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Border closure: Fitting action against the rice smuggling monster

The Nigerian government recently ordered the closure of the country’s land borders with the Republics of Benin and Niger.

The border closure, code-named “Ex-Swift Response”, is jointly enforced by the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigeria Immigration Service in collaboration with the Armed Forces, Nigeria Police Force and other security and intelligence agencies.

President Muhammadu Buhari explained the rationale behind the operation in August, while attending the seventh Tokyo International Conference for African Development, TICAD, in Yokohama, Japan, saying it was to curb the massive smuggling activities across the borders.

Benin Republic President, Patrice Talon, who met President Buhari on the sideline of the conference, said the closure was having a severe impact on his people and pleaded for the reopening of the western border.

Buhari was not enthusiastic about acceding to the request, expressing serious concern about the smuggling of rice, which, according to him, was threatening his administration’s efforts at achieving self-sufficiency in the production of the staple food.

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“Now that our people in the rural areas are going back to their farms and the country has saved huge sums of money, which would otherwise have been expended on importing rice, using our scarce foreign reserves, we cannot allow smuggling of the product at such alarming proportions to continue,” President Buhari had told the Beninoise leader.

The ECOWAS Parliament had also appealed to the Nigerian government to reopen the borders, which, it said, was hampering the implementation of free trade movement within the ECOWAS region.

Speaker of the Parliament, Moustapha Cisse Lo, said at the opening of the second extraordinary session of the ECOWAS Parliament in Monrovia, Liberia, that the border closure posed a threat to the implementation of the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons at a time when Africa needed to intensify efforts for effective abolition of barriers within the community.

Cisse Lo, however, urged the government to find a permanent solution to the challenge of smuggling rather than closing the borders, which was not a lasting solution.

“In the same vein, the closure of the Nigerian borders with Benin more than a month ago and Niger more recently is a hindrance to the achievement of the community’s main objective, which is to achieve the creation of a prosperous, borderless West African region where peace and harmony prevail.”

Other stakeholders have also expressed concern about the adverse effect of the border closure on the movement of people and business in the sub-region.

Before the drastic action, smuggling had gone on across the borders in a manner, suggesting that the Nigerian government had no control of its territory. Unscrupulous importers defied the ban on importation, shipping rice into the ports and boosting the economy of the neighbouring countries, and then flooding the Nigerian markets with the commodity smuggled through the land borders.

Despite the assertions by the Federal Government that Nigeria had achieved self-sufficiency in rice production, smuggled rice dominated the open markets. The locally-produced ones, which obviously could not compete with the cheaper foreign rice were sold mostly in shopping malls.

With the border closure, however, more locally milled rice are now sold in the open markets. State governments and local entrepreneurs, who invested fortunes in rice production are now heaving a sigh of relief, optimistic that their heeding the call to engage in farming and agric processing would not be in vain.

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The Nigerian economy had been assaulted for too long by unpatriotic citizens, who cared about their pockets and not the overall wellbeing of the nation.

We cannot continue to have rice produced by developing nations like ours dumped on us. The consequence is that while farmers and other people in the value chain in those countries are gainfully employed and live decently, our own youths roam the streets in search of elusive jobs. We also end up wasting our foreign reserves on a commodity that we have the capacity and wherewithal to produce locally.

We support the closure of borders by the government to restore sanity. No nation that is determined to make progress would condone the magnitude of smuggling that was going on across the borders before the closure.

However, while the border closure would not be forever, we urge the government to quickly put in place measures to discourage smuggling of rice and other prohibited items.

One of such measures is strengthening our laws on economic sabotage, which smuggling is a dangerous example and punishing culprits severely and promptly.

In this regard, customs officials and the personnel of other security agencies manning the border posts and routes must be held to the strictest responsibility. We seem to keep more roguish law enforcement officers whose loyalty is to their pockets and the filthy lucre from their smuggler-collaborators at the borders than those determined to protect the integrity and interest of the nation. This practice, which made smuggling a thriving trade must not be allowed to continue.