The Federal Government in August 2019 announced the partial closure of its land borders with Benin Republic to check the massive smuggling activities especially of rice, taking place on that corridor.
President Muhammadu Buhari said that the closure of the border was necessary because the activities of smugglers were threatening the self-sufficiency already attained due to his administration’s policies.
The President also said that the partial closure of the borders to goods was in a bid to have total control of what was coming into the country, following the rise in the smuggling of expired products into the country.
The partial closure of the land borders, however, did not go down well with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries and a cross-section of Nigerians.
ECOWAS member countries and their institutions, who argued that the action by the Nigerian government was a breach of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) and the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme, called for the reopening of the borders.
Nigerians also described the action by the government as unfair to the masses “who suffer the brunt as a result of scarcity of products and price hike on available goods in the market’’.
Some government officials, legislators, and experts have however justified the closure of the borders, saying that it was not against the ACFTA and the ETLS.
Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama explained that the partial closure of the land border was not targeted at any particular country but was aimed at addressing criminal activities.
He added that it was also a wakeup call to ECOWAS member states to respect relevant treaties on free movement of goods and persons across the sub-region.
Gov. Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state said that the ACFTA was not a ground to allow for trade activities that would be detrimental to Nigeria and its citizens.
“You cannot say because we have signed up to the ACFTA, you then violate the principle of free trade by dumping in our country.
“Those that think of the actions of Mr President as wrong are definitely misguided”, Fayemi said.
Similarly, the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said that the decision by Nigeria to close its border was not inconsistent with the ACFTA, adding that countries should learn to live by the rules.
“The understanding that you have a free trade zone must come with the understanding that everybody must play by the rules. If the rules don’t work, the free trade policy does not work.
“It is not about smuggling petroleum or rice but in 2017, the Republic of Benin was the world’s second-largest importer of tramadol to the United States.
“All those drugs came into Northern Nigeria and now we hear that there are also arms coming in.
“So closing the borders – I hope is not a permanent solution but what I hope – is that is an opportunity to sit down and agree on rules and then open up the borders”, Sanusi said.
Nigeria’s Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege expressed the belief that non-compliance with the provision of the ECOWAS treaty regarding the management of borders was already impacting negatively on Nigeria as a country.
“It is also in the interest of ECOWAS as a region that the countries in the region do not breach the protocol and plead pity.
“They should not breach the protocol and try to create insecurity by attacking citizens of member states.
“So essentially, with regard to the resolutions reached by the ECOWAS Parliament, we think that they need to look very well at the protocol and see whether recommending that Nigeria just throws the borders open and reward people or nations who are in breach of the protocol or treaty is the right way to go,” Omo-Agege said.
In a bid to address the many controversies arising from the border closure, President Buhari directed Onyeama to convene a tripartite meeting with officials of some of the countries sharing land borders with Nigeria – Niger and Benin Republic – to resolve the issues at stake.
Following an inter-ministerial meeting on Nov. 4, 2019 ahead of the tripartite meeting, Onyeama said that the Nigerian government had listed conditions that ECOWAS member states needed to adhere to before it would open its borders.
Onyeama said that the conditions included “that the ECOWAS states must respect the Rule of Origin for imports … any import coming to Nigeria must retain its original packaging from the country of origin.
“There should be no modification whatsoever to the packaging on those goods imported into an ECOWAS member state destined for Nigeria, with the original packaging they must be escorted from the port directly and transferred to the Nigerian Customs Service.
“If goods are produced in ECOWAS member states, those goods must be in majority produced in those countries or if they are coming from outside ECOWAS the value addition made by an ECOWAS country must be over 30 per cent.
“The standard is for goods to be accepted within the framework of the Economic Trade Liberalisation Scheme that ECOWAS countries have to promote trade amongst members.
“The Nigerian government would also insist on the dismantling of all the warehouses along the common borders within a certain distance from the Nigerian borders.’’
At the end of the Tripartite Anti-Smuggling Committee meeting on Nov. 14, 2019, the minister, said that the meeting took note of all concerns raised and agreed to establish a monitoring and evaluating committee with membership from the three countries.
He said that Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and the Niger Republic had established a joint border patrol team comprising the police, customs, and immigration services of the countries to recommend a date for the reopening of the borders.
“The meeting agreed that the monitoring and evaluation committee will ensure the full implementation of the adopted mandate of the Joint Anti-Smuggling Human Trafficking Committee,’’ Onyeama said.
Mr Aurelien Agbenonci, Benin Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation pledged the commitment of his home government to upholding the terms of the agreements reached at the meeting.
Mr Mohammed Bazoum, Senior Minister of Interior, Niger Republic praised Nigeria for convening the meeting which he said would further strengthen regional integration.
Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.), Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, said that the Jan. 31, 2020 date set for the reopening of the land borders was tentative, adding that the borders would be opened following agreements reached during the tripartite meeting.
Stakeholders said that the partial closure of its border had enabled Nigeria to give its local industrial sector the protection it needed and the opportunity to make an incursion into the local market without the unfavourable competition from goods smuggled into the country.
The move by Nigeria, they said, would have set a precedent whereby member country would always take into cognizance rules guiding mutually beneficial economic agreements between them.