The unsung gain of Nigeria's partial border closure

Joint border patrol at Nigeria’s border points

Customs intercepts N1.1bn worth of Marijuana

Nigeria’s customs men do border patrol with Benin and Nigerien officers

By Tolu Ogunlesi

One aspect of the partial closure of Nigeria’s land borders that is unsung is the push for greater cross-border security collaboration — one of the most essential elements for the success of the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement, which kicked off on January 1, 2021.

The other outcomes of the closure — curbing the flow of irregular migrants, and the activities of smugglers and gun-runners, and raising Customs revenue — have received considerable press coverage, but that cross-border security collaboration been largely overlooked by the media, and deserves greater focus.

Here’s some context regarding it.

As the dominant economy and most populous country (aka largest market) in West Africa, it is not surprising that all of Nigeria’s neighbours are dependent on it for key imports (e.g. cement, petrol) and exports (lots of agricultural produce). Quite a bit of this happens to take place informally, a.k.a smuggling.

Benin, Togo and The Gambia are ‘entrepot states’, according to this paper by Stephen S. Golub, “[serving] as conduits for both legal transit to landlocked countries in West Africa (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) and illegal trade to more protectionist neighbours (Senegal and Nigeria).”

“It is surely not coincidental that Benin’s most important imports include items that are heavily protected in Nigeria.”

“Most goods in transit in Benin are declared for Niger and for Burkina Faso in Togo, but it is widely known that most wind up in Nigeria.”

“Specialised warehouses are located along the Benin–Nigeria border, built and operated by brokers or private traders.”

Over the years Nigeria has complained about some of the activities of its neighbours, ranging from turning a blind eye to smuggling all to way to actively supporting and encouraging smugglers. So in a way one could say this prolonged closure was always going to happen, sooner or later.

It has in fact happened before — but for a much shorter period. On August 9, 2003 an angry President Obasanjo ordered the immediate closure of Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic. Nigeria’s grouse was that Benin was offering refuge to criminals and smugglers operating in south-western Nigeria. The border was reopened a week later, after frenzied diplomatic activity by Benin, and a pledge to behave better. That closure led to the arrests in Benin (and extradition to Nigeria) of at least two high-profile cross-border criminals.

Sixteen years later, it feels like square-one all over again. This time Nigeria was determined to extend the ‘sanction’ for as long as possible, also keeping in mind that a pre-requisite for the success of the impending continental free trade agreement would be a fidelity to the binding rules and absence of bad faith on the part of Nigeria’s neighbours.

The land-border closure went into effect on August 20, 2019, in four “sectors”: North West, South West, North Central, South South.

As expected, it got the attention of Nigeria’s neighbours. It was followed by Tripartite Meetings between senior government officials of Nigeria, Benin and Niger, in November and December 2019, in which Nigeria quickly made clear the outcomes it was seeking, as follows:

– The operationalisation of Multinational Joint Border Patrol Teams, with each country setting up a national HQ for its own team in its capital (Nigeria taking overall lead of the multinational effort, naturally).

– Appointment of National Liaisons to oversee the Border Cooperation efforts, and regular meetings of these officials to assess progress.

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– Goods imported into an ECOWAS Member State from outside the ECOWAS and destined for Nigeria must be escorted directly to the Nigerian border entry point and the original packaging must be maintained.

– Rules-of-origin must be strictly adhered to in the framework of the Economic Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS), with a minimum of 50 percent local content.

– Dismantling of all warehouses along land borders (Nigeria’s grouse was that neighbours were encouraging the proliferation of these warehouses to facilitate illegal transit of goods)

– Exchange of Lists of Items prohibited by each country

– Adherence to ECOWAS passports as the only legitimate document for immigration for ECOWAS nationals.

– Initiation of Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement (CMAA) between the three countries based on World Customs Organisation protocols.
[CMAAs are described as “a model bilateral convention on mutual administrative assistance for countries to implement as part of a national customs policy… The agreements allow for the exchange of information, intelligence, and documents that will ultimately assist countries in the prevention and investigation of customs offenses.” The UK and US recently signed one].

So , the foregoing was the ‘backstage’ to the Border Closure episode.

While onlookers — including the media — saw and were fixated only on the more dramatic details, like piles of rotting tomatoes in Benin and so on, and the large-scale seizures of prohibited items by the Nigerian Government — there were lots of engagement in the background, focused on technicalities around trade rules, protocols and agreements — ETLS, CMAAs, Transshipments, etc. — and on increased security cooperation.
One of the most important outcomes of the exercise has been the long overdue establishment and operationalization of a Joint Border Patrol comprising Nigeria, Niger and Benin.

So, during the closure, Nigeria established a Border Patrol Team (the entire exercise was codenamed Operation SWIFT RESPONSE) and compelled Benin and Niger to similarly establish theirs. The three countries then went ahead to collaborate in a Joint Border Patrol Team, that will now be a permanent fixture going forward. (A January 7, 2021 statement from Nigeria makes this clear). Officials from the various countries have also met from time to time, at various levels: Ministers, Security Officials, and so on — and it’s in order to assume that these engagements will continue.


— Nigeria’s Operation SWIFT RESPONSE, comprised the Military, Police, Customs, Immigration, Intelligence Agencies — Nigerian officials have described it as an unprecedented law enforcement collaboration (in terms of the scope and scale).

— The Partial Border Closure was in place from August 20, 2019 to December 16, 2020.

— Highlights of seizures/arrests during the period: 1,401 irregular migrants arrested; Seized: 159,506.7 (50kg) bags of parboiled foreign rice, 10,447 bags of NPK fertilizer used for making explosives, 1,974 Vehicles, 895 motorcycles, 18,690.3 Jerricans of Vegetable Oil, Etc. Total Monetary Value of seizure: 12.5 billion Naira (Source: Government of Nigeria)

— It was always going to be a time-bound closure, of course, especially with the AfCFTA implementation looming. But it was necessary for Nigeria to take the steps necessary to compel cooperation from its neighbours, and a vital pre-requisite for the AfCFTA era.

— In summary, the border closure was always about much more than rice or petrol or tomatoes and even guns, it was more about enforcing compliance with existing trade rules, and about discouraging State-endorsed flouting of these rules and agreements.

*Ogunlesi is a new media aide of President Buhari. He first published this insight in Medium

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