The Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Colonel Hameed Ali hardly speaks to the media. Whenever he does, it is about policy issues which he thinks release to the public ought to emanate from his desk. A case in point was when on August 20, 2019, he spoke of the commencement of what he called ‘Exercise Swift Response’. It is a joint operation involving all military, paramilitary and intelligence agencies. It is meant to sanitize the land borders that had become disreputable for cross border smuggling. Few days after the announcement, the western border between Nigeria and Bene Republic was shut by the Nigerian government. Later, the northern border with Niger Republic was also closed. Now let’s review the situation.
Despite the representation made by the President of Bene Republic, to his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari on the side of the last Yokohama Africa/Japan Summit, the borders have remained closed. It was widely reported that vehicles numbering 500, attempting to bring in goods into Nigeria were stuck at the borders. Owners of perishable items have been crying that they were losing time and money.
Ghana, a West African country and trading partner with Nigeria initially threatened to boycott the country’s imports in retaliation. The shut down of shops in Kumasi, belonging to Nigerian traders by Ghanaian traders association is suspected by some observers to be a retaliatory gesture but there’s no evidence to substantiate that claim. The Nigerian government has promised to open a corridor for easy passage of Ghanaian goods. Talks are still ongoing in that respect. The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS members generally are opposed to the border closure by Nigeria. They are quick to point out that the action was in violation of the ECOWAS Treaty and protocols. Ghana is a member of ECOWAS.
Even in Nigeria, trans border traders have condemned the action of the Federal government. They said that the border closure was rendering many small traders jobless thereby compounding the problem of poverty in the country. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI objected to the border closure. It said that some businesses in Nigeria that rely on inputs from other countries in the West Africa subregion may have no other option than to close down. LCCI raised the dust of job losses and the effect on the unemployment situation in the country.
Surprisingly, the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, NACCIMA and Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria, MAN said that the border closure showed that the government had the interest of local industries at heart. National President of NACCIMA, Hajia Saratu Aliyu told Thisday newspaper in Nigeria: “Firstly, I want to commend the government for the step it took concerning the closure of the borders. Our neighbours are taking us for granted. There has been the ECOWAS Treaty, which they signed and affirmed to abide by. Unfortunately they swept it under the carpet and were turning us into a dumping ground.” She appealed to NACCIMA members to be patient as the government was fighting “our cause”.
Meanwhile the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hameed Ali has dismissed the popular impression that the border closure was hurting the country. He said in a recent outing: “There are no statistics to support that claim. Two, the border closure is a win-win for Nigeria. I will tell you why. You are not a farmer. Go to Abakaliki and talk to farmers. Go to Kebbi, ask the farmers today. Go to every part of Nigeria. There is a farmer who told me that before the closure of the border, he could hardly sell a truck of milled rice in two months. Since we closed the borders, he has not only been able to sell what he has, he has also been going after farmers to get paddy rice and they have put money down for him to deliver.
“Why do we begin to think that we must be fed by foreign countries? At what point do we think that we are independent? Any nation that cannot feed itself cannot claim to be independent. When you have a diplomatic row with the country you are getting your rice from, they will close the tap. What now happens?”
Ali and the government object to smuggling of foreign rice into Nigeria on a massive scale at a time when the country is deeply encouraging local production of the commodity. Also, Nigeria is keeping an eye on its borders to stop criminal importation of arms and ammunitions into the country. She is equally concerned about migration of kidnappers and bandits into her territory.
Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geofrey Onyeama yesterday revealed conditions for the reopening of the borders. He said that Nigeria will no longer tolerate repacking of imported goods by neighbours for sale in the country, adding that ECOWAS countries must respect the rules of origin. Onyeama insists that goods being imported into Nigeria from ECOWAS States must have 30 percent local content. Nigeria also demands the dismantling of warehouses dotted on the border with Nigeria.
It was rumoured that President Muhammadu Buhari had directed that the borders should be kept closed until January 31, 2020. However Hameed Ali came out of a review meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs yesterday to announce that the January 31st date was not sacrosanct. It now seems that any change in the situation at the borders may depend on the outcome of a scheduled tripartite meeting among Nigeria, Bene and Niger Republics.
We will follow further developments on this subject.