Nigeria, border closure and national security

Borders define a sovereign state and remain areas of contestation of power, identity, economy, security, among other variables. Even though these borders are not fixed and are sometimes arbitrary due to ethnic, cultural, religious commonalities that exists among citizens on both sides, they constitute a very important asset in the national security architecture of every nation state.

While some countries share borders with friendly nations and have mutually beneficial diplomatic relationships, other countries have unstable relationships with their neighbours. Indeed, some borders have remained Demilitarized  Zones (DMZ) such as the ‘38th parallel between North and South Korea , 190 KM area between Iraq and Kuwait and 10 KM along Sudan- South Sudan border.

Borders are so important to a nation that sometimes, politicians capitalize on the subject to win elections. For instance, United States President, Donald Trump, is famous for his campaign promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.

As such, one of the strategic policy decisions nations take to safeguard their sovereignty and protect citizens from identified threats, whether diplomatic, security, economic, environment, health or otherwise, is the closiure of international borders.

In recent times, many countries in Africa have closed their borders with their neighbours  for various reasons: In June, 2019, Kenya closed its border with Somalia as part of security operations to flush out terrorist group Al-Shabaab and to check human and narcotics trade; Rwanda closed its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo due to the Ebola epidemic; Rwanda also closed one of its busiest borders with Uganda due to diplomatic dispute over support for rebels fighting the Rwandan government and harassment of her citizens;  Sudan closed its borders with Libya due to security concerns; Ethiopia has also on different occasions closed its border with Eritrea. Indeed, Equitorial Guinea has been accused of an attempt to adopt the Trumpian  strategy of building a wall across its border with Cameroon.

Like these countries, Nigeria took a strategic policy decision to secure its over 4,477 kilometres land borders cutting across four countries, namely, Benin Republic, Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. Map surveys indicate that Nigeria has the longest land border with Cameroon, 1,975KM to the east, followed by Niger Republic, 1,608KM, to the north,  Benin Republic 809KM to the west  and lastly, Chad with 85KM to the north-east. In addition to these, Nigeria is a link through the old tran-Sahara trade and pilgrimage (Hajj by road) route. It has maritime borders with  Equitorial Guinea, Ghana and Sao Tome & Principe.

Launched on August 20, 2019, the operation code named EX-SWIFT RESPONSE, is a joint operation coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser and led by Nigerian Customs Service and Nigerian Immigration Service in collaboration with the Armed Forces as well as the Nigeria Police Force,  and other security and intelligence agencies.

In a joint press conference by Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service, Col Hameed Ali rtd, and Comptroller General, Nigeria Immigration Service, Alhaji Mohammed Babandede and Representative of National Security Adviser, it was explained that the exercise is in “four geo-political zones of the country – South-south, South-west, North-central and North-west’.

According to the Customs and Immigration heads: “The exercise is aimed at better securing our borders in order to strengthen our economy and address other trans-border security concerns.

“Overtime, Nigeria has been confronted with numerous trans-border economic and security challenges. These challenges range from banditry, kidnapping, smuggling, illegal migrants and proliferation of light weapons amongst others. Meanwhile, the preference for foreign goods, especially food items like rice has continuously impoverished our farmers and adversely affected domestic government policies supporting the agricultural sector to enhance food security”.

There is also concern about lack of regards for ECOWAS protocol by neighbouring countries: “It is however disturbing that some neighboring countries circumvent the ECOWAS protocol on transit. For clarity, the ECOWAS protocol on transit demands that when a transit container berths at a seaport, the receiving country is mandated to escort same without tampering with the seal of the border of the destination country.”

Already, the operation is yielding positive results and the Customs boss said the closure has led to increase in revenue to five billion daily as import duties through official channels have risen. Beyond increase in revenue, there has also be reports of significant decrease in cross-border crimes, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and  reduction of harmful drugs. “In the area of security, the ongoing exercise has recorded a number of seizures and arrests that would have had grave security consequences.

“It is important to note that 95 percent of illicit drugs and weapons that are being used for acts of terrorism and kidnapping in Nigeria today come in through our porous borders”.

Justifying the closure also, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Hajiya Zainab Ahmed, said: “Nigeria’s  decision to close its borders is aimed at preventing weapons and drugs from entering the country and not just to stop food smuggling.”

There is no doubt that this decision to tighten security around Nigeria’s land borders is in line with its needs of ensuring national security, economic and overall wellbeing of its citizens. This is a welcome development necessary for Nigeria to assert itself as a regional powerhouse, that does not just bark, but can also bite. Nigeria should not in the name of big brother, be seen as a country where anything goes – a dumping ground for everything injurious to Nigeria and Nigerians. The exercise, as acknowledged by the services, has also brought out the best in inter-agency cooperation.

Beyond this spur-of-the-moment approach, however, the federal government must take a more holistic stance in owning its borders and occupying the open space by investing heavily in infrastructure in border communities; getting the buy-in of border communities on every government strategic decision; empowering security agencies and strengthening border posts from being mere revenue collection centres to strategic security areas that are also considered as strategic national assets.

To further consolidate on the gains of the border closure, the federal government must take steps to ensure internal mechanism for food security and ameliorate short term pains for long term gains of the decision.

Other challenges to address include the economies of border communities, manpower needs and  technology. Col Ali’s effort should include cleaning the Augean stable in the system and ensuring that official land, sea and airport controls are customer-friendly, free of corruption and other bureaucratic bottlenecks that will discourage genuine businessmen and women.

There is also the need to continuously carry the media along as a strategic partner at every point in order to create understanding among various stakeholders both local and international.

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