The outrage that trailed the recent revelation that the Federal Government surreptitiously granted discriminatory exemption to three companies –Dangote Cement, BUA Cement and an unnamed “oil and gas firm” – to export their goods when there is a subsisting border closure order, has brought to the fore the imperative of ending the wrong-headed policy immediately. Recall that citing economic losses and illegal arms/drugs trade, Nigeria had abruptly shut its borders with Benin Republic in August 2019. Not satisfied with the outcome, it extended the ban to the land trade with all its neighbours in October that year, a tactic that reverberated around the sub-region. Additionally, it prohibited fuel supply to petrol stations within 20-kilometre radius of its borders. This newspaper had called for a re-evaluation of the policy after one year of its implementation. We noted, “Given however that no robust economy can be an island unto itself, the first anniversary of the closure is appropriate to accomplish a comprehensive re-evaluation of the painful closure.”
Sadly, this well-meaning and well-reasoned advisory was not heeded. Instead, there were reported cases of haphazard implementation of the policy leading to great loss to the economy on the one hand, and poor implementation on the other. Land borders are allegedly left open in some places for the unfettered movement of goods but enforced stringently in others. A study by Brookings Institution on the effects of the border closure on informal trade with neighbouring Benin Republic found that the policy would have “particularly negative consequences for traders, especially informal ones, along the Benin-Nigeria border, as the two economies are closely intertwined.”
The Exercise SWIFT Response enunciated by the Nigeria Customs Service to guide the border closure policy prohibited the movement of goods into or out of the country. The Comptroller-General, NCS, Hameed Ali, said then, “All goods, for now, are banned from being exported or imported through our land borders and that is to ensure that we have total control over what comes in,” and of course, what goes out. However, it is depressing to discover that the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime did not walk its talk as exposure of the discriminatory waivers reveals. Contrary to its posturing, the regime, through the NCS spokesman, Joseph Attah, explained that it approved the exemption of the three companies from the border restrictions “due to what they export to other African countries.”
It speaks volumes that the government waited this late before it admitted the discriminatory exemption granted the three firms, which has justly received unanimous condemnation. A co-founder of Stanbic IBTC Bank, Atedo Peterside, kick-started the outrage via a series of tweets when he observed, “Allowing legitimate exporters and importers to move their goods across the border should be a no-brainer. Why refuse everybody else and allow one company (Dangote)? This is why some of us argue that the Nigerian economy is rigged in favour of a handful of well-connected persons.” This is spot-on.
There is everything wrong and reprehensible for the regime to implement an interminable border closure policy without recourse to periodic review with critical stakeholders to ascertain its effectiveness in meeting set objectives. Several questions deserve urgent answers: is the border closure policy a permanent measure that has no time limit? Were all stakeholders carried along by the government before secretly dispensing the discriminatory waivers? Since the border closure, what has government done to right the wrongs that it sought to address through the policy? For a regime that claims to be fighting corruption, the non-scientific, opaque and discriminatory exemption is corruption perpetrated in another guise. Why was the exemption not designed as a sector-wide incentive instead of as implemented?
Border closure should be seen beyond being purely a security policy to check smuggling; it is also and should necessarily be seen as an economic policy with huge and multifaceted impact on various levels of stakeholders and operators. As a result, dishing out under-the-table waivers to preferred operators when less privileged ones are reeling from the debilitating effect of the same policy measure is a disincentive to competition and economic development. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria insists that the continued closure of the land borders “is unsustainable” as many genuine businesses are suffering, with some on the verge of shutting down. The Director-General, MAN, Segun Ajayi-Kadiri, stated, “While a section like the agriculture (poultry and rice farmers) had benefited from the border closure, we want to say the border closure is not sustainable on a long term. Some of our members in the food, beverage and tobacco industry and those in paper and roofing sheet production are complaining that their businesses are being affected negatively.”
We reiterate that there is a need for an immediate dispassionate re-evaluation of the border closure policy. Technology should come in handy in border patrol and surveillance instead of the current unworkable, crude strategy. Besides, it is bizarre that a country that has ratified its membership of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which carries with it unhindered trade and open borders, will continue to keep its borders closed to its trade partners in the name of fighting smugglers. The expected gains from AfCTA will inevitably evaporate in the closed border policy misstep.