By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
The biggest second-hand car markets in the Republic of Benin are located near our common border post.
What is the logic?
Second hand cars leave Europe. They are headed for Nigeria. But they take the roundabout route. They go not to Apapa ports. They go to Cotonou port. Some are cleared from Cotonou and driven straight to Nigeria through bush paths. Others make a stop over at the second hand car markets that dot Nigeria-Benin border zone. There, they sit and wait for Nigerian buyers.
And Republic of Benin thinks she is smart.
These are cars that should ordinarily come straight to Nigeria because it ought to be cheaper coming the shorter route. But the cunningness of the government of the Republic of Benin, the greed of our corrupt customs officials and the porosity of our borders make the roundabout route more attractive to many.
The Republic of Benin imports more rice in one month than her small population can eat in 5 years. And Benin is not storing rice for her future generations.
We can’t keep a little neighbour who looks after herself and feels astute by letting her back-door be used to undermine our big gates and our self sufficiency efforts.
The Republic of Benin would say she is not to blame for our porous borders and corrupt custom officials. She may even say that we have infected her own officials with the corruption we have spread all over west Africa. She may even argue that it is Nigerians who import crazily through her port and smuggle the goods across her border. She can feign righteous indignation. She may say after all Niger and Chad import through her too. She can say she is an innocent ECOWAS bystander.
Madam Benin may have no hand in what happens at Seme border, but she is the ultimate chief beneficiary. Smugglers and customs officials get the crumbs. Madam Benin lives on the huge imports flowing through her ports. Benin knows that most of those imports are destined for our porous border posts and hundreds of unmanned smuggling bush paths. If Niger and Chad are the destinations why is she wailing now?
It’s true the republic of Benin cannot inculcate discipline in our custom officers, but we cannot sit astride and watch Benin be used to ruin our economy.
I once took this up with a friend. He imported batteries from South Korea. Most of his consignments came via Cotonou and through Seme. And I couldn’t understand it. He said he paid much more to get them through Apapa ports. And since it was all about competition he settled for Cotonou.
I wondered why the import duties weren’t same at all entry ports.
He insisted that they were not. He said the goods coming through Seme were ECOWAS goods. It didn’t make sense. He said that at Seme the goods were repacked. And five containers of batteries could come in on one truck as one container. I shook my head. He said the Custom officers were part of the business. He asked me why he would use Nigerian ports when it was cheaper to use Cotonou. He confessed that Nigeria was losing trillions in revenues simply because we cannot control the border posts.
He said something else. He said a few individuals enjoyed crazy duty waivers . Those were the few that could use Apapa freely. And since he had to compete with them in the same market he had to route his consignments through Seme where there existed opportunities for him to pay much less in Customs duties. Custom duty waivers and such privileges created uneven playing surface and encouraged smuggling. I understood that. He said Customs officials knew of the abuse of waivers and knew of the exploitation of the Seme route.
The borders are now shut. Benin republic has been weeping. If Madam Benin were weeping because she could not sell locally-manufactured goods and Agric produce to Nigeria, it would be understandable. But Benin is weeping because she is not being allowed to remain a thoroughfare for smugglers ripping apart our economy.
Benin should wipe her tears and face reality.
Since we can make Benin cry, I guess we can make her sit up. Benin has to join hands with us to fight smuggling across our borders, same way Chad and Niger have joined in fighting Boko Haram.
But can Benin do that?
She lives off the huge imports through her port. And the imports are induced by the corruption and smuggling activities at our border. These illegal activities enrich her indirectly. So can she really help to curb them?
Well, we may not mind a small neighbour eating ticks off to backs like a cattle egret. But we would be stupid to let her plunge a beak into our jugular in the name of good neighbourliness. We must make Benin take responsibility. Or we keep the border shut.
We must deter Nigerians from choosing a neighbour’s port. We can do this by making our ports efficient and incentivizing the use of our ports by our people. We must on the other hand make smuggling across our borders prohibitively costly, extremely risky.
We will look after our closest neighbours. It’s a national security imperative .
But when smuggling through our borders rises to the level of serious economic sabotage we must take drastic measures to curb and control. The Republic of Benin has to pledge to fight smuggling across our common borders.
Let’s keep the borders closed until we sort out the mess.
Nigeria and Benin must agree to apply a uniform customs tariffs on selected goods. Benin must agree to a joint customs patrol. Benin must dismantle the markets around border posts. Nigeria must follow up by examining the volume of goods flowing through Cotonou ports. And knowing their destination. Nigerian Customs must go for ‘deliverance.’