By Tayo Oke
In August 2019, Nigerian President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (Retd.), gave orders for the closure of the country’s land borders across West Africa to check the uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable activities of smugglers. Nigeria’s nearest neighbour, the Republic of Benin, offers the most notorious avenue for smugglers of anything from vehicles to agricultural products. With a population of a little over six million people, Benin’s economy thrives on huge imports from Europe and around the world. It is one of the largest importers of goods on the African continent. But that is not the whole story.
About 90 per cent of the goods imported into Benin are not for domestic consumption. They are for onward export into Nigeria – tariff free as it happens. Of particular concern to Nigeria is the problem of rice smuggling into the country, which had almost crippled local production of the product. Local rice producers had experienced continued depression for the last 30 years due to the saturation of the market with cheap rice, especially (though not exclusively) from Thailand.
The Goodluck Jonathan administration had started to reverse this trend by aggressively pushing for increased rice production and offering subsidies to local farmers across the country. Rice production across the country had, in fact, started on the upward trend by the time the Muhammadu Buhari administration took over in 2015, but smuggling through Nigeria’s land borders continued to hamper the much vaunted growth in the industry, hence, the drastic and sudden decision to shut down the land borders. Is this an act of good neighbourliness? Is this the action of a good “big brother”?
Conversely, is it also an act of good neighbourliness for the Republic of Benin and others to push into Nigeria goods that are desired by Nigerians, even if through smuggling? Can our neighbours’ economies survive without the smuggling of goods into the largest market in Africa? Even more crucially, can the Nigerian economy itself survive without the smuggled items?
Where there is an option, locally, for a banned product, then, it makes sense. But where there is little or no alternative, it creates artificial scarcity capable of driving up inflation, and stifling growth.
Nigeria’s capacity to produce rice is not strong enough to keep up with current demand once smuggling is taken out of the equation. Question is, why smuggle the item at all? Why not come through legitimate ports? The answer is that the high tariffs on rice importation do not make it economic for the poor smugglers, on average incomes, at the lower end of the economic ladder. Also, to be frank, certain elements within the Nigeria Custom Service have vested interests in the smuggling business, as they use it to line their own pockets. It is called bribery and kickbacks. Rice is the most in-demand staple food that millions of Nigerians are hooked onto. Shut out the smuggling bit and its market price goes up exponentially because of the country’s low capacity to keep up with demand. Nigerian consumers are effectively held hostage by the local producers of rice in that instance. Relent on smuggling and local capacity to produce the item at a competitive price becomes weak. The capacity may even disappear altogether. What does good neighbourliness require in this see-saw scenario? Investigate the causes of smuggling and explore the mechanisms for preventing it from both sides of the border or set up a committee to investigate the border closures? This latter option would be tantamount to dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. But, apparently, this is exactly what the Nigerian government has signed off on. Would you believe?
The decision to set up a committee “to study and make a full report on the closure of Nigerian land borders” was made at a side event, right in the middle of the meeting of the 33rd African Union Summit in Ethiopia last Sunday January 9th 2020.
According to Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema, the President of Burkina Faso, Marc Christian Kabore, was charged with the task of undertaking a full study of the situation and making a report to enable the AU to take a decision on the matter. No deadline has been set for the submission of the report. I am sorry to say this, but this is not the action of a regional power. It is the action of a supine regional leader. Why is Nigeria’s foreign minister acquiescing to an investigation, by smaller neighbours, of the Federal Government’s decision to close the land borders when the neighbours should be investigating their own complicity in the smuggling operations, which prompted the closures in the first place?
The report, whenever it is submitted, will obviously show how the border closure has impacted negatively on the economies of the region and how it was ill-conceived but understandable, etc.
The real problem of the inability and unwillingness of Nigeria’s neighbours to play fair and not keep dumping contraband goods on Nigerians will be toned down, if not swept under the carpet. There will be a wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed commitment to redouble efforts at monitoring and eliminating smuggling, but nothing will be resolved. This is yet another policy blunder by the foreign ministry, I am afraid.
The terms of reference for such an investigation ought to have emphasised smuggling and illegal dumping of goods on Nigeria and what to do to stop it. It is a day light from investigating “Nigeria’s decision to close its land borders”. This is international diplomacy readers. Yes, Article 3 (2) of ECOWAS Treaty (1975) aims to, amongst others; “liberalise trade by the abolition of customs and duties on imports and exports among Member States, and removal of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital….”.That said, Article 41 of the same Treaty permits Nigeria to restrict imports from neighbouring states on grounds of national security, as long as this is not deliberately aimed at restricting the legitimate flow of trade.
In addition, Article 42 of the Treaty is pretty clear on “dumping” of goods on one another: “Member State undertakes to prohibit the practice of dumping goods within the Community”. The appraisal of this particular provision would have provided the President of Burkinabe with a more useful task for his committee to engage with. After all, a person was inflicted with a disease by a foreign agent, you now set up a committee to look into the type of medication the victim is applying to cure himself in order to measure its impact on the agent. Give us a break, please!
Tayo Oke is a Public Affairs Analyst.