It’s has been five days of lamentations by both Nigerians and citizens of Benin Republic who have been affected by the sudden closure of the Seme border by the Nigerian government.
Our reporters observed that commercial vehicles conveying passengers and goods into Nigeria had been ordered to park at the J5 motor park, located many metres away from the main border post. Those conveying passengers across the Nigerian side of the border to Benin Republic were initially ordered to go back, but for the intervention of some senior Immigration officer who said that they had been asked to allow travellers with valid documents to go through.
The worst hit were truck drivers who were ordered to park their vehicles by the side of the road in a never-ending queue.
As human and vehicular queues lengthened, altercations erupted between travellers and security operatives posted to man the Nigerian side of the border.
A good number of the passengers were on their way to the country from Ghana and Togo. They demanded to know why they couldn’t go in, having travelled all the way from their base to the border only to be turned back.
Export cargoes trapped included onion, Tom-Tom, Lacasera drink, steel product and aluminium.
A truck driver, Emeka Ugwueyin, said he never had any premonition that the joint exercise would affect the movement of cargoes.
“I would have stayed back until the issue is resolved. Anyway, now that I am trapped, it is the owner of the goods that will pay for the number of days spent on the road,” he said.
Nigerian Customs officers at the Import seat were seen loitering around, while those at the Export office stayed behind closed doors.
The Customs Area Comptroller, Mohammed Uba Garba, could not be reached as his aides turned back our correspondent who sought to speak with him.
There were no sign of official or business activities at the Benin Republic side of the border.
Our correspondents also observed that Benin Republic traders who had earlier entered Nigeria to buy some goods in Lagos had been trapped since the operation started.
One of the traders, Senayon Dansu, told our correspondents that she came to Lagos on Monday to buy groceries and was prevented from returning to her country with her goods .
“I have been sleeping here since Tuesday morning. It is only today (Thursday) that we heard that only those with valid documents and without any goods would be allowed to cross. Who do I leave my goods with?” Dansu said.
Nigerian victims of the abrupt shutdown of one of the busiest commerce corridor in West Africa were also seen fuming at the border pots.
Some of them even threatened to expose their ordeal on the social media.
Our correspondent was almost turned back by one of the Immigration officers posted to man the entry point, but was only allowed to go when he said he was going to see the Customs Public Relations Officer, Seme Area Command, Assistant Superintendent of Customs, Saidu Abdullahi.
Shakiru Kazeem, who does his business in Ghana, but said he was going home to see his sick mother on the Lagos Island, lamented that the Nigerian government closed the border without any information, shutting along with it thousands of Nigerians who were stranded in Benin Republic.
Findings by our correspondents confirmed that the joint military/para-military exercise code-named ‘Ex-Swift Response’ started six days ago.
The exercise, which was put together at the instance of the National Security Adviser (NSA), is meant to address some of the security challenges facing the nation. It was reported that the current ban of imported goods through the Seme border was put in place to control imports and also protect locally produced goods from unhealthy competition with foreign products.
Soldiers with guns were seen manning the border. When our correspondents attempted to get an explanation for the ‘No going out, no coming in’ situation, one of the soldiers politely, replied, “It’s a federal instruction.”
An Igbo trader, Benjamin Okwudili, in a chat with our correspondents, fumed, “No notice. You just closed the border, leaving a lot of people stranded on the road. What kind of country is this? What will the government do about people going about their legitimate business?”
A driver, who identified himself as Jonathan Akpan, said, “This is not how a border is policed. Whatever the government wants to achieve with this is not sustainable. The bulk of the illegal smuggling does not take place along the open legal route. This militarization should actually be at those illegal routes; those are the places that require re enforcement.”
Akpan said proper border policing required sophisticated information technology equipment and proper scanners
“We need to stop punishing people who are making efforts to live as responsible citizens. This approach is archaic and counter-productive,” he added.
But the federal government has been justifying its action. A statement by the Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, explained that the exercise was part of measures to secure Nigeria’s land and maritime borders.
Attah said that the Ex-Swift Response involved the armed forces, the NCS, the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), the police and other security and intelligence agencies conducting a joint border security exercise.
Top among the challenges the security measure was meant to combat are kidnapping, arms smuggling, terrorism, banditry, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, crude oil theft and human trafficking.
Attah said that the exercise would hold in four geopolitical zones – South-south, South-west, North-central and North-west.
According to him, the exercise would affect movement of personnel, vehicles and equipment within the affected parts of the country.
“Therefore, we call on members of the public not to panic and should continue to engage in their normal duties. The overall objective is to ensure a peaceful and secure country in the interest of our national security,” he added.
Daily Trust on Sunday, however, learnt from a reliable military source that closure of the border may also not be unconnected with the alleged refusal of the Government of Benin Republic to honour all the trade agreements entered into by both countries.
The source said that, for instance, the Benin Customs was alleged to have refused to adhere to the recently introduced interconnectivity agreement meant to facilitate seamless trade at the border.
The agreement was initiated to eradicate smuggling, wrong declaration of cargo and other anti-economic vices, and to facilitate trade between both countries.
Our correspondent learnt the agreement would have helped Customs officials from both nations to access electronic data on goods transiting the border and the duty paid on them.
The source further disclosed that top Benin Republic government officials had been engaged in large-scale importation, from Nigeria, of rice meant to be sold in Nigeria, contrary to part of the agreement between the two countries.
“Again, while goods that should legitimately come from the Benin Republic freely enter Nigeria, in accordance with an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) treaty, legitimate made-in-Nigeria goods that should be allowed into Benin Republic are not allowed in there. From the look of things, the Benin government seems to be all out to thwart efforts made by the Nigerian government to revive its economy,” the source said.
Our correspondents however observed that individuals crossing the border on foot were not restricted.
A top official of the NIS, Seme Border Command, who did not wish to be named, however, maintained there was no restriction of movement of persons across the border, as alleged by some people, adding that travellers with valid document were allowed to cross without any hindrance.
He clarified though that goods would not be allowed in and out until the conclusion of the exercise, in compliance with the directive from the NSA’s office.
Our correspondent reports that the pace of commercial activities at the Benin Republic side of the border had been unusually slow since the operation started, an indication that most of the activities at the border revolve around the Nigerian economy.
The Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent (ANLCA), Pastor Austin Nwosu, said that goods worth over N50 billion were trapped at the border owing to the closure.
Nwosu said that clearing agents had already paid over N100 million as duty into NCS coffers and were awaiting their consignments to be released before the order came. “Our members are incurring demurrage
running into millions of naira. Who will pay for that?” he lamented.
The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has described the government’s decision to temporarily shut down its land borders as inimical to ongoing efforts by the African Union to boost inter-state trade, commerce and investment within the continent.
“It is very unfair and not good for business. Those doing business at the borders should have been adequately informed and given prior notice before the closure,” said LCCI Director-General, Mr. Muda Yusuff.
“With the closure of the borders, a lot of containers will be lying idle at the borders for days. This is a very unusual decision. And it is not a good signal we are sending to the African continent ahead of the commencement of the AfCFTA,” Yusuff said.
“In fighting corruption, institutions of government must also respect the rights of the poor. They’re being abused already by the rich. In fighting smugglers, don’t fight the poor,” he warned.