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.