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Border closure: Some fundamental issues

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Seme Border

By Muyiwa Adetiba

Back in the days when we were blissfully unaware of the enormity of our actions, we used to buy drinks for our regular weekend parties from Badagry and Cotonou. Occasionally, we bought fruits or whatever tickled our fancy.

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Or whatever would make the parties more exotic. Some bought cigarettes or cigars and shared same with the friendly uninformed men we met along the way.The roads were good and we sometimes made a picnic out of it. We were young and we needed the fix that the excitements brought. We knew goods were generally cheaper in Benin and Togo, but we put it down to the fact that we were from a more affluent country.

Many of us had brand new cars as our first cars. Or even second cars. But as our economy nosedived, the young, emerging middle class that we thought we were, started being squeezed. The idea of used, imported cars or tokunbo cars, gained traction. Again, many looked the way of Cotonou where cars were cheaper and all sorts of deals were possible. You could go there to select a car and it would be brought down for you for a fee.

Or you could come with it if you were more daring or less trusting. Or you could simply wait and let an agent do all the wahala and bring the car to your house or office at an agreed date. Some of these agents were uniformed men. We really, never seriously bothered to ask why cars were cheaper in Benin.

Speaking of uniformed men, we all knew Custom Officers were rich. In fact, the job was synonymous with money. It probably still is. Many of them were lavish and loud. We hardly thought deeply about the fact that these Officers who were being paid from government coffers to protect our borders were actually abusing the privilege and benefitting from the borders. In other words, they were sabotaging the economy and we, who participated in trans-border trading, were also complicit in the sabotage.

And the more inefficient and cumbersome our ports became, the more the volume of the trans-border game that was being played. Soon, the numbers became big. Soon, smuggled goods from cars to consumables, were dominating the market.

A trip to the ports in Cotonou would be obvious to even a blind person that those goods coming into their ports were not meant for the tiny country. Soon, companies sprang up in those neighbouring countries with Nigeria as their main market. Our various governments must have been aware of what was going on. We were sustaining the economies of Benin, Togo, and to some extent, Ghana. Worse, we had become a dumping ground for desirable, undesirable and even toxic goods. But we chose to play the ostrich. We saw ourselves as the ‘big brother’. But how we saw ourselves was not how these countries, or even the rest of the world, saw us. We were the wasteful brother. The dumb brother. The brother who had more money than sense.

Now that a sense of sobriety has set in after years of being inebriated with petrol wine, now that our purse has become so lean that we cannot afford to feed ourselves talk less of our greedy neighbours, now that the sugar and rice merchants in high places have run out of excuses, we have decided to do the needful. We have shut the borders.

And in doing so, brought some sanity to the free-for all market. The effect has been immediate both negatively and positively. On the positive side is the belief that crime, among other things, has gone down. The volume of subsidized petroleum products has gone down. The volume of consumables especially rice and frozen chicken has gone down. The other side of course, is that the border closure has thrown up many of our inadequacies. We simply are not self-sufficient in anything including the basic necessities of life. We are a big country that is unable to feed, clothe, or house itself. We are a big country that is unable to transport its people. Every means of transportation including even a bicycle is imported into the country. Many of them smuggled. Many basic drugs are imported into the country. Many of them smuggled.

The border closure is not sustainable. It is therefore not a permanent solution.So we need to address certain fundamental questions if the gains of the closure will not be reversed. We need to find out what makes smuggling so attractive and so lucrative.

Or why goods brought into our country through our ports are more expensive than goods brought through the ports of our neighbouring countries.Our goods clearing system is archaic, inefficient and infested with corruption. People prefer Benin and Togo ports because they are faster, more predictable and more efficient. Are Beninese officers better trained or just more disciplined? Are the bosses to whom they report better trained or just more disciplined?

Beyond the euphoria of the short term gains of the border closure is the reality that we have a serious short fall in food security. It is obvious that we have been playing lip service to agriculture and the neighbouring countries have been covering our asses. A lot of young people want to go into agriculture, but the stakes are daunting.

These range from land to finance to implements to infrastructure. And our agricultural products are not competitive for about the same reasons. The least the government can do is meet them half way. It will not cost an arm and a leg to grade roads and sink bore holes around farm lands for example.

We will be surprised to find that perhaps the greatest handicap for farmers today is not light as important as it is, or water as important as it is —these can be supplied at a cost which would have to be passed on. It is access to their farms. Raw material have to be brought in; labourers have to be brought in; farm hands have to be able to come and go; consultants and agric experts have to come in from time to time; and finally, finished products have to be taken out.

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These will not be possible without a decent access. And the state of the roads or even pathways, is far from decent. It is atrocious. Yet, without a free interchange of raw materials and personnel, any modern farm with the best will in the world, will fold up.

An improved rural infrastructure is a win-win situation. It will check urban migration which is the source of urban restiveness and crime. It will address the poverty level in the country. It will address the alarming food security in the country.

To me, the lesson of the border closure is that we have a huge opportunity to put our people into a more disciplined and a more productive use. The border closure can lead to a more prosperous country. But we have to put our hands on the plough. Literally. We need to start feeding ourselves. We need to start cottage industries. The hinterland must be opened up.


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