By Anthony Akaeze
AS many Nigerians may have heard or learnt of their country, there was a time in its history that the country was the envy of the world. It seems hard to fathom now, particularly for those who never witnessed or felt it, but the 60s, 70s and early 80s have been variously described by many analysts and historians as Nigeria’s glory years. Those were the years the country was awash in petro-wealth, so much that, according to media accounts quoting a former military leader, he didn’t quite know how to deploy it; a time when the rest of Africa at least, as Elizabeth Ohene, a former BBC editor once put it in one of her articles, caught cold whenever Nigeria ( or its leaders) sneezed. In view of its wealth, population and status in Africa, citizens of countries such as Ghana and South Africa whose economies were struggling or where people were subjected to racial or political discrimination, viewed Nigeria as a beautiful bride and some even went ahead to seek refuge in the country. Nigeria thus became famously known as “big brother” for what it represented.
But a lot of water has since passed under the bridge as we say in Nigeria and a once proud nation with the single biggest black population on earth has been reduced to the “world’s laughing stock,” as Chinua Achebe, the legendary Nigerian author, labelled it.
Unlike the glory days, there are no jobs to go round now for the country’s teeming youth while infrastructural deficit manifesting as dilapidated roads, moribund trains, ill equipped and poorly maintained hospitals, erratic power supply, irregular pipe borne water, filthy environments, are tell tale features of the country’s poor state. Added to these are endemic hunger and poverty so prevalent across the country. The cause of all these is bad leadership and corruption and when a country has been so badly ruined, the task of rebuilding it cannot but be demanding.
The man on whose shoulder the burden of providing the right leadership to rebuild Nigeria currently lies, is Muhammadu Buhari, its president. Like him or hate him, Buhari earned his ticket to Aso Rock, Nigeria’s seat of power. No Nigerian politician, before him, was able to defeat a sitting President. He did it in 2015, when he ousted Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential election. Since then, Buhari has been in charge of Nigeria’s affairs and while his performance so far regarding how good or poor he’s been, remains a matter of concern among Nigerians, the man continues to function as president and seek solutions to the country’s multifarious problems as he deems fit. One of his government’s recent actions aimed at fixing Nigeria was the shutting of Nigeria’s land borders with its neighbouring countries: Benin Republic, Niger Republic, Cameroon and Chad. The government considers the decision an appropriate step to check smuggling across the borders which has a detrimental effect on Nigeria’s economy. Since the order came into effect in August, it has generated a lot of controversy among Nigerians and West Africans generally. While some Nigerians hail the decision as a good and important step that will ultimately boost local food production and thereby improve the country’s ailing economy caused in part by dwindling oil sales, some others see it as one that will create food and cash shortage in the country since goods, including agricultural products, which find their way into Nigeria from the borders, have ceased. But that hits at the heart of what the Buhari administration seeks to correct, some argue, as Nigerian farmers and manufacturers are said to have been hard hit over the years by the foreign goods into Nigeria via the borders – goods that are either manufactured by the neighbouring countries or from far away places as Europe, Asia, America or elsewhere that, by and large, view Africa as a huge market or “dumping ground” for all manner of products.
Border closure isn’t quite new in Nigeria as the former administration of Olusegun Obasanjo once sealed up Seme border, the entry point to Benin Republic, over concerns about smuggling activities within the route. After meeting with his Benin counterpart and reportedly exerting a commitment from him to stem the illicit trade from Benin’s side, the border was reopened. Those who expected similar denouement this time are disappointed. Current reality suggests the border closure could last much longer as the Buhari administration says it hasn’t seen the need to reopen them and that it will only do so if it got a strong commitment from the neighbouring countries that goods and arms will no longer be smuggled into Nigeria from their countries.
While the debate rages, not a few Nigerian government functionaries and their supporters are having a field day in the media. Added to commentaries from these group is advert in the media in support of the Nigerian government’s decision. You may hear the Central Bank of Nigeria reeling out statistics about how the local rice farmers or chicken sellers are now smiling to the banks owing to higher patronage since the border closure, or how importation of foreign goods has dwindled, thus saving the country much needed foreign exchange. You may see the head of the rice farmers association in Nigeria telling the world how things have so changed for good for the farmers since the border closure. Or it could be Lai Mohammed, the information minister, doing the talking. On November 28, Mohammed was a guest of Television Continental (TVC) programme where he defended the government’s action. He said it was in Nigeria’s interest to keep the borders shut until the neighbouring countries showed a commitment to stop the illegal arms and goods inflow into Nigeria. Nigeria, he said, can no longer afford to act as big brother to its neighbours to the detriment of its security and economic wellbeing. He spoke of how the border closure or “border drill” as he put it, as citizens of affected countries with valid documents, he said, are free to pass through the borders from 6 a.m to 6 p.m, has increased demand for local food in Nigeria like poultry products and rice leading to greater food production and profit for those in the agric sector.
That may be true. But largely unheard in the media is the voice of Nigerian residents and businessmen and woman within the affected border communities, and others in major markets of Kano, Lagos, Onitsha or elsewhere whose lives and businesses have been negatively affected by the shutdown. On a visit to Ghana last year to attend the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA), I took time to walk round streets of Accra and also visit a market with Maxwell Suuk, a Ghanaian friend. There, I learnt that Lagos particularly, is a major market for some Ghanaian phone dealers. The traders travel to Nigeria mainly through Seme border to buy from Nigerian traders who import phone and other electronic products from Europe or Asia, I learnt. I also saw posters of transport companies showing Lagos to be a major destination from Accra through the Seme border. But it’s not just Ghana. Benin Republic and Togo are in fact closer to Lagos than Ghana and many businessmen and women in those countries consider Nigeria a prime market, the same as Niger Republic for which Kano and other Nigerian states have, overtime, served as a major market. These arguably small businesses, assumedly in their numbers, may be difficult to determine for a country without reliable statistics, and while individually, they may not have access to the media or the means to buy up advert spaces to highlight their plight, they matter as much as the others who are currently reaping from the border closure. In effect, contrary to the opinion of some people, it is not just businesses of people in the neighbouring countries that are affected by the shutdown. So, keeping the borders closed is injurious to Nigerian businesses as well, as customers who come from neighbouring countries to patronize them, no longer do so.
There has to be a way out of the stasis, and the earlier this is realised, the better. Besides, as Ghana’s former president, John Mahama, pointed out in a recent lecture organised by Realnews Magazine in Lagos, ECOWAS ( Economic Community of West African States) treaty of which Nigeria is a signatory and headquarters of the body, requires that borders be open for free movement of people and goods from the fifteen West African countries that make up the region. What is important is to adhere to the ECOWAS protocol in that regard, and if, as Nigeria insists, the terms had variously been violated by its neighbours, how can they be now made to stick to the rules without inflicting more pain on people from the sub region who bear the brunt of the action?
Nigeria, at the moment, should leverage on its influence in the current logjam to get things working well at the borders. The issue goes beyond agreement between two heads of state. Round the clock monitoring by security agencies also matter as much as the calibre of people manning the borders. The question of who sent them there and whose interest they truly represent, is crucial. What I saw of Mohammed’s TV appearance was a government official keen to heap the blame for the state of Benin/Nigeria border particularly, on the former without admitting the inadequacies of Nigeria on its part of the divide.
What can be done about Nigeria’s own shortcoming; about fighting corruption and connivance of its security officials with smugglers as it often takes two heads to get these deals seamlessly work out? And in this age of technology, how can that help in checkmating smuggling at border posts, particularly with all the talks about many unmanned porous routes along the borders in the different geopolitical zones across the country?
Anthony Akaeze is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author
– Dec. 10, 2019 @ 16:15 GMT |