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Keeping the Borders Closed, Making Nigerians Poorer and Hungrier

On Sunday, November 3, 2019, a memo issued by Victor Dimka, a Deputy Comptroller of Customs in charge of Enforcement, Investigation and Inspectorate was published in the media. In the said memo, Customs directed its Sector Coordinators to continue enforcing the closure of the Nigeria’s borders with neighbouring countries till January 31, 2020. Expectedly, the Nigerian business community has risen strongly to condemn the decision of the government to keep the land borders closed.

Traders at Kubwa Village Market in Abuja said there is no sense in keeping the borders closed till January next year considering the immense negative impact the decision has had on the local economy, household living standards and informal sector businesses in the border communities and towns.

Umar Garba, a food commodities trader in the market said that the price of 50Kg bag of imported rice has risen from N15, 500 in late July to N27, 600 as at Monday, 4 November, 2019. Another trader, Mrs Ngozi Nebo, who owns a cold room in the market expressed shock that a government would deliberately set out to punish its own citizens with an economic policy that was not well considered before implementation. Mrs Nebo said that the prices of frozen chicken and varieties of fish have risen by 70-80 percent in the last two months owing to the border closure. According to Mrs Nebo who owns one of the largest coldrooms in the popular market, most of her customers can no longer afford to patronise her especially in this season of school fees payment.

In Aba, the traders who make shoes in the city and supply to neighbouring countries like Gabon, Togo and Cameroon complain that they can no longer afford to ship their wares to their customers in several West African countries since the border was arbitrarily closed by a government fiat.  In Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, traders complain that it has become impossible to sell spices and sea products like crayfish and related produce to markets in Cameroon. The situation is not better in several parts of Northern Nigeria where business people that have been trading across the borders since time immemorial have found themselves stranded, not knowing what to do and how to survive the artificial blockade.

The border closure thus far has been an ill-wind that is blowing no good to any major economic actor in either Nigeria or in our neighbouring countries. The Nigerian households are starving because they cannot access the most popular staple food in the country, the legitimate importers are stranded even as the nation suffers immense revenue decline due to reduced earnings from import duties that would have accrued to the country if the borders were open. The most adversely affected in the estimation of analysts at an Abuja Market Research firm-Edge Consulting are Nigerian businesses who supply West African markets. Michael Ani, the head of business Intelligence Unit at Edge Consulting told our team that the inability of the shoe makers in Aba, fishermen in the riverine areas of south-south, spice farmers in north central to continue trading across the border is worsening the country’s unemployment crises, causing a decline in the utilization of raw materials and creating more poverty across the land.

A mother in Dutse area of Abuja who said she has three children aged 11, 13 and 14 protested that she can no longer afford to take care of her family owing to the rising cost of food commodities. The woman who identified herself Mrs Ezenwoke said her husband lost his job seven months ago at a construction firm in the city and no severance package was paid him.  In her words, “the burden of feeding and catering for the family now falls on me.” She complained that the government’s decision to close to borders with the attendant rise in food prices is affecting her family severely. “The situation is the same for my neighbours and so many other people in my church.”

A priest at Christ the King Catholic Church Kubwa who preferred anonymity said that each week, the parish spends hundreds of thousands of naira attending to the temporal needs of the faithful. “Everyday at the office, you see family men coming to cry to you that there is not a single grain of rice in the house and he has nowhere else to run to. You are left with no option but to dip hands into your pocket to help.”

In another parish in Kubwa, an official of the St Vincent de Paul society told our reporter that each week, they are harangued with hundreds of requests from people seeking material assistance or even transport fare to return to their villages. He said they are often in confusion as to who to assist. “Some need support to pay their children’s school fees, others want just one mudu of rice. For some, it is money to pay off the medical bills of a family member at the hospital. Some are sick and need funds to get drugs. Who do we answer and leave the other?” He asked rhetorically.

The tales of agony and growing poverty is the same all across the country.  The World Poverty Clock estimated in December 2018 that 4 Nigerians fall into the poverty trap every minute. Right now, it is hard to imagine what the figures are.

It is strange that while every country in the world including the most powerful nations like China, America and Germany encourage local business to produce for export, the Buhari government is shutting out Nigerian businesses from the gains of international trading. How does a country that closes its borders to export earn foreign income? Did the government consider that Nigerian business and their employees would be adversely affected by this ill-conceived decision? How does a government that claimed to care about economic growth stop local manufacturers, farmers and artisans from exploiting the gains of regional trade?

The government claimed that the recent closure of the borders has led to reduced incidence of petrol smuggling, stopped the inflow of small arms from neighbouring countries and given the government firmer control of the economy.

It is hard to question the decision of the government to better manage import and exports and eliminate the distortions that emanate from irregular activities like smuggling and unregulated imports. However, one must wonder why the government refused to do a more thorough assessment of the situation with a view to finding out how imports through the land borders can be controlled without upsetting the domestic economy or making it impossible for families to feed. Is the government aware that a starving population is a ticking time bomb with wider security implications?

With the decision to keep the borders shut till January 31 next year, many are already scared about what lies in store for them this yuletide. Will a 50Kg bag of rice rise to N50, 000 before December 25?

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