Economic insurgents on Nigeria’s borders

G  OVERNMENT officials and law breakers are involved, and everyone knows it. This is a siege of no less significance compared to what insurgents do in the North-East corner of the country. The matter of what this harm, perpetrated especially on our Western and Eastern borders, does to our economy has been on my mind for long. Then two things happened recently. On August 22, 2016, a private television station, during its ‘News Track,’ aired the ‘Eye-witness’ segment. There was this still picture of a Hilux vehicle that belonged to the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) filled with bags of rice. It was travelling on a major road in one of Nigeria’s border towns with the Republic of Benin. An eyewitness had taken this picture and sent it to the television state. The eyewitness wondered if our Customs Service officers were into rice importation too, otherwise how come the Service’s official vehicle was moving bags of rice around town.

Days before this, the president of the Republic of Benin was in Abuja, and at one point, he had stood on the podium next to his host at the State House. President Muhammadu Buhari spoke in English language while his guest spoke in French.

Language difference can be a barrier where smooth conduct of diplomatic business is the issue. Each speaker says one thing, the interpreter says another, and the listener hears something totally different. Across languages, words tend to approximate rather than accurately equate. In the process, what’s of essence may be lost, especially when tone and nuance are the means left to convey seriousness in a situation where the mildness of diplomatic language hinders. I was sure something was lost on that occasion when Buhari’s words had to be interpreted to his guest about the need for him to stop smugglers from using Benin as a platform to harm Nigeria’s economy. My concern was whether or not Benin’s leader did pick what his guest said. If he did, would he seriously work on it? And if he didn’t, what should our President do?

Incidentally, only the national television station, the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), seemed to have heard exactly what I picked from the Nigeria-Benin meeting. During its prime time news, NTA zeroed in on the point Buhari made about the need for the president of Benin to lend his support to combating smuggling on his own side of the border. For about 40 hours after the meeting between the two leaders, the station had this written in its scroll bar: ‘Nigeria and Republic of Benin take appropriate measures to curtail the rate of illegal trade through their borders.’ This was the version in its news bulletin too.

Meanwhile, other media outlets reported other perspectives, a surprise to me, considering the emphasis Buhari had placed on smuggling that time, as well as how much of an albatross smuggling on the Benin-Nigeria border had become to our economy.

That time, Buhari had pointed out the need for Nigeria and Benin to work together for their common good with regard to border issues. He added that there was an ECOWAS agreement, the aspect which stated that any goods that didn’t originate from the West African sub-region should not be allowed by a member country to be smuggled into the territory of another member country. “All we need to do, therefore, is to remind ourselves of the ECOWAS agreement, and ensure that we abide by it,” he said. The reader can’t get the nuance in this unless he sees the President’s mien and carriage at the time he said this. He was issuing a warning to Benin; it was exactly what I expected any administration that had an ailing economy on its hands to do. What will follow this warning is what remains to be seen.

It’s noteworthy that at the meeting, the president of Benin responds to Buhari by saying Nigeria is the engine room of all economies in the West African sub-region. He also said he wanted his country to prosper like one of the Nigerian states, a light-hearted comment that had caused his listeners to laugh. This part of his comment is an irony though. Nigeria’s economy propels the sub-region, yet Benin and other neighbours such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon do us so much harm. They do good business by importing goods from outside the continent and they watch as the same are smuggled into Nigeria. I understand that the governments of our neighbouring nations factor the quantity that would be smuggled into Nigeria into the importations they permit.

Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin aren’t rice producing nations as such, but because they reap from smuggling activities across Nigeria’s borders, there’s been an increase in rice importation into the countries with their favourable tariffs and policies.

When some Nigerian stakeholders in rice business gathered in Lagos last July, they complained that smuggling threatened millions of job opportunities here; those were jobs created by local investment in the nation’s rice industry. The stakeholders said smuggling of rice has resulted in loss of revenue for the nation and local investors.

Like every other aspect of our national life, we have looked on as things disintegrate at our borders as government agencies abandon their jobs and government officials work for their own pockets. If there is any border that does Nigeria’s economy more harm than others it is the Benin-Nigeria border.

It is for this reason I welcome President Buhari’s warning to Benin. Col. Hameed Ali (retd.), the boss of the Nigeria Customs Service, was in Benin days after the president of Benin left Abuja. Ali held discussions and signed agreements with his counterpart during his visit. I hope these lead to Benin making its territory not a landing pad for goods to be smuggled into Nigeria.

  • Ajibade is a public affairs analyst.