The Federal Government’s recent closure of its land borders with some neighbouring countries in the West Coast deserves some deconstruction – for the purpose of understanding its import at this time. The exercise came without any prior notice and expected terminal date. In other words, the fiscal policy was imposed without availing people the opportunity to prepare for the consequences of the ‘‘homeland security’’ measure. The restriction has triggered another period of uncertainty around the affected borders. These lacunae have their own implications, especially for those that make legitimate use of the borders for personal and business purposes.
It is somewhat curious that despite various interpretations, apprehensions and extrapolations, government officials in the fiscal sector have not been proactive in educating the citizens who have been feeling the consequences of the noisy closure. It is just gratifying, though paradoxical that the best clarity of purpose on this policy thrust came early this week from the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele who provided technical details of the long-term gains of the new deal beyond the incipient pains. The CBN governor, who just recently arrived at the creativity and innovation sector to reduce the high cost of import of bank ICT, among others, again deserves some thumbs up for his unusual executive intelligence to think out of the box, in which most government officials have always hibernated.
The objectives of closing the borders appear multi-faceted and can be derived from some vague comments by officials of the government who always harp on meretricious revenue point without stressing the strategic economic reasons. It is curious that these clueless officials hardly emphasize that the borders need to be closed so that Nigeria and its people can be protected from negative impact of smuggling through the closed borders. They often do not tell us that we need to secure agreement from Nigeria’s neighbouring countries on the type of goods that should be traded across the borders. Nor do they say to us that we need to conserve foreign exchange to build the nation’s foreign exchange reserves.
There is no doubt that countries have the right to close their borders if they have genuine, legitimate and unavoidable justifications for such closures. But because there are no insular countries in today’s world and there have been various business and other signed agreements, countries must not close their borders without being guided by whatever relevant regional, continental and global agreements they might have entered into prior to any need for border closure. Besides, they need to put in proper perspectives the advantages and disadvantages the border closure can attract bearing in mind that except there is a net benefit, they have no good grounds to embark on such an exercise.
Furthermore, closing borders without a foreseeable re-opening deadline, creates serious doubts in the minds of the country’s other trading and business partners not affected by the closure. Such partners may believe that whatever prompted the closure must be very serious that it could not be resolved across the table via negotiations.
These, among other situations promise no good dividend to any person – the banking industry, the fragile Nigerian economy and the citizenry. And when things are not paying good dividend to the stakeholders, all fingers are pointed at the government that becomes, in a sense, the harbinger of bad tidings. This is, of course, a baggage no reasonable and responsible government will want to be associated with.
There is also an awareness that with the borders closed, a major avenue for aggravated level of bribery and other forms of corruption (within the customs and immigration services), may have been opened by this sudden closure.
What is worse, some observers have noted that it is not clear whether all land borders in the country are closed. No question, all borders are critical but some are more critical, in this regard, than others. It stands to reason therefore that if some borders are still open, there is a good reason to believe that goods can be diverted to such places, of course, with the attendant increased costs than can trigger inflation. These are obvious consequences, which of course, no serious government should use as alibi to abdicate responsibility in the name of free trade and other dubious forces of globalisation.
Doubtless, there have been some arguments that the borders were closed when the capacity to produce certain food items, especially rice, has not been properly cultivated thus causing hike in the price of rice and other imported food items. This is true but only in the short run. In the long run, the demand push will necessitate investments in the relevant sector that will bring all-round benefits; job creation, food-sufficiency, stronger currency, etc to the economy. When those 41 items were banned by the CBN, the initial reaction was the same until the reality of the policy started pushing manufacturers to integrate backward to access raw materials. This has counted for the economy. Although the border closure is more of a fiscal policy, it is composite in impact. One, the CBN’s initiatives in rice production for instance will be rubbished if foreign rice keeps flooding the market. This is also true of poultry farming where farmers cry of low patronage amid bombardment of the domestic market by foreign poultry products. This is the significance of the CBN governor’s inconvenient truth the nation should not ignore at this time. What should matter, in the circumstance, is the sincerity and resourcefulness both on the sides of government and the farmers to use the policy to truly test the much-touted capacity in local food production. So, instead of seeing only the initial challenges, it is also important we look at the opportunities and possibilities in the long run.
We also need to emphasise that this kind of adversity should trigger some innovation in the way we have been doing this border business. Henceforth, there should be imperatives for a significant number of well-trained and highly motivated personnel, who will be ethical and professional in the discharge of their duties in all the departments and agencies responsible for the borders. This is a time for discipline, sanity and obedience to laws, rules and regulations in this country from both individuals and businesses, the rulers and the ruled. Law enforcement officers who are caught in any corrupt act should be prosecuted as economic saboteurs.
So, to ensure effective land border control, the current and subsisting strategies as well as any Code of Conduct, will need to be revisited. For instance, customs personnel should have no business invading the markets for goods that have found their ways into the markets perhaps, courtesy of same customs officials. Any customs personnel found inside any market performing the duties that should have been performed at the borders should be arrested and prosecuted.
Effective manning, monitoring and security of the borders should be emplaced and activated. A periodic performance appraisal of all those charged with these responsibilities should be professionally undertaken.
In the same vein, there is the need to ensure that all parties have a responsibility to ensure the stabilisation of the market in good time so that the closure does not translate to more profit for some people through high prices of locally produced brands. It is also important to look at the context of the persistent pressure on the naira, which can be taken off only when importation is brought down to the barest minimum.
It is, in the main, left for government to prove itself beyond all reasonable doubts on this matter of the border closure. There is the need for more civic education on the benefits of the closure. They need to tell us clearly that although the policy appears hasty, there is no better time to endure pain for a better tomorrow. That is, if the pain is not borne today, it will still surface tomorrow. Hopes of expected long-term gains of the policy should mitigate and offer balm with which to absorb the short-term pains. This is also why government must be sincere and manifest the gains even faster for all to see. All told, government agencies and institutions responsible for certain public interest policies that may be controversial, should at all times also prepare concomitant communication strategy to get the people’s support. This is a lacuna that is making government’s policies even of public interest to look toxic most times.