By Emeka Uzoatu
Well before the Covid19 lockdowns of March 2020, Nigeria’s land borders have remained closed. Precisely, the Federal Government announced their closure in August 2019 to a permutation of emotions.
Like stated, the move was targeted at consummately addressing the monumental smuggling activities in the areas. Perpetrated by unscrupulous economic saboteurs, it saw the nation losing açcruable revenues to individuals. Or so the release claims.
Consequently, Nigeria’s four land borders with Cameroon, Benin Republic, Niger and Chad came under lock and key. Expectedly, this had mouths wagging regarding the effect it would have on the nation’s beleaguered economy that has since gone into another recession.
Though by the government this measure of theirs has no hand in it, experts have tended to differ. As highlighted by the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning Zainab Ahmed. During an interview with State House correspondents on Wednesday November 25 2020, she announced that the borders will be reopened soon. According to her, this follows the completion of work on, and recommendation, by the committee set up to review the matter. Making observers like this pen wonder why they had to be closed in the first place.
Well, as the closure yet lingers, many have been the voices against the move. More so even as the government in a surprise move exempted the vehicles of a certain coy from the ban. Implying that what was good for the goose ought to also favour the gander, they wondered why the exemption, if at all.
But as vehement as these complaints were, it does appear that some more – perhaps a minority – are rising against the proposed reopening too. Like was bound to pan out, some resilient entrepreneurs had since adapted to the new regime and made the most out of it. And to them, readaptation to the old appears like making water flow naturally after it had been redirected uphill.
Take this middle-aged man I met in a Lagos bar. He was headed for Seme, a notorious border town leading into Benin all the way from Onitsha in the Southeast. All praises for the government of the day, he wished some more borders closed. According to him, in all the years of labour in the trading vineyard, he had never had it so good. Looking forward to a veritable Christmas, he said he was just embarking on his last trip for the year.
He was though unforthcoming with the details that made the period so rewarding.
“It’s no dance for the faint hearted,” was all he could add when pressed on. “Any kindergarten learning to climb, must of needs have a heart of steel,” he concluded, a wan chuckle playing across his visage.
Like could be conjectured from some other sources on the route, there had only been a lull in the early part of the closure. Mostly, it followed the discovery that with smaller vehicles goods would easily be crossed through the many unmanned roads lining the lengthy 773 kilometre-long border.
Leaving one in wonder at what would be going on in the other much longer borders. While the one that with Chad in Borno State in the Northeast purportedly measures a mere 87 kilometres, those with Niger Republic in Katsina State and Cameroon in Cross River State measure a staggering 1,497 and 1,690 kilometres respectively,
Be that as however, the success of the ploy is buoyed the more by the many non-governmental mouths it feeds. Apart from the businessman who owns the goods, there are many more lined up on the booty train. Apart from the transporters, there are also the many local vigilantes that man the route(s). Often, this also includes government officials working by the light of the moon.
Thus, at the end of the day it’s only the Nigerian government, per say, that ends up losing valuable revenue. As corroborated by my fortunate friend. According to him, once you cross the Nigerian side it becomes business as usual. A sad reminder to all the policies that have tended to make it seem as though succeeding Nigerian governments are only interested in enriching their neighbours.
Most interestingly, this has seen the seaports in Benin Republic mostly serving Nigerian interests. It’s hoped that these will become past tense with the proposed coming on board of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). Which in the abiding circumstances is neither here nor there.
After all, as the kitchen heated up following the border closure, the Nigerian government had hinted that the borders would only be opened if Niger and Benin complied with the ECOWAS trade agreement. Notwithstanding that the case then had been that even Ghana with whom Nigeria shared no land borders were forcibly closing retail shops owned by Nigerian traders.
A very curious development, given that my friend with whom I had shared drinks with had his goods headed for Liberia. From his tirade, it could be made out that the entire route from Seme to Monrovia had Nigerians trading on them. From Cotonou in Benin, to Lome in Togo, up until Accra and Kumasi in Ghana. And that is discounting remotest villages in the hinterlands to which they have also migrated.
Well, the ball is in the court of the government to do the needful. Like the Igbo will say, they have the yam as well as the knife with which to slice each his/her portion. Expectedly, as opined by President Muhammadu Buhari himself, we await the reopening with an equal dose of trepidation and expectation.
(Just as we went to press, news came that President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered immediate reopening of the land borders,)
Emeka Uzoatu, a seasoned journalist and writer, is the editor of Nairaweb.ng. He writes the occasional column, Penny Wisdom.