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Reopened land borders and modern regulation

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Seme Border. PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

If Nigeria keeps to plans, all her closed land borders should be reopened by now. This will be a follow-up to the reopening of four of the land borders, in line with President Muhammadu Buhari’s order about two weeks ago. No doubt, the development is highly instructive, both to the government which boasts of many positives recorded during the 16 or so months that the borders were closed; and the business community, as well as neighbouring countries which have consistently complained of restrictions of trade.

While ordering the immediate reopening of the Seme crossing to Republic of Benin, Magatari and Illela crossings to Niger republic and the Mfun crossing to Cameroun, the government said all other borders may be reopened by December 31, 2020. That will be in accord with the January 1, 2021 implementation date of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) lately ratified by the Federal Government. The borders were ordered shut in August 2019.

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Although government attributed its decision to concerns about illicit trades and insecurity, the suddenness of the implementation, and the absence of a timeline for reopening also occasioned serious concern for local businessmen as well as neighbouring countries which suddenly found their economies on the receiving end of the closure.

In truth, Nigerian land borders constitute a big problem to the citizens and government for its porosity that has facilitated smuggling, illegal arms importation and an encumbrance to the growth of local agriculture and other industries. But continued closure of land borders to trade and free movement of persons is obnoxious as it negates the good intention of the AfCFTA. In an age of diplomatic alliances, it smacks of tardiness and diminishes the country’s sovereignty. The truth is that the gross inefficiency of both the Nigerian Customs and Immigration made archaic practices of border closure attractive. Ideally, both agencies should be reformed to live up to their statutory responsibilities to the State.

The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) the other day urged the government to review the border closure ahead of the January 1, 2021 implementation date of the AfCFTA. The government had shut borders since August 2019 as an expression of Nigeria’s sovereignty and the government’s duty to protect local farmers, manufacturers, and enhance security. Officials from Benin Republic, Niger, Togo and Ghana were unable to persuade Nigeria to keep an earlier promise of reopening on January 31, 2020. Beside the impact of border closure on import-dependent local manufacturers, the self-isolation is a violation of AfCFTA and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocols on liberalisation, intra-regional trade and free movement of persons.

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The 16- month closure has its merits. Local farmers and manufacturers have found a monopoly for their produce with good profit margin. But these impacted nothing on the logistics nightmare of depending on Apapa and Tin Can ports in Lagos, food insufficiency and supply gaps that have worsened inflation and made smuggling more lucrative. Undeniable is the attendant impact on Nigeria’s beleaguered economy. According to the Q2 2020 foreign trade data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Nigeria’s trade with ECOWAS has been on the decline, with import dropping from N215.79 billion in 2019 to N59.41 billion as at 2020 Q2, while export shrunk from N2.24 trillion in 2019 to N445.6 billion this year.

The impropriety of attempting to solve all problems by closing borders stirs the country in the face. Nigeria by population size plays a dominant role in the economy of West Africa and the continent at large. Her continued withdrawal has sent neighbouring economies reeling, and the ensuing frustration 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. Such practice is obnoxious in modern economies except in extreme socio-political situations.

Modern economies and commerce thrive on mutual cooperation and interdependence. Nigeria loses its leadership position when it fails to rally the region and continent to economic growth and regional prosperity.

Notably, the extreme measure is rightly seen in many quarters as a veiled attempt to cover up gross inefficiency in both Nigerian Customs Service and its Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). The customs and immigration have the responsibility of collecting tariffs and controlling the flow of goods and persons in and out of the country. It is unacceptable that smuggling and other illicit activities are perpetrated trans-border without regulatory agencies having any pragmatic solution to the problem. Where that continues to happen, the agencies are accomplices or grossly incompetent or both. The solution is not to close borders indefinitely.

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Reports indicated that the self-isolation never stopped smuggling and other illicit activities across the land borders; rather, perpetrators became more creative. The solution is a comprehensive overhaul and reform of the concerned agencies to truly do their assigned jobs efficiently.

Similarly, the Federal Government should go the whole hog to fully operationalise movements of legitimate trades via Nigerian ports to discourage backdoor arrangements that emboldens smuggling and bunkering. The Port of Cotonou in Benin Republic is attractive to Nigeria-bound imports not because it is convenient to merry-go-round, but because it presents a less stressful alternative to the chaotic nature and bureaucracies at major ports in Nigeria. The nation’s foremost ports, Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports in Lagos, are perpetually on traffic gridlock and movement is a perennial nightmare.

The government cannot continue to turn a blind eye at Lagos ports; but other ports in Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Onne should be developed and modernised. An improvement in their competitive status will safeguard movement of trades, enhance revenue accruing to the country and forestall such drastic measures of closing down a border against the dictates of modern age.

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