After almost sixty years of open borders with our neighbours, Nigeria has decided to start policing the borders and attempting the “impossible” – stop smuggling in and out of the country. We have a vast border span of 4,047 kilometres – 773 with Benin, 1,497 with Niger, 87 with Chad and 1,690 with Cameroon. In August, Nigeria decided to essentially mount a huge security operation on its borders and mount a regime of close filtration of goods coming into or leaving the country. It has been a huge shock to our neighbours who for long have enjoyed our laissez faire attitude to the borders. Nigeria has never been able to provide accurate numbers for its external trade because the parts that come through our land borders are mainly informal and not recorded.
In 1992, my good friend and professor of geography at Cotonou, John Igue published his famous book – The State in Benin: Warehouse for Nigeria. (L’Etat-entrepôt au Bénin: Commerce informel ou solution à la crise?). The book shows how the economies of Benin, but also Togo and Niger do not have annual fiscal and economic policies. Essentially, the wait for what goods Nigeria has or would ban and then massively import the commodities allowing the informal sector to ensure the transit of the goods into Nigeria. One constant in this informal trade is petroleum goods which have been subsidised in Nigeria for decades and we almost fully supply the needs of our neighbours at great cost to the Nigeria treasury. John Igue knows what is talking about because he is a former minister of Benin Republic and knows the extent to which Benin is dependent on exploiting Nigeria for its survival. He argues that the Beninois State has responsibility for about 30% of the population. Meanwhile, 60% of the people of Benin Republic have livelihoods that are dependent of smuggling to and from Nigeria. This means that the country would collapse if Nigerian effectively polices the border for a few months.
Nigeria’s capacity to put pressure on Benin is very high in principle. In practice however, they know that all they have to do is come to Abuja and beg Oga President. The second thing they know is the level of corruption in Nigeria is so high that whatever policies are put in place cannot be sustained because Nigerian officialdom will subvert it themselves to make money. Nigerian custom officials and Nigerian business men and women also make enormous money from the smuggling activities that take place so it’s not a one-way traffic. Our border with Benin is an essential part of the Abidjan-Lagos transport and migration corridor, and also represents a key transport vein in the ECOWAS region. We are not dealing with a sole country but with the whole region and our dear baby ECOWAS.
There are no natural boundaries between Nigeria and Benin. In addition, the border region includes a large surface of lagoon and marshlands which have traditionally been used as transport and trade routes and which are very difficult to control and monitor by migration and customs authorities. The people on both sides of the border are from the same ethno-cultural community and have established multiple local markets all over the border line, from the North to the South. Today, the economic nexus between the three big cities of Porto Novo, Cotonou and Lagos is the most vibrant economic hub in West Africa. Along the entire border lies a labyrinth of little creeks and streams, which can easily replace formal border posts as informal trade routes that cannot be patrolled by security agencies. All that would happen is that the canoe traffic linking Porto Novo and Lagos would multiply in scale. The victory recently announced by the Nigerian Customs Service in raising revenue and blocking smuggling might be short lived. Let us not forget that for the Shabe Yoruba on both sides of the Benin-Nigeria border, the border has always been an opportunity for commerce and livelihoods.
One of the worries of Nigeria is the significant smuggling of small arms and light weapons into Nigeria through the land borders. Nigeria cannot continue to allow our neighbours who benefit so much from us to continue to subvert out interests especially as the threats related to international terrorism and cross-border crime in the Sahel region to the coastal states continue to grow. The 2006 study of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center (KAIPTC) on cross-border criminal activities in the region, states that regional cross-border crime in West Africa is very different to crime networks for example in America. This is due to its manageable sizes, limited hierarchy, nimbleness and informality. In other words, it’s difficult to stop. The principle of free movement of people is laid out in both Article 2 and Article 27 of the ECOWAS Treaty and forms one of the key objectives of ECOWAS. The 1979 Protocol relating to Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment and its four Supplementary Protocols contain detailed rights of Community citizens. They allow them to enter, reside, and establish in the territory of all Member States. These rights are being abused.
In thinking strategically about the problems, Nigeria should look closely at its formal processes for clearing customs which are slow, complex and expensive. Nigerian businesses must produce at least nine documents in order to send an export shipment and at least 13 documents in order to bring in an import consignment – in both cases this is significantly more than in many other emerging economies. Procedures are complex, and ports and border crossings have too few modern technical installations such as large scanners capable of scanning whole containers on vehicles.
The other rigidity we have is on foreign-exchange and banking regulations
which are essentially dysfunctional and therefore make smuggling an easier alternative. Our Francophone neighbours make it easier for our business community to import using our Naira in a practical and affordable way. If we do not make our financial systems functional, our people have only one option, bypass them.
Our custom services are so corrupt that they on a daily basis improve and refine smuggling into Nigeria. It’s a total disgrace that they receive bribes to let goods through and then go to the markets where the goods are sold and threaten traders for second round bribes. If we do not address this problem, forget any idea of stopping smuggling.
President Buhari is focused on the negative impact of smuggling on Nigeria’s agricultural productivity. He realised Audo Ogbe’s announcements that we were self-sufficient in rice production was completely false as Benin Republic was massively importing the rice we though we had stopped importing and filling our markets. Its good he is acting but the matter is too complex for precipitate emergency action without a policy and institutional strategy to change the fundamentals.