One month after, commercial activities at four of the nation’s land border posts are yet to resume in full swing despite the directive by President Muhammadu Buhari that borders be reopened
On December 16, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari approved the reopening of four land borders in three of the six geopolitical zones of the country with immediate effect. These include the Seme border in the South-West; Illela and Maigatari borders in the North-West and Mfun border in the South-South.
However, the ban on importation of rice and poultry, among other items, remained enforced, the Federal Government said.
The borders were closed in August 2019 to stop the importation of contrabands, including arms and ammunition; boost agriculture and protect local economy.
Our correspondents report that news of the reopening had elicited applause in the affected communities, with residents hoping that life would return to normal.
Businesses ‘refuse’ to pick at Mfum-Cameroon border
Business appears to be very dull at Mfum, a major border post between Nigeria and Cameroon. Cameroonian authorities have decided not to open their side of the border due to COVID-19, and more importantly, the crisis in the southwestern part of the country, the self-styled ‘Ambazonia Republic,’ which is trying to break away.
The comptroller of the Nigeria Immigration Service in Cross River State, Mr James Ezugwu, told our correspondent that they complied immediately with the president’s directive to reopen the border.
Mfum, a town in Etung Local Government Area, is 21 kilometres from the cocoa town of Ikom in the central part of Cross River State.
Upon approaching the international border, the usual trappings associated with a vibrant entry point were absent. There were many checkpoints manned by soldiers, customs, immigration officers and officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) all through the over 20km drive from Ikom. But they seemed reluctant to check motorists or the many motorcyclists plying the road.
Both Nigerians and Cameroonians still freely cross the old iron bridge built by the Germans over 60 years ago, to both sides.
They were not subjected to COVID-19 screenings at the entry points, Daily Trust on Sunday observed, neither were they required to present any travelling paper.
One of the many security operatives at Nigeria’s side of the border said they (security operatives) freely mingled with Cameroonian gendarmes, who also saunter freely into Nigeria to transact business. They could be seen at the far end of the bridge, reclining and chatting away.
“Many of these people you see crossing this bridge live on the fringes of this riverbank. Their villages dot both sides of the border. They claim both nationalities. They inter-marry. It is difficult to distinguish them because they speak the same dialects and languages and have similar Ejagham culture.
Even though our side of the border has been opened, the Cameroonian side is not. The authorities in Cameroon claim COVID-19 is their reason, but we know it is because they want to check the movement of the Ambazonian boys,” he said
There are many roadside eateries, kiosks selling provisions, fried meats, foreign drinks, assorted packaged foods, obviously brought in from Cameroon or sold by Cameroonian women.
At Mfum border, both currencies, Naira and Cameroon CFA, are freely exchanged.
It was gathered that a few weeks to the reopening, those whose businesses and livelihoods depend on the border were understandably angered. They held a peaceful protest at the border, pleading that it should be reopened.
A youth leader from Effraya community, near Mfum, Amos Ndoma said, “There was a mild protest around this border by a collection of youths from the border communities and people who do businesses in and around the border. That protest yielded a good result as the president hearkened to our call and opened the border, which is our main source of livelihood.’’
The non-opening of the Cameroonian side, which was shut long before Nigeria shut hers, is worrisome to Nigerian business people, our correspondent reports.
A Nigerian who trades in rice and fruits across the border, Ikenna Orji, disclosed that they were in discussions with Cameroonian gendarmes for an ‘understanding’ that would aid their businesses.
“We are negotiating with them so that we can have unhindered access as usual to meet our customers and suppliers within Cameroon. You know that it would be useless if our side of the border is open and theirs is not. We have to meet and discuss with their people so that they would not disturb our goods,’’ he said.
From all indications, it appears that underground smuggling of contrabands, possibly in connivance with certain security personnel and the Cameroonian gendarmes, is thriving.
“Much of the smuggling is done in the night through many illegal routes. Rice, petroleum products and fruits are smuggled in and out of the country,” an Ikom resident, Peter Akpan, disclosed.
A resident of the nearby Ajassor town, Mgbee Osim, who engages any type of business at the border said, “There are many routes in the border communities, aside from the official route. We can still do our business as usual. The security operatives know about these illegal routes. All we do is to ‘settle’ them and we either trek or drive our trucks through the bush tracts or paths. The illegal routes take us into many Cameroonian towns.
Even when the government claimed to have closed the Mfum border, both Nigerians and Cameroonians were still doing their businesses, including smuggling.’’
Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State has said repeatedly that there are 31 illegal routes in the border communities in the state, through which arms and illegal businesses thrive. The impact of this on the state is telling, he said.
Lull at Seme, Idiroko borders
Investigations conducted by Daily Trust on Sunday at Seme and Idiroko borders, both in Lagos and Ogun states respectively, show that inward movement of cargo has not resumed.
This is even as over N300million worth of goods are said to be trapped at the Seme border over a month since the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) ordered the release of the affected cargos in November 2020.
The approval, which was contained in a letter signed by Major-General E.A Ndagi, was a sequel to an earlier letter written by members of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Clearing Agents (ANLCA), Seme border chapter.
An investigation by our correspondent showed that weeks after the presidential directive, only passengers with valid documents are allowed to cross in and out of the country.
The chairman of the Seme chapter of the ANLCA, Alhaji Bisiriyu Lasisi Fanu, told our correspondent that there were assurances that the trapped goods at the border would soon be released.
Our investigation at Seme and Idiroko borders also revealed that the commands are yet to commence clearing of cargos, weeks after the Federal Government’s directive.
This is as security operatives at the border told our correspondent that they were yet to receive any written document about the directive on the reopening of the borders.
A senior customs officer at the Seme command told our correspondent that a joint meeting of heads of security operatives at Seme-Krake border was held in December 2020, during which the issue of border reopening was discussed.
He said that at the meeting, it was agreed that only the movement of persons with genuine documents would be allowed for now, while the customs awaits directives from its headquarters.
“The meeting was held sequel to questions raised by the Benin Republic customs on the directives of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
They want to know when the movement of cargos would commence. As you can see, they are eager because of the large quantities of goods trapped. But there are new guidelines as to how cargos would come into Nigeria, and all the countries that share borders with her will have to comply with the directives.
The fresh guidelines stipulate that goods from third-party countries must be containerised and must arrive in Nigeria sealed from the country of origin. It must not be tampered with and trans-loaded into trucks. Such situations will no longer be allowed,’’ the officer said.
He said only goods for second party countries were allowed into Nigeria in trucks, in accordance with ECOWAS guidelines.
He, however, said the lull in commercial activities had to do with importers who might have wound down their operations for the year.
Residents of border communities at Owode and Idiroko in Ogun State said they were not happy as activities are yet to pick up at the border.
A food vendor at Owode, Fatima Alani, said patronage was still low when compared to what obtained before the border closure.
“When the border was bubbling, I used to cook half bag of rice daily and everything would be sold to customers by 4pm. But right now, I find it difficult to sell five De Rica measures. We hope that things would be different this year,’’ she said.
An importer at the Seme border, Mr Gboyega Ajao, said most of his colleagues who hitherto used the land border decided to use the ports because the amount they were going to pay would be more than the value of the consignments at the seaports.
He noted that apart from importers, end-users of such goods, industry and the economy lost out when they brought in items through the border.
Idiroko, an Ogun border community with the Republic of Benin, is also yet to bounce back to life. Transporters, traders, clearing and forwarding agents, as well as other businesses that make steady brisk profits due to the influx of nationals and foreigners at the border are yet to return.
It was observed that travelling from Sango via Atan-Owode-Ajilete-Oke Odan-Ihunbo-Oko Eye-Ajegunle Enroute Idiroko, over a dozen checkpoints were mounted by the Nigeria Customs, Nigeria Immigration Service and the joint patrol of border drill, ostensibly to enforce the Federal Government’s directive.
The road from Badagry roundabout to Seme is replete with many police checkpoints, with each extorting the sum of N100 from commercial vehicles. Any driver who refuses to part with something would have his vehicle or commercial motorcycle stopped and thoroughly searched.
Our correspondent counted 28 police checkpoints between Badagry roundabout and Seme. This is outside the approved checkpoint at Gbaji.
A clearing and forwarding agent who identified himself as Muyiwa Salami said he had been out of business since the border was shut, but government’s directive rekindled his hope of surviving.
Ilella border communities, traders recount ordeal
At the Ilella border with Niger Republic, Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the town erupted with joy at the news of the border reopening, with motorcyclists stealing the show by pulling off different stunts on the major road leading to the border post.
The people of Konni town in the Niger Republic were not left out in the celebration as they turned out in numbers to grace the occasion.
Speaking during the official reopening, the comptroller of customs in charge of Sokoto and Zamfara states, Alhaji Abdulhamid Ma’aji explained that the border was closed because of abuse of protocols, adding that the government would not hesitate to close it again if guidelines in respect of importation and exportation of goods were not adhered to.
He had earlier met with traditional rulers from Illela and Konni towns, border security operatives from the two countries, whom he intimated on the new guidelines and solicited their support and cooperation.
The meeting was also attended by the governor of Tawa State in Niger Republic, Malam Ibrahim Abbalele, who pledged their support and cooperation with the Nigerian government in its bid to secure its land borders. He promised that the Nigerien government would respect all the protocols guiding international trade.
The Konni chief, Colonel Guzaye Mamman, commended the government of Nigeria on the reopening of the border, noting that the two countries have a long business and social relationship.
A resident of Illela town, Sama’ila Ibrahim, popularly known as Abu Baki, said the 16 months of closure had adverse effects on the town.
“I know many businesses that have closed down and hundreds of youths who were rendered jobless. We thank God that the border is reopened. By the grace of God, new businesses will spring up and our youth would be re-engaged,’’ he said
Alhaji Ibrahim Milgoma, an international businessman, revealed how their businesses suffered as a result of the closure. According to him, it would take years before many of their members would recover from their losses.
Milgoma, who was speaking on behalf of the Import and Export Traders Association, expressed excitement over the reopening of the borders, which he said would rejuvenate business activities in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara states.
He said his members complied with government’s directive on the closure despite the hardship, and they were willing to abide by the new guidelines.
On his part, a licensed customs agent, Alhaji Muhammadu Sarkin Alaro, said many of his colleagues were put out of business due to border closure.
Activities picking up at Jigawa’s Maigatari border post
Business activities are gradually picking up at the Maigatari in Jigawa State. The reopening of land borders has received applause from some residents of the state, particularly those who carry out businesses at the border.
Those who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday were unanimous that the reopening of the border had opened a fresh vista in both economic and social activities between Nigeria and its neighbouring Niger Republic, especially in the areas of inter-state relations.
When our correspondent visited the border post, it was discovered that while the gate was open, activities were at its lowest ebb. But security agents on duty said activities normally peaked on Thursdays, which is the local market day.
An official of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) manning the entry and exit points, said, “As you can see, we have since reopened the border in line with Federal Government’s instruction.
For now, I can tell you that we have no problem as we are receiving maximum cooperation from our sister security agencies, both from here and on the Niger Republic side.”
Similarly, an official of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) confirmed that trade between the two countries had started picking up, noting that with time, activities would go back to where they used to be before the closure. According to the NCS official, “The best time to come here for any information is on market days.”
In separate interviews with Daily Trust on Sunday, they believed that besides the revival of activities, social, religious and even inter-marriages between the people in the two countries would pick up again.
The council chairman of Maigatari, Alhaji Sani Dahiru, said they lost a lot of revenue during the closure and hoped that with the reopening, the council would receive a big boost.
According to him, Maigatari Local Government was generating an average revenue of N400,000 to N500,000 monthly, which had gone down drastically during the period of the closure.
Malam Danjummai Saidu, who imports rams into the country from Niger Republic through Maigatari border, believes that with the reopening, people would earn more, noting that since the border closure, a lot of people had been thrown into an economic quagmire.
Sabo Ado Maidoki, who ferries donkeys between the two countries, said even though trading in animals was yet to fully pick up, he was optimistic that with time, everything would return to normal.
Bashar Muhammad, a cattle dealer, said the business was picking up gradually. Muhammad, who is the secretary-general of the Amalgamated Cattle Traders Association of Nigeria, (ACTAN) in Maigatari, said the reopening was a welcome development that will affect the council in a positive way.
“Maigatari is one of the most important border posts in the northern part of the country, and indeed, the whole of West Africa. Our border has made a serious name because of its importance among its competitors.
When the border was closed over a year ago, our economy was seriously affected, especially those of us who are small scale traders on this axis.
Not only did our economy go down, even our younger ones who usually went into Niger Republic, and vice-versa, had been badly affected. It also affected our interactions with our neighbours on that axis too.
So this directive from the president to reopen the border is a welcome development and big relief. As a result of this, the market in this town has changed,” he said.