? 
 
The government cannot continue to turn a blind eye at Lagos port as if it is a no man’s land. Other ports should come alive. We will continue to repeat this until something happens. Warri port should be properly dredged to accommodate larger vessels. Ditto for other ports in Calabar, Rivers and Onne. An improvement in their competitive status will safeguard the movement of trades, enhance revenue to the country and forestall such drastic measures of closing down a border in the modern age of non-isolation. The Nigeria Customs Service must be innovative and self-respecting. The NCS needs to do more in regulatory duties than the propaganda of generating huge revenue for government coffers. It is not recorded in law as a revenue body. It is an agency of the Ministry of Finance. It is both the laxity and compromise on the part of border security officials that brought the closure upon all.
 
It is bad enough that the Federal Government had to be strained into another border control overkill. Worse and more curiously so is that President Muhammadu Buhari had to travel the same unpopular route some 35 years after he closed the same borders as a military Head of State. It implies that Nigeria, after successive administrations, has not made progress in economic self-sufficiency and strategic management of bilateral trades. This disturbing fact should spur the current administration to actions that should lay a solid foundation for Nigeria’s self-sufficiency in goods and services. Nigerian-bound imports and exports alike should find more convenient and cheaper access through Nigerian ports. As recently advocated here, it is time for effective manning, monitoring and security of the borders, coupled with a periodic performance appraisal of all those charged with these responsibilities.
 
Indeed, the current closure is biting not only Ghanaians, Beninoise and Togolese, among other ECOWAS members but also Nigerians. But the point must be reiterated that the pains of today will be worthwhile if it begins to produce a better tomorrow from today. That can only happen with efficient trade system that can make every Nigerian proud. And the starting point is a realisation by the powers that be in Abuja that our institutions of governance including the whole gamut of homeland security structure should work efficiently as an engine of growth. 

 


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