By Churchill Okonkwo
The long history of smuggling of legal and illegal items across Nigeria’s artificial and often porous borders is pervasive and well known. To curb the flooding of the Nigerian market with good, check smuggling and boost revenue, some citizens have long called for the government to close all its land borders. These Nigerians have argued that the positive effect, especially on agricultural products like rice and revenue generation, will be remarkable.
One of the prominent Nigerians that called for the border closure was a former senator from Bayelsa State, Ben Bruce. On May 11, 2015, Senator Ben Bruce tweeted, “National Assembly must force the FG to ban the importation of rice, wheat, and chicken. It drains our forex and Nigerians won’t die if we don’t eat imported rice.”
More than four years after Senator Bruce’s call, the Buhari’s administration closed the Nigerian land borders. There has been some success; the local economy is booming; poultry farmers are smiling and local fuel consumption has reduced drastically due to reduced smuggling.
Even with these huge successes, the present blanket border closure has some unintended negative consequences on law-abiding traders across Nigeria. The truth is that even when the advantages of the border closure far outweigh any disadvantages, Nigerians, especially traders that depend on the cross-border trade of their goods that is not harmful to our economy should not be punished indefinitely and unnecessarily. There is thus the need to objectively scrutinise the present blanket border closure.
Suffices to say that not all cross-border trade is illegal. To this end, the Nigerian Government should put measures in place to restrict the importation of products that are harming our local economy especially the agricultural sector, without a blanket restriction of goods in and out of our borders.
From a small shop owner at Nkwo Nnewi that relies on his trading partners from Niger republic to the textile small shop owner in Kano that depend on his partners from Togo, the border closures have had particularly negative consequences on their income. The shutdown has hurt supply chains and N1.7bn in daily trade at some of the busiest Nigeria markets. These are traders that deal with everyday products that are not produced locally and do not have alternatives.
Without a doubt, the long history of weak border enforcement, stretching decades, corruption, and perhaps, lack of coordination of economic policies have been hurting the Nigerian economy and revenue generation. At the same time, now that the Nigerian borders will remain closed in the foreseeable future, one will expect that the government will come up with a strategy to reopen the borders while enforcing restrictions.
Given the sheer number of people engaged in cross-border trade and deriving their livelihoods from it on both sides of the border as well as the ineffective policing of that trade, the success of its closure is up for debate.
If the bachelor runs from his duties, the morning’s ashes (from last night’s fire) still await him: Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari who wants him to truly have a legacy in the agricultural sector must not run away from their responsibility to criticise, constructively, the present border closure of his administration. That’s the only way the government will gradually ease out of the present blanket closure with effective and improved policy.
While Nigerians and international investors are investing heavily in the agricultural sector, the government should come up with medium and long term plans to raise productivity. State ministries of agriculture should start building strong agricultural industrial towns as models for the country. Scaling up these agricultural towns with needed infrastructures will allow Nigerian farmers to invest in modern farming equipment, including planting machines and pesticide-spraying equipment.
The closure of Nigerian borders and hopefully the implementation of policies that will impose heavy tariffs on imported agricultural products, when borders are reopened, should serve as fresh motivation for Nigerian farmers to expand efficiently. If we succeed in effectively preventing smuggling across our borders and boost local production, many other African countries will copy our model.
President Buhari recently said that he has not given any date for the reopening of Nigeria’s land borders. Status quo remains until the situation that necessitated the closure improves, he added. Fair, but it is time to start addressing the unintended consequences of the border closure.
The closure is not sustainable and while it lasts, it hurt tens of thousands of petty traders in Kano, Onitsha, Lagos, and Nnewi. No matter how irrelevant one might believe that is, it is a fact that cannot be disputed.
The apparent benefits from the closure of the border are clear. However, the blanket border closure is hurting traders and should be reviewed. The border closer should be implemented in such a way that everyday Nigerians struggling to make end meet are not punished indefinitely.
If the Nigerian customs can effectively seal our land borders including previously unmanned entry points used for smuggling, what will it take for the government to allow entry of goods that are not on the “watch” list?
Is it possible to achieve the aims of border closure without hurting traders?
The answer is yes. What we need is a closed-open border that will allow traders dealing with legitimate goods and products that are not harmful to the local economy to thrive. President Buhari should show more visible support to the plight of these traders across Nigeria. That’s what leadership is all about.
We are all Nigerians and together, we can multiply our success as Nigerians.
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