By David Adekunle

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Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recently ordered the immediate reopening of the country’s land borders which were closed since August 2019. In reopening the borders Nigeria insisted that the ban on the importation of rice, poultry products and other contraband items remained in place.

The borders were closed over government’s concerns about illegal exports of price-controlled petroleum products and illegal importation of food stocks such as rice and poultry in a bid to encourage local producers and boost food sufficiency in Nigeria.

The Nigerian authorities also said the closure was necessitated by the urgent need to stem the tide of smuggling of arms and drugs as well as illegal migration and human trafficking.

The land borders affected by the closure are at Seme near Badagry in Lagos State, in the Southwest, Illela in the Northwest State of Sokoto State, Maigatari in Jigawa State also in the Northwest, and Mfun in Cross River State in the South. Nigeria shares land borders with Benin Republic in the West, Cameroon and Chad in the East and Niger in the North.

The border closure generated widespread criticism from governments of the affected neighbouring countries who emphasized that the closure was against all commercial and freedom of movement treaties signed by members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But the Nigerian Government argued that her neighbours were undermining the spirit and letters of the ECOWAS treaties as they were using their seaports and countries as landing ports for bringing in goods that were eventually smuggled into Nigeria thereby denying Nigeria the customs duties legitimately due to her.

ECOWAS protocol on transit demands that when a transit container berths at a seaport, the receiving country is mandated to escort same to the border of the destination country without tampering with the seal.

But Nigeria accused he neighbours of not complying with this protocol. Rather, they break the seals of containers at their ports and trans-load goods destined for Nigeria from the original container to trucks. In most cases, five containers loaded onto one truck and duty paid in Nigeria for one truck.

This improper trans-loading of transit goods makes it impossible to properly examine such goods, resulting in the importation of illicit goods, including arms and ammunition, without being detected.

Because goods are not examined, misclassification and a resultant loss of revenue become the ultimate consequence of this illegitimate transit trade.

This indeed is a major blow to regional integration efforts which also shows insincerity and unpreparedness of African countries for the promotion of free trade and movement of goods and services.

But while the closure lasted, imports into Nigeria came through seaports, where customs duties and other levies were imposed and collected more easily than at land borders.

Records show that Nigeria raked in higher import revenue during the closure. Also, lower domestic fuel consumption and increased rice production by local farmers are some of the gains of the closure of the country’s land borders.

The closure has so far curbed the smuggling of foreign rice into the country, in addition to other prohibited items. There has been an enhanced production and milling of Nigerian rice. Patronage of Nigerian rice has also increased and farmers are expanding their farms as well as engaging more hands thereby creating new jobs.

There was a security dimension to the border closure as the Nigerian government expressed concerns over the threat to national security as a result of the smuggling of arm and ammunition into Nigeria to support insurgency, terrorism, kidnapping, armed banditry and other forms of crimes.  The closure, therefore, helped in no small measure in curbing arms smuggling, reduction in the importation of illicit drugs and a drastic reduction in illegal immigration.

Reports show that since the border closure, Nigeria’s monthly import revenue rose by 15 per cent, while local consumption of fuel dropped by 30 per cent, apparently due to reduced smuggling of the products to neighbouring countries.

The border closure would not have occurred if Nigeria’s neighbours had complied with the various existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) as well as the ECOWAS transit protocols, including the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS).

The Nigerian government must ensure that the gains achieved during the border closure are sustained. Security agencies at the border must work in harmony to ensure that the developments that necessitated the closure do not arise in the future.

Neighbours of Nigeria must also obey all treaties, MOUs and protocols guiding trade and movement of goods and services between member countries of ECOWAS.

Earlier this month, Nigeria ratified her membership of the African Free-Trade Zone due to be launched in January 2021, after initial reluctance to join the bloc for fear of exposing local industries to dumping by countries outside Africa.

In order to build confidence and ensure transparency and successful take-off of the African Free-Trade Zone, ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) should, as a matter of urgency take steps to address the fundamental issues raised by Nigeria for which she shut her borders with her neighbours.

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