British wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill famously noted that, “you don not negotiate borders – you defend them”. Borders are the hallmarks of a sovereign state. Any country that cannot control hers is not worthy of its own statehood. The current global system of territorial states that we operate began in continental Europe, with the Treaty of Westphalia 1648 that ended the devastating Thirty Years’ religious wars.
Before then, much of Europe was organised in terms of ill-defined feudal monarchies, royal kingdoms and dukedoms loosely under the Holy Roman Empire that was, in reality, neither holy nor wholly Roman. The emergence of the sovereign territorial state provided the constitutional framework for a new system of power politics in Europe. And much of it was enshrined in the emerging Law of Nations as developed by great jurists such as Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel.
The internecine strife that afflicted nineteenth century Europe had very much to do with borders, notably between France and Germany and between Germany and her neighbours. They also constituted the defining relationship between Mexico and big Uncle Sam next door. In post-independence Africa, borders were the casus belli for the conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia; Kenya and Somalia; and between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Back home in Nigeria, the decade-long border conflict between us and neighbouring Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula was largely resolved only through=ugh adjudication by the International Court of Justice (ICJ presided by a French jurist whose objectivity was, at best, doubtful.
One of the ways that countries have tried to control their borders is by building walls. One of these is the 8,000 km long Great Wall of China, built some 2,300 years ago, ostensibly to protect the Middle Kingdom from the barbarian hordes. The Mongol warriors wisely did not attempt to scale it. They simply bribed the gatekeepers; paving the way to a successful occupation of China.
A few years ago, Israel built a wall across the West Bank ostensibly to protect its citizens against Palestinian terrorists. Upon completion, it will be a 438 km barrier separating Israel from the Palestinians. The UN General Assembly has condemned the project while the ICJ has given an advisory opinion to the effect that it amounts to a violation of international law.
American president Donald Trump pitched his campaign for election in 2016 on the promise that he would build a wall across the Mexican border to stop the relentless sea of illegal immigrants from across the border. He also insisted that Mexico would pay for it. That project has hit a brick wall, both legal and political. Congress has not been forthcoming with regards to the US$5.6 billion required for the project. The Mexicans have also made it plain that under no circumstances would they ever contemplate paying for such a project.
Nigeria’s borders are among the most porous in the world. Like elsewhere on the continent, these colonial borders have separated communities that once belonged together. When the OAU was created in 1963, one of its constitutive principles is the sanctity of colonial borders. This was done to prevent chaos and to ensure an orderly system of interstate relations. I have always proudly reminded my African brethren that Nigeria has never invaded her neighbours or any other sister African country. Instead, we have expended so much in terms of people and treasure trying to restore peace in war-torn countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Our porous borders, aided by own sheer incompetence, has made us the dumping ground of the world. In the seventies, so much cement was imported into our country that it would have required ten years to off-load ordinarily. It was one of the factors that led to the fall of the Gowon military regime. Today, we are the world’s biggest importer of generators. The Lebanese and other cartels that control generator importation have colluded in killing our power sector. We are also, via Cotonou, the biggest importer of rice in the world. We are the world’s biggest dump yard for Chinese knick knacks of all sorts.
Alarmingly, we are also the main global destination for arms smuggling, particularly since the fall of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. Smuggled arms have fed into the decade-long insurgency in the north east. They have also fallen into the hands of murderous herdsmen, most of them from neighbouring countries. Heavy arms have been intercepted from countries as diverse as Turkey and Iran. A few months ago, our military intercepted several armoured tanks from the Cameroon border. We understand that one of the world powers ordered our authorities to release the tanks, claiming that they were destined for Mali. Somebody somewhere has obviously declared war on our country.
Our porous borders, aided by own sheer incompetence, has made us the dumping ground of the world. In the seventies, so much cement was imported into our country that it would have required ten years to off-load ordinarily
What is most irritating is that the world expects us to take it lying down. An official from the trade ministry of a major European country recently accosted me over lunch at a posh restaurant in Abuja. He wanted to know why we are so dumb as to practise “autarky” in the twenty-first century. A so0-disant economist from the Washington-based Brookings Institution was recently writing that Benin Republic had repositioned herself as a flourishing “entrepôt economy for informal trade”, while Nigeria has become the big elephant sitting on the path of progress in ECOWAS. Vietnam Vice-President Professor Vuong Dihn Hue visited Abuja recently to pressure our government to re-open the borders. The Ghanaians have protested very loudly. Several Nigerian shops have been closed down in that country while our nationals have been roughened up.
One theory being touted is that the border closure was instigated by one or two of our big industrialists that stand opposed to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which takes off in July 2020. The same groups, allegedly through the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), forced our government not to sign up to the Kigali Treaty 2018. Our late-coming meant that we have not only lost leadership and credibility; Accra also won the right to host the headquarters of the AfCFTA.
Building a wall is not feasible for the foreseeable future. Keeping the borders closed in perpetuity is also not sustainable. It would in fact be illegal under international trade law and WTO protocols. But we must re-negotiate tough terms with our neighbours. Benin Republic alone has robbed of more than US$10 billion in customs revenues over the last 5 years. Some 70 percent of its GDP is anchored on smuggling and dumping of goods in our country.
But we must be honest with ourselves. The whole world knows that Apapa and Lagos have reached their absolute upper limits in terms of capacity. And yet, there are political interests that insist it must be Lagos or nothing else. And what Lagos cannot take must be hived off to Cotonou at the expense of Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Onne. We have behaved wickedly against our own vital national interests for ethnic and selfish reasons.
There are many things wrong with this government. But I support the border closure. The only reservation I have is that they should have made adequate arrangements in terms of stockpiles before closing the borders. The consequence is that the price of rice in this festive season has gone outside the reach of the poor. People are suffering.
Going forward, we should extend the closure to July 2020, when AfCFTA will take effect. Between now and then, we should double the recruitment of customs staff and provide more training and logistics in controlling our borders. We must also secure iron-cast guarantees from our neighbours that they will not be the conduits for smuggling and other illegal trade activities against our country, causing us to lose billions of dollars in revenues while undermining our industrial capacity.