Time to review border closure

LAST week, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) indicated that President Muhammadu Buhari had given permission to Africa’s biggest cement producer, Dangote Cement, to resume exports across the country’s land borders. The move, which came amid the ongoing border closure, caught many Nigerians by surprise. With the waiver, the company would be able to export its products to Niger and Togo in the third quarter for the first time in ten months.  Apart from  Dangote Cement, the BUA Group and a gas company also received presidential approval to move goods across the land borders. According to the NCS, the three concerns were exempted due to the demand for their products in other West African countries. In a statement,  the Dangote Group said its cement company and other companies in July 2020 got partial special dispensation to export their products with certain sequences of crossing at Ilela land border in Sokoto State and the Ohumbe land border in Ogun State.

Chief Executive Officer, Dangote Cement, Michel Puchercos, explained that the company was focused on exporting cement to West and Central Africa by sea through its export terminals, and that six vessels of clinker were exported in the third quarter of 2020 via the Apapa export terminal, while plans were on track to inaugurate the Port Harcourt export terminal before the end of this year. For the quarter, Dangote stated that it exported only 69 kilotonnes of cement via the land borders, compared to previous volumes of 180 kilotonnes before the border closures. The BUA Group also acknowledged that it received a limited approval to export through the land borders, adding that it did not have “any blanket approval to export and the Nigerian borders remain closed.” BUA Cement was granted a limited approval to export some cement to Niger Republic which is 100kms from its plant, it said.

Naturally, the waivers caused ripples in the polity. For instance, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) condemned the government’s selective approach  to implementing economic policies. According to the Director-General of the LCCI, Dr. Muda Yusuf, with the selective approach to policymaking and execution, the credibility of policymakers and the government was in doubt. Musa added that the absence of a level-playing field for economic players was detrimental to investors’ confidence and inimical to the economic recovery aspirations of the government, while also negating the principles and spirit of competition.

When President Buhari ordered the country’s land borders closed in August last year, causing immediate outcry at its boundaries with Benin, Niger and Cameroon, his administration’s expressed intention was to curb smuggling, especially of arms and ammunition. The president’s action, though painful, became necessary following the abject attitude by the governments of neighbouring countries to curbing the smuggling of light arms, with grave consequences for Nigeria’s confrontation with terrorism and banditry. However, as the economic effects of the blockade worsened, Nigerians called on the government to review the ban while the governments of the affected countries also made promises to address the concerns raised by the Nigerian government more decisively. Indeed, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria had at different fora advocated a review of the border closure as it was not sustainable, with its acting Director-General, Ambrose Oruche, urging the government to reopen the borders and put measures in place to guard against  malpractices therein.

We think that it is time to review the border closure. It is obvious that the border closure is no longer sustainable. The prices of foodstuff have reached unprecedented highs and allowing the situation to degenerate further will have disastrous consequences on the country. Although a major reason for banning the importation of staple foods such as rice was to enable local producers to survive, it is clear that the target of affordable local production is yet to be met. To say the least, Nigerians are suffering. They are hungry and angry. Food inflation reached a 31-month high in October. Besides, with a regular diet of harsh and punitive policies imposed by the government, including the recent electricity and fuel price hikes, Nigerians can hardly breathe, and survival has reached desperation levels. At the risk of being repetitive, staple foods have become too expensive and life has become unbearable.

In any case, there is no point giving preferential treatment to some exporters at the expense of others, and at the expense of the country. We reject the suggestion that only the products of the three companies recently granted waivers are needed outside the country’s borders. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The government should give the NCS all the resources it needs to police the country’s borders effectively. It should also build border walls equipped with state-of-the-art technology, as we suggested in previous editorials. Trade with  the country’s neighbours should resume in earnest, with precautions put in place regarding the still ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This is the way to go, especially since the country has ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). When it comes into effect in January 2021, the AfCFTA aims to create a single market for goods and services in Africa. If all African countries join the agreement, the market size across the continent is projected to include 1.7 billion people with over $6.7 trillion of cumulative consumer and business spending, by 2020. The border closure policy is due for a review.

 

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