The Closure And Opening: Economic, Security And Foreign Policy Implications
Protocols and Preamble

I received the invitation to deliver the Keynote Speech with the title “The Closure and Opening: Economic, Security and Foreign Policy Implication” at today’s event with immense gratitude to the organizers for the honour. It is not one that I take lightly, but one for which I am immensely appreciative. It is important to say a quick word of gratitude from the outset, in case one is booed off the podium before one has had time to complete his address.
The decision by the Federal Government to shut Nigeria’s land borders against its immediate neighbours of Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, could not have been taken lightly or wantonly without having given some due consideration to the country’s national interest and those of its citizens. The very centre or heart of that decision can be located prominently within the provisions of Chapter II (Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended. Section 14 (2) (b) states that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government…” Other relevant sections of this Chapter II elaborate with clarity the economic and foreign policy objectives of the Nigerian state which are germane to our discussion here today.
The border closure/reopening is therefore inextricably connected with national security, national economic wellbeing and to relations with the rest of the world outside our national borders, which is foreign policy. From the government’s perspective, the cross-border criminal activities of the contiguous neighbours posed direct existential threats to the country’s economic, social and security objectives and thus demanded firm and decisive action, hence the resort to border closure.

On border Closure and Reopening

Nigeria, which shares contiguous land borders with four African countries of Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, announced the closure of those land borders in August 2019. Technically speaking, this closure was intended to prevent the movement of goods and services across Nigeria’s international borders, although the reality is entirely different since Nigeria has never at any time since its independence been able to effectively police its extensive and highly porous borders. (Explain: Nigeria-Niger border is approximately 1,608kms; Nigeria-Benin is 809kms; Nigeria-Cameroon border is the longest at 1,975kms; while it is a little less than 100 kms with Chad on the Lake Chad. Significant also is the subsisting close ethnic, cultural and religious affinities between the respective border communities in all the five countries, age-old relationships that colonially determined artificial boundaries could not alter. These factors have been responsible for the strength and resiliency of cross-border relations, including involvement in smuggling, trafficking in persons and other flourishing criminal endeavours.) The government justified the closure of its land borders on its desire to curb the rampant smuggling of goods into the country and associated criminal activities such as illicit weapons smuggling which were wrecking the national economy and endangering security of citizens at home. This uncontrollable smuggling, most especially from the western neighbour, Benin Republic, had reached such alarming economy-wrecking proportions that something urgently had to be done to arrest it. Though a very small country by size and population, Benin Republic which does not produce rice, had over time become the world’s second largest exporter of rice which is smuggled into Nigeria, thereby frustrating the Nigerian government’s efforts to achieve domestic food sufficiency through boosting the agricultural industry! This was coming on the heels of the Buhari administration’s official restriction of rice importation since it came to power in 2015 to encourage and incentivize local rice production.

I was one of those who initially supported the border closure, albeit for a short while, for the express purpose of teaching the uncooperative neighbours a powerful lesson that nations are bound by the principle of Pacta Sunt Servanda (agreements must be served) under international law to respect and uphold their treaty obligations, and strictly avoid any national actions on their part that would cause transboundary injury to their neighbours. I took this position then against the backdrop of deliberate and blatant violations of the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Goods and Services by countries such as Benin Republic whose behaviour was impacting so negatively on the Nigerian economy and national interests. I had felt at the time that if diplomatic overtures over time had failed to rein in Benin’s destructive activities, then Nigeria reserved the right, like any sensible nation, to take firm punitive actions, including shutting the borders against them. Never did I imagine that it would last more than a week or two; that once Nigeria had powerfully made its point, the matter would then be remitted to diplomatic negotiations to iron out the economic rough edges and restore friendly bilateral relations.

Unfortunately, no timelines were attached to the border closure; it seemed it was meant for an interminable period, as long as it pleased President Muhammadu Buhari. So, instead of a few weeks, it lasted all of sixteen months, from August 2019 till December 2020. To be candid, most enlightened Nigerians, from the intelligentsia, to the organized private sector, to the labour unions, to small business owners and entrepreneurs, did not agree completely with the government on the rationale for the interminable closure. Many perceptive analysts actually saw it as counterproductive and infinitely destructive of the Nigerian economy, after all, smuggling and other cross-border criminal activities are age-old phenomena not amenable to simple surgical solutions but which countries can at best curb to the barest minimum. In the first instance, the endless border closure led to increase in the prices of food commodities which affected poor income earners mostly. Second, it did not effectively curb the menace of smuggling as was envisaged, largely because of official lack of capacity to check border porosity, the government’s inability to rein in the powerful smuggling and criminal cartels that hold the economy by the jugular, and the depredations of corrupt Customs personnel and other security agencies at the various land border posts. It is well known that apart from a few officially designated border posts, hundreds of other illegal entry points into the country exist even to the knowledge of the Federal authorities. Testifying to official helplessness with border porosity, even President Muhammadu Buhari as Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces confessed as recently as December 2020 confessed that only God can effectively supervise Nigeria’s border with Niger Republic, an assertion for which he has been roundly flagellated.[ See December 23, 2020.]

I hope I won’t be guilty of undue cynicism if I assert that that decision on closure merely satisfied President Buhari’s personal choices and preferences whether it made much sense or not. If history is any guide, the then Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as military head of state from January 1, 1984 to August 27, 1985, adopted precisely the same policy measure i.e., closed all of Nigeria’s borders throughout his tenure, ostensibly to stanch the haemorrhage of the national economy through smuggling, currency trafficking and other economically destructive activities from neighbouring countries. And not even entreaties from neighbours, foreign governments and from ECOWAS as a body would move him to shift ground. The jury is still out on the actual substantive gains or otherwise of the most recent border closure policy, although government officials have been gloating, without providing any verifiable statistics, that it has succeeded in boosting domestic agriculture production, checked smuggling and illicit arms importation into the country.

While not grudging the government its bragging right to celebrate whatever it regards as its successes, it will nonetheless require a sober, rigorous and objective analysis to determine the full economic, security and other impacts of the land border closure. For example, while government brags about the resultant increase in food protection on the one hand, the information from its own economic adviser Dr. Doyin Salami, paints a totally different but ominous picture. According to him, “Despite border closure, our national import of food amounted to N1.85 trillion between January and September 2020 – a 62 per cent increase when compared to the same period 2019. This suggests a weakness in our ability to feed ourselves and raises the need to consider review of intervention policies in agriculture.”[ Dr. Doyin Salami, Chairman of Presidential Economic Advisory Council, in The Nation,
Wednesday January 20, 2021, front page.] The poser is: given the above sobering statistics, does the government really have a right to brag about the success of its policy? Since mine is merely a keynote address, I expect that the respective scientific papers to be presented here today will provide a clinical, objective and intellectually rigorous elucidation of the policy from several angles and avail us the unvarnished truths that would guide future policy.

Secondly, it had adverse effects on the entrepreneurial activities of average Nigerians engaged in informal cross-border economic and commercial activities, and most especially those doing profitable trading businesses in Ghana who suffered the terrible backlash of discrimination from their Ghanaian host communities. Subjected to official and unofficial harassment and arbitrary closure of their trading establishments in Ghana as tit-for-tat, they had inevitably become the collateral casualties of a government policy that from the beginning did not factor their interests into consideration. Ghana is not a contiguous neighbour in that it does not share physical boundaries with Nigeria and it was not responsible for the criminal food smuggling into Nigeria, but it also had to bear the brunt of Nigeria’s border closure since no exceptions were made. The reaction was to turn against Nigerians in Ghana who were being harassed to leave the country. As it is, the full impact on the Ghana-based Nigerian entrepreneurs and others engaged in lawful and legitimate informal cross-border activities cannot yet be quantified.

What is significant at the sub-regional level however, is that the policy had serious impacts on the neighbouring countries. For example, Nigeria was justifiably accused of deliberately violating its treaty obligations under the ECOWAS integration scheme and other subsisting protocols, such as the Protocols on Free Movement of Persons, Goods and Services, which guarantee free movement, right of residence and establishment of business across all the fifteen ECOWAS member countries. The accusation is justifiable because states are not permitted under international law to unilaterally derogate from or repudiate their binding treaty obligations by pleading domestic exigencies. Should domestic necessities compel a state to consider derogating from subsisting treaty obligations, then it would have to invoke the principle of Rebus sic Stantibus to explain the altered circumstances, in this case that other states are deliberately violating their side of the bargain and then put them on notice. The sudden punitive border closure was far from being what could be regarded as an image-boosting action for a country which is the pre-eminent ECOWAS nation.

In addition, it must be stated that Nigeria’s border closure created jitters across Africa that the newly minted African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which had come into force less than three months earlier on May 31st might come into jeopardy if the continent’s largest economy and pre-eminent market was not participating. Though the border closure did not in any significant sense vitiate the AfCFTA, since it is just about to begin full operation this month January 2021, it however cast a pall over Nigeria’s trustworthiness and commitment as a regional powerhouse to the ideals of continental integration and economic cooperation which it had always championed since the formation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963, the establishment of ECOWAS 1975, the adoption of the Lagos Plan of Action 1981, the signing if the Abuja Treaty of the African Economic Community in 1991, and the eventual transformation of the OAU to African Union in 2002. It would be advisable that Nigeria avoids punitive decisions and actions such as sudden border closure that might affect or destabilize sub-regional integration and continental cooperation. Should such decisions and actions become inevitable, it should be required to place the matter first before the African Union and publicly put all countries on notice to enable them take appropriate measures to safeguard their own interests. Except during a war or other fatal national emergencies, border closure need not be contemplated as a punitive measure.

On Security
Another pillar on which the border closure was rationalized by government was the burgeoning insecurity in the country. Over the past decade or so, Nigeria’s security problems have metastasized from domestic terrorism, begun by the Boko Haram Islamist sect, now into banditry, cattle-rustling and kidnapping for ransom across the Northwest and Northeast swathes of the country, violent and murderous herder-farmer clashes in the Middle Belt, kidnaping for ransom and wanton bloodletting in the entire Southern portions of the country. There is uncontrollable proliferation of illicit arms and ammunitions in wrong hands, with different parts of the nation held down by bandits, warlords and allied criminal elements, rendering the entire country unsafe.

Assessing the extent and how effectively the closure has affected the fight against insecurity is difficult to ascertain because of the shroud of official and military secrecy surrounding the operations, but what most Nigerians know and experience on daily basis in terms of security is not comforting, notwithstanding the usual exaggerated claims of government being on top of the security situation. Again, the government is not here being denied its bragging rights that it had curbed the inflow of arms into the country, only that factual and accurate comparative statistics of before and after closure would have been more convincing.
Not minding that insecurity still persists, we must, however, never overlook the gallantry and immense sacrifices of the soldiers and officers of the Nigerian armed forces, the brave personnel of the Nigeria Police and other security agencies, not excluding the Civilian JTF, who have continually faced down the domestic terrorists and insurgents, and are combatting other criminal elements across the land in order to make Nigerians safe.

On Foreign Policy.
Without controversy, I must assert that it is in the sphere of foreign policy that the closure and opening can be assessed. This is because though it was a domestic action that was intended to address domestic challenges, the closure is actually a foreign policy issue because it was directed at affecting the behaviour of others outside Nigeria’s own borders. Successes, gains and losses in external relations are not always easily measurable or quantifiable in that relations between nations are complex and multidimensional. One significant immediate and short term effect may be on mutual trust and cooperation between the countries that are jointly combating Boko Haram’s transnational insurgency.

It is well known in foreign policy circles that the Federal Republic of Nigeria has in recent years been punching far below its weight in international affairs, sometimes showing poor judgement, at other times just being plainly lackadaisical. At the African Union where it used to be a major rallying voice in advancing, protecting and defending African interests, its voice seems rather muted. It’s candidate for the position of African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Fatimah Mohammed, even lost the election into one of the most strategic organs of the AU in January 2017 because of the predilection for putting the wrong foot forward.[ January 231, 2017.] Regrettably, this same predilection for putting wrong candidates forward for international strategic positions showed up again recently when Nigeria’s nominee for position of a judge of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Justice Ishaq Bello, who incidentally is also the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, was roundly rejected by the global body on the grounds of low and incompetent knowledge of the workings of the ICC. In these nominations, Nigeria sacrificed merit for nepotism and political patronage! But it is important to recall that since the early 1960s, several eminent Nigerian jurists and scholars have served creditably as judges at the International Court of Justice at The Hague —- notably Justices Charles Dadi Onyeama, Taslim Olawale Elias, and Prince Bola Ajibola. Gone are the days when Nigeria always put its best foot forward, when it nominated candidates for international positions who ranked among the best in the world —– notably, Mr. Geoffrey Amachree, Chief Simeon Adebo, Professors Adebayo Adedeji, Ibrahim Gambari, Babatunde Osotimehin, Ambassador Uthman Yolah, as UN Under-Secretaries-General, and Professor Tijjani Muhammad-Bande who was unanimously elected President of United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. And most recently, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina was re-elected for second term as President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) by the unanimous votes of all continental and non-continental member-states of the Bank. I have regaled you with these anecdotal pieces of information to remind us that Nigeria has not always been known to take a back seat in world affairs.

Unfortunately, this unusual but creeping diminution of stature and influence began gradually under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007- 2010) whose administration was a virtual lame duck. Fatally hobbled by progressive deterioration of his health which prevented him from attending many significant international meetings, such as the UNGA to speak for Nigeria and Africa, Nigeria’s voice was muted for most of those three years. His successor, President Goodluck Jonathan, virtually hostage to powerful forces, did not appear a sure-footed leader to undertake radical foreign policy positions. It was under his administration that today’s hydra-headed domestic monster known as the Boko Haram gradually grew uncontrollable, morphing into domestic insurgency and later transforming into a transnational insurgency. Government’s initial responses were rather tepid, timid and grossly inadequate. Today, by a combination of timidity, ineptitude and sheer official incompetence, Boko Haram has become one of the deadliest terrorist groups on earth according to the Global Terrorism Index, making Nigeria to be classified as one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Nigeria has regrettably been consistently underfunding its foreign policy for the past few years. Its diplomatic missions are in a decrepit state, personnel are disoriented as they struggle to pay for accommodation and children’s school fees. Ambassadors who had been at post and due to come back home were stranded for months in their diplomatic posts because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not muster the resources to bring them back. A situation whereby 83 ambassadors-designate were marooned at home, more than six months after they had been screened and cleared by the Nigerian Senate, speaks volumes to the country’s lack of priority for foreign policy.[ “83 new ambassadors stranded five months after Senate confirmation,”

The implication in the first instance is that it connotes a high level of un-seriousness, for foreign policy is not matter to be handled with levity, not in a contemporary world such as ours that is undergoing rapid and breath-taking changes on a daily basis, changes that nations must respond to with equal rapidity and precision.
Nigeria’s foreign affairs budget for 2021 is a paltry N83.6 billion out of total budget of N13.588 trillion, ranking number 15 on the list of allocations to Ministries, Departments and Agencies. Translated into dollars by current parallel market rates of nearly N500 to the dollar, it comes to less than $180 million. That is paltry, considering payment of annual dues to numerous international organizations like the UN, AU, ECOWAS to mention a few, and more than a hundred diplomatic missions which in the words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, have become a “terrible embarrassment” for the country. He lamented that “Nigeria cannot get its international image to fit into the acceptable module of the international community, if its foreign missions remain underfunded.”[ “Nigeria underfunding diplomatic mission, weakening foreign policy — experts,” December 11, 2020.] How is Nigeria expected to adequately meet or fulfil its varied international diplomatic obligations and be a force to reckon with in Africa in the face of this abysmally poor funding? How is it expected to measure up to its major regional rivals like Egypt and South Africa each of which commits more to foreign affairs?

By Way of Conclusion

Let’s be honest with ourselves, today’s Nigeria is a far cry from the once proud, assertive and swaggering African nation of the 1960s to the 2000s —– an era when Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa spoke glowingly on the global stage in the 1960s, got the world to listen, and was even nicknamed the “Golden Voice of Africa”; when General Murtala Mohammed thundered at the January 1976 first ever Organization of African Unity Extraordinary Summit in Addis Ababa convened to discuss the fate of Angola and changed the mindset of African leaders; when General Olusegun Obasanjo frontally took on apartheid and gave ultimatum to the rest of the world that those who did business with Nigeria and South Africa must choose on which side their bread was better buttered; and in the early 2000s when the same Obasanjo, as democratically elected President, carefully guided the transformation of the OAU into the current African Union, and also helped create some of its robust organs such as the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM)? That fire seems to be fading, and something urgently needs to be done before its glowing embers are finally extinguished.

Let me be very frank here: the foregoing critique of the current parlous state of Nigeria’s foreign policy and global standing is not intended for unnecessary flagellation but as we all know that the requirements of intellectual rigour and scientific objectivity compel us as scholars to appraise how far we have sunk, so as to incentivize us to do something to regain Nigeria’s glory days as the continental primus inter pares. Only after a clinical and dispassionate dissection of what ails us as a country can we begin to proffer durable solutions going forward. Any refusal to speak the blunt and unvarnished truth about our situation as a nation cannot allow us to render objective advice that would alter the situation. Only from a critical dissection and diagnoses can an objective treatment proceed.

Having evolved into a transnational crisis involving three of Nigeria’s contiguous neighbours in the Northeast corner, it is clear that the war against Boko Haram insurgency cannot be won by Nigeria acting alone, but by collective and coordinated international military and diplomatic efforts of the concerned countries. In this instance, Nigeria, by virtue of its overwhelming demographics and other vital statistics, is more suitably placed or positioned to provide the required coordination and leadership. One must give credit to Nigeria and the neighbours for their frontal military actions that had substantially degraded Boko Haram’s fighting capabilities. This is where effective foreign policy comes into play to ensure that the concerned countries are not working at cross-purposes. Because the injured neighbours are evidently bitter about Nigeria’s domestic problem causing them considerable transboundary harm, skillful diplomacy will be needed to ensure that the other countries act in concert. This demands goodwill, openness and trust between the neighbours.

I’m not myself persuaded that the reopening of the borders will significantly and positively affect the country’s myriad security challenges, nor impact meaningfully on the transnational insurgency that has ravaged Nigeria and its neighbours for a decade now. The closure did not stop smuggling, illicit arms transfers into Nigeria nor deter trans-border movement of terrorists and insurgents. As I said above, both the political will on the one hand, and the institutional capacity, motivation and firmness to dent the power of criminal cartels that hold the economy hostage are sorely lacking. It is uncertain whether the present administration would be able to rise to the full stature of leadership and effective and dynamic foreign policy that would ensure that Nigeria is not left holding the short end of the stick in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which has this month come into full operation. If anything, the Rice Millers Association of Nigeria (RIMAN) has already raised the alarm loudly, that the Nigerian Customs Service has gone to sleep over “the intense smuggling of rice into Nigeria following the reopening of some Nigerian borders and the take-off of the AfCFTA trade agreement,” asserting that “millions of tonnes of smuggled rice is being offloaded at the borders on daily basis without any interruption, or checks by Customs and the security agencies for onward transportation into Nigerian markets, for example Kano, Abuja, Kaduna, Jos, Lagos.”[ See “Rice Millers Express fear, raise alarm over massive smuggling of foreign rice,” January 24, 2021.] It is at this continental level that Nigeria’s foreign policy and leadership will be severely tested.

Now that I have enjoyed the good fortune of not being booed off the podium before end of my address, I should now properly express my heartfelt gratitude to the organizers of this event, most especially the Nigeria Office of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung (FES) Abuja, the NextierSPD, and the Young Professionals in Policy and Development (YouPad), for graciously extending to me the invitation to be the keynote speaker. And to the wonderful audience for your patience with me, do please accept my very warm personal regards. Thank you all for your attention.

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