British wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill famously noted that, “you do not negotiate borders – you defend them”. Borders are the hallmarks of a sovereign state. The ability to defend them is one of the defining requirements of statehood. The current system of territorial states began in continental Europe,with the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 that ended the devastating 30 years’ wars of religion.
Before then, much of Europe was organised in terms of territorially ill-defined feudal monarchies, royal kingdoms and dukedoms loosely under the Holy Roman Empire that was, in reality, neither holy nor fully Roman. The emergence of the sovereign Westphalian territorial state provided the constitutional framework for a new system of power politics in Europe. Much of it was enshrined in the emerging Law of Nations as enunciated by great jurists from Bartolome de las Casas to Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel.
The internecine strife that afflicted nineteenth century Europe had very much to do with borders, notably between France and Germany and between Germany and her neigbhours. It is also true of the relations between Mexico and big Uncle Sam next door. In post-independence Africa, borders were the casus belli for the outbreaks of war between Somalia and Ethiopia; Kenya and Somalia; and between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The decade-long Bakassi Peninsula dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon led to several border skirmishes that could easily have culminated in violent conflict. The 2002 adjudication by the ICJ in The Hague succeeded in dousing the embers of war. But a judgement presided over by a French judge whose objectivity was at best questionable have left a sour taste.
One of the ways that countries have tried to control their borders is by building walls. One of these is the 8,000 km long Great Wall of China, built some 2,300 years ago, ostensibly to protect the Middle Kingdom from invasion by barbarian hordes. When they decided to invade, the Mongol warriors wisely did not attempt to scale the wall. They simply bribed the gatekeepers.
A few years ago Israel built a wall across the West Bank ostensibly to protect its citizens against Palestinian terrorists. Upon completion, it will be a 438km barrier separating Israel from the Palestinians. The UN General Assembly has condemned the project while the ICJ has determined in its advisory opinion that the wall is a violation of international law.
American president, Donald Trump pitched his campaign for election in 2016 on the promise that he would build a wall across the Mexican border to stop the relentless sea of illegal immigrants from across the border. He also insisted that Mexico would pay for it. That project has hit a brick wall, both legal and political. Congress has not been forthcoming with regards to the US$5.6 billion required for the project. The Mexicans have also made it plain that under no circumstances would they ever contemplate paying for such a project.
One of the tragedies of colonial rule in Africa is that our borders were demarcated in a highly arbitrary manner; separating entire communities that belonged together for centuries, if not millennia. When the OAU was created in 1963, African leaders wisely decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
Nigeria’s borders have been among the most porous in the world. We have been at the receiving end of smuggling and other criminal activities – arms, human and narcotics trafficking. Bandits can come across the border and commit all sorts of terrible crimes, including murder and run again back to the safety of their home territories. In spite of these extreme provocations, I have always proudly reminded my African brethren that Nigeria has never invaded her neighbours. Instead, we have expended so much in terms of blood and treasure to restore peace in war-torn countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Our porous borders, aided by own sheer incompetence, has made us the dumping ground of the world. In the seventies, so much cement was imported into our country that it would have required ten years to off-load ordinarily. It was one of the factors that led to the fall of the Gowon military regime. Today, we are the world’s biggest importer of generators. The Lebanese and other cartels that control generator importation have colluded in killing our power sector. Benin Republic, a country of 12 million people, has become the world’s biggest importer of rice. All the par-boiled rice that they import is destined for our country, as they have a preference for Basmati. More than 50 per cent of the cars on our streets and highways were smuggled through the Cotonou border, with our treasury incurring billions of dollars in lost revenue. We are also the world’s biggest dump yard for Chinese knick knacks, most of them useless, if not dangerous.
Alarmingly, we are also the main global destination for arms smuggling, particularly since the fall of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. Smuggled arms have fed into the decade-long insurgency in the north east. They have also fallen into the hands of murderous herdsmen, most of them from neighbouring countries. Nigeria today is the kidnap capital of the world. Families travelling on vacation are waylaid by kidnappers in military or police uniforms. The victims released only upon the payment of an extortionate ransom. If their relatives cannot pay up their kith and kin could be summarily executed. Nobody is safe – neither generals nor senators nor princes nor plebeians. Kidnapping and banditry have turned our country into a Hobbesian nightmare; destroying the last residue of moral capital that has held our communities together in organic solidarity.
Heavy arms have been intercepted from countries as diverse as Turkey and Iran. A few months ago, our military intercepted several armoured tanks from the Cameroon border. We understand that one of the world powers ordered our authorities to release the tanks, claiming that they were destined for Mali. Somebody somewhere has obviously declared war on our country.
What is most irritating is that the world expects us to take it lying down. An official from the trade ministry of a major European country recently accosted me over lunch at a posh restaurant in Abuja. He wanted to know why we are so dumb as to practise “autarky” in the twenty-first century. Asoi-disant economist from the Washington-based Brookings Institution was recently writing that Benin Republic had repositioned herself as a flourishing“entreport economy for informal trade”, while Nigeria has become the big elephant sitting on the path of progress in ECOWAS. Vietnam Vice-President, Professor Vuong Dihn Hue visited Abuja recently to pressure our government to re-open the borders. The Ghanaians have protested very loudly. Several Nigerian shops have been closed down in that country while our nationals have been roughened up.
One theory being touted is that the border closure was instigated by one or two of our big industrialists that stand opposed to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which takes off in July 2020. The same groups, allegedly through the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), forced our government not to sign up to the Kigali Treaty 2018. Our late-coming meant that we have not only lost leadership and credibility; Accra also won the right to host the headquarters of the AfCFTA.
Building a wall may not be altogether feasible for the foreseeable future. Keeping the borders closed in perpetuity is also not a sustainable option. It would in fact be illegal under international trade law and WTO protocols. The economies of our neigbours have taken a big hit as have our own border communities. But we cannot act on the basis of sentiments. We must act with tough love.
Let us also be honest with ourselves. The whole world knows that Apapa and Lagos have reached their absolute upper limits in terms of capacity. And yet, there are political interests that insist it must be Lagos or nothing else. And what Lagos cannot take must be hived off to Cotonou at the expense of Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Onne. We have behaved wickedly against our own vital national interests for ethnic and selfish reasons.
There are many things wrong with this government. But I support the border closure. The only reservation I have is that we should have made adequate arrangements in terms of strategic stock piles before closing the borders. The consequence is that the price of rice in this festive season has gone outside the reach of the poor. People are suffering.
Going forward, I am persuaded that we should extend the closure to July 2020, when AfCFTA will take effect. Between now and then, we should double the recruitment of customs staff and provide more training and logistics in controlling our borders. We must deploy the best technology, including satellites and drones. We must also secure iron-cast guarantees from our neigbhours that they will not be the conduits for smuggling and other illegal trade activities against our country, causing us to lose billions of dollars in revenues while undermining our industrial capacity.