As the January 31 deadline for the expiration of the first phase of the Joint Security Operation ‘EX-SWIFT’ Response approaches, businesses in Nigeria and other neighbouring West African countries have raised expectations that the Federal Government would finally come to agreement with its neighbours to re-open the borders to genuine import and export trade.
Nigeria’s land borders have been partially closed since August 20, 2019 following the government’s determination to reduce smuggling of foreign rice, vehicles and other contraband commodities.
Since the closure, business owners in Nigeria, Benin Republic, and Niger that depend on the border to survive have been seriously affected following their inability to carry out their legitimate businesses.
Speaking to BDSUNDAY in a telephone interview, Ogbonnaya Gordon, former coordinator of the National Council of Managing Directors of Customs Licensed Agents (NCMDCLA) at Seme border, said the border closure has negatively impacted businesses in the border area.
According to him, Nigerians welcome the government’s idea of putting a very good structure in place to protect Nigeria in terms of border business.
“But in doing this, government should equally remember that many people do genuine businesses within the border area. As Nigeria is benefiting from other areas due to the closure of border, we should also consider those that are doing genuine business at the border,” he said.
Gordon, who pointed out that border closure as at yesterday, January 25, 2020 would clock five months that the government closed the nation’s border to business, said authoritatively, that many businessmen and women have lost their chances due to the policy.
“For instance, many have lost their lives while some cannot even continue to repay the banks they borrowed money from. We are only praying to the government to allow those goods at the border to go after which we can now continue with any other policy since many have paid duty while some have used their money to move the goods from Cotonou to the border,” he pleaded.
Bisiriyu Lasisi Fanu, former chairman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) at Seme border, told BDSUNDAY that importers and their agents will be happy, if government would re-open the border to business.
He however, observed that with the indication and what is on ground, it is as if government is not ready to re-open the border anytime soon given the fact that proper arrangements have not been concluded.
“We don’t see the border opened by Thursday 31st January, but miraculously, government may decide to allow importers and exporters evacuate their goods that were trapped at the border for months,” he said.
According to him, “Government brings in border drill and also changes the officers every now and then. If the government is ready to re-open the border, they would not be changing the officers or bringing new set of officers to take over from those on ground since it is remaining few days for the first phase to elapse.”
What seems like corroboration of this fact was the recent bilateral meeting on border closure held in London between President Muhammadu Buhari and Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghanaian president.
According to a statement by Femi Adesina, President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, the meeting was held on the sidelines of UK-Africa Investment Summit 2020.
Buhari explained that the partial border closure was not solely because food products, particularly rice, were being smuggled into Nigeria, but also because arms and ammunition, as well as hard drugs were being ferried into Nigeria.
He stated that he could not keep his eyes open, and watch youths being destroyed through cheap hard drugs, and to compromise national security.
“When most of the vehicles carrying rice and other food products through our land borders are intercepted, you find hard drugs, and small arms, under the food products. This has terrible consequences for any country,” he said.
He said it was regrettable that the partial border closure was having “negative economic impact on our neighbours,” adding that the time frame for reopening of the borders, would not happen till the final report of a committee set up on the matter was submitted and considered.
“We will get things sorted out. Our farmers, especially those who grow rice, now have a market, and are happy. Once the committee comes up with its recommendations, we will sit and consider them,” he said.
Showing understanding of the need for Nigeria to protect her citizens, President Akufo-Addo pleaded for an expedited process, because, according to him, Nigerian market is significant for certain categories of businesses in Ghana.
Meanwhile, a recent BDSUNDAY visit to markets in Lagos, revealed that the rate at which foreign parboiled rice, were being sold in open markets, had drastically reduced as smugglers find it extremely difficult to bring in rice into Nigeria through Seme and Idiroko borders.
However, the smuggling of frozen foods such as chickens, turkeys, gizzards and others still thrives in the South-West as these contraband goods continue to find their way into the markets.
Ironically, as the rate of foreign rice smuggling reduces in Lagos and Ogun States, the pressure shifts to the South-South where Nigeria and Cameroon share border.
BDSUNDAY’s search shows that selling and buying of smuggled foreign parboiled rice has become big business in Cross River and Akwa Ibom States as well as their neighbouring states in the Eastern part of the country.
A recent visit to markets in these states, shows that selling and consumption of foreign rice were still at high rate in these areas. Presently, a bag of 50kg foreign parboiled rice sells at N25,000 in the states in those regions.
“Today, there are lots of foreign brands of parboiled rice in the market to choose from. We eat foreign rice here in the East. Though, there was a time we experienced scarcity of foreign rice in the market at the early stage of border closure but now, all of that has ended,” said a resident of Aba, who gave her name as NgoziOnyebuchi,.
Onyebuchi, who stated that her brother-in-law deals in rice business in Aba, made it clear that many Nigerians do not patronise dealers of local rice in the East due to the issues around improper processing and packaging as well as texture of cooking, which leaves many brands of local rice with stones and chaff.
An indigene of Cross River State, who does not want his name in print, told BDSUNDAY that many of the indigenes are surviving on rice smuggling and that many of such are carried out using the waterways.
The indigene insisted that these smugglers work in connivance with the officers of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
BDSUNDAY can recall that the Federal Government had insisted that it would only reopen the nation’s land borders if neighbouring West African countries comply strictly with the regional trade agreements of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS).
Speaking on Tuesday, December 24th, 2019, in Abuja, Mariam Katagum, minister of State for Industry, Trade, and Investment, said that reopening of borders would depend on recommendations from the patrol team on whether Niger and Benin Republic have complied with the trade protocols.
“We had a strategic meeting with the three countries, and what we agreed with our neighbours is to activate a joint border patrol, and the border patrol comprises the Customs, all the security agencies and to follow the actual protocol laid by ECOWAS,” Katagum said.
The committee, according to her, met on November 25, and it was only when that committee is certain that all the countries are respecting the ECOWAS protocol that they will recommend the date for the opening of the border.