Nigeria’s land border at Idiroko in Ogun State is still shut nine months after its scheduled re-opening to other countries in the West Africa sub-region. Four of Nigeria’s major land borders at Seme, Mfum, Maitagari and Ilella, shut in August 2019, were re-opened by Federal Government, earlier in December 2020. Other land borders, including Idiroko at Nigeria-Benin Republic borders, were scheduled for re-opening latest by December 31, 2020. But nine months after, the Idiroko border in Ogun West is yet to re-open, thereby causing anxiety in the border communities over legitimate trading between Nigeria and ECOWAS countries through the border which they say is suffering over the closure, while smugglers are having field day. PAUL OGBUOKIRI reports
…as smuggling continues unhindered
…only legitimate trade suffering —ANLCA
…over N12bn revenue lost in about two years
Residents condemn continuous closure of Idiroko border Residents of Idiroko and its environs in Ogun State say they are disappointed with the Federal Government due to the continuous closure of the border despite the promise of reopening on or before December 31, 2020.
They complained of hardship due to lack of movement of legitimate trading in goods and transport services across the border, saying the closure of the border has robbed residents of a decent source of livelihood.
Traders, transporters and other residents of the area appealled to President Muhammadu Buhari to consider them and open the border before the end of the year or on the first day of 2022. Officials of the Customs, Immigration, Department of State Service and other security agents, including the military were seen at the border post.
Importers, exports lament
Importers and exporters have condemned the closure of Idiroko borders nine months after the rest were reopened in December 2020, saying import and export businesses between the neighbouring countries of Benin Republic is suffering. Chief Udo Ineobong, an exporter, said that the Idiroko border was his preferred border post for exporting his goods. “I’am now having serious difficulty redirecting my goods to Seme.”
The Idiroko Chapter chairman of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Chief Emeka Ihekwoaba, stated that the continued closure of the border is not doing any good to the country.
“Rather, it is the country that is losing. Smuggling is going through the reported over one hundred bush paths (unapproved routes), but legitimate business cannot take place and above all, the Federal Government is losing the revenue due to it from this border post, even as unemployment in the surrounding communities has soured,” he said.
Also, a source close to the Nigeria Customs Service, Idiroko Command, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the border closure has outlived its usefulness as smugglers have upped their game, beating the customs operatives policing the borders. When asked when the blockage will be lifted, the source said: “I don’t know but I know that the operation is led by the Nigeria Customs Service.”
Ihekwoaba noted that the border closure has not even stopped movement of people across the border as they are freely using the unapproved routes. He said: “When the Federal Government decided to do something, there is nothing anybody can do about it.
They (Customs) just informed us and they said we should continue with our normal business but unfortunately, the normal business is not happening because everything is at a standstill.” Ihekwoaba, who decried the closure of the border, wondered why Nigeria that is a signatory to many protocols, including the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) shut down its borders.
With the massive smuggling, price of foreign parboiled rice has dropped sharply from about N35, 000 to about N22, 000, depending on location. This, according to sources, was not unconnected with the prevailing smuggling activities. As price of foreign rice drops, that of its local variant remains stagnant at between N21, 000 and N25, 000.
This situation makes it difficult for Nigerian rice to compete favourably in the local market. Despite the closure of the borders, Sunday Telegraph learnt during a recent visit to Idioroko border in Ogun State that those security officers have completely shut official border posts, while illicit activities are concurrently going on unhindered at unapproved routes.
The unapproved routes are busier than official ones, with hundreds of motorbikes moving across the borders of the Republic of Benin and Nigeria, engaging in illegal trade.
A security officer at the border disclosed that security personnel were aware of happenings at the bush paths, which are more than 100 in Ogun State alone. He said officers only routinely patrol the routes because they were too many to cover.
Besides, the officer disclosed that the bush paths became more dangerous for officers because smugglers, who are more familiar with the terrain, could lay ambush for the team. It was further disclosed that the notorious smugglers use the night as cover and move in convoys.
Meanwhile, at the Seme Border, the officers were on top of their game at major border posts but smugglers took charge of illegal routes. Just like the case in Idiroko, the motorbikes are major tools for smugglers, while other means of conveyance were cars and lorries.
The National Public Relations Officer, NCS, DC Joseph Attah, said that the porous borders posed serious challenges for officers, as smugglers monitor their movements and strategically evade arrest. He urged members of the public to share information with Customs when they notice smugglers around their areas.
Reps shut down motion to reopen Idiroko border
The House of Representatives recently shut down a motion to reopen Idiroko Border and other land borders in the country. This followed a motion by Kolawole Lawal (APC-Ogun) at the plenary in Abuja. Lawal had moved a motion on the urgent need to reopen the Idiroko border and other land borders in the country. He noted that before the closure, the Nigeria- Benin border at Idiroko generated over N6 billion annually.
The APC legislator pointed out while the Federal Government had reopened the Seme, Illela, Maigatari, and Mfun borders, the Idiroko border remained closed. Since the borders’ closure in August 2019, residents of Idiroko had witnessed a massive economic downturn, claimed the lawmaker, arguing that the closure has not increased farmers’ food production.
However, most lawmakers, who spoke on the motion, opposed the reopening of the border. Rotimi Agunsoye (APC-Lagos) explained that it was important for the border to remain closed to stem the tide of insecurity. Also, Ahmed Wase, the deputy speaker, stated that the border closure had strengthened the fight against arms proliferation.
At the same time, Ben Ila, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, noted that keeping the border closed was in the country’s best interest. She added that the move was good for “our farmers and even technologists, who are currently making a fortune out of the closure, and this will help grow the country,” urging the parliament, “let us leave our borders closed for now in the interest of the country.”
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, while lending his voice to the debate, reiterated the need to consider the country’s security situation before talking of free trade.
“We have to choose between security and free trade. Though some people said it had not worked, what if the borders have not been closed? I really don’t know what would have happened,” Mr. Gbajabiamila argued. He added: “We should mind internal security, though some say it is hurting employment in terms of globalisation.”
However, Osai Osai (PDP-Delta) disagreed; pointing out that Nigeria recently signed an agreement with other countries to allow free trade and free movement.
According to the National Vice President of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Dr Kayode Farinto, the Federal Government cannot be parroting boosting economic growth when it is impeding legitimate trade.
He stated that the upsurge in smuggling along Idiroko cannot be dissociated from the about two years of closure of the border, which has according to him, denied the residents of the communities their legitimate source of making a living.
He called on the Federal Government to reopen the border, saying the excuse of insecurity cannot be used to keep the border closed indefinitely.