Job Osazuwa

The dust raised by the recent partial closure of the Nigeria-Benin Republic border in Seme has continued to have ripple effects on all Nigerians.

The reporter’s investigations revealed that the prices of rice and other commodities like groundnut oil and frozen meat have shot up. Many families are feeling the direct negative impact of the hike and they are lamenting.

Though banned by the Federal Government from being imported, foreign rice still remains a staple food in the homes of many Nigerians. The government’s recent action has further threatened to complicate the consumption of foreign parboiled rice, which was hitherto smuggled through the land borders from neighbouring countries. With the way the price is shooting up, rice might soon become gold for many consumers.

The border high surveillance also led to perishable items worth millions of naira to rot away. It was gathered that fully armed security agents on constant patrol have since punctured all sorts of free movement across the borders.

It was noticed that from August 20, there has been a high restriction of movement and economic activities around the borders, which has dealt destructive blow on dealers and others who rely on the route for daily survival.

President Muhammadu Buhari has explained that the heavy security checks at the Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic was because of the massive smuggling activities, especially of rice, taking place on the various corridors. Though, there was no official statement announcing a total closure, travellers have been restricted from utilising the route since penultimate week.

The president has considered developing agriculture for export to increase revenues from outside its dominant oil industry. He explained that smuggling of rice was threatening the self-sufficiency already attained due to his administration’s agricultural policies focused on attaining mass production in order to boost local production as well as conserve foreign exchange reserves.

“Now that our people in the rural areas are going back to their farms, and the country has saved huge sums of money which would otherwise have been expended on importing rice using our scarce foreign reserves, we cannot allow smuggling of the product at such alarming proportions to continue,” Buhari has said.

While lamenting that the importation of rice and wheat together cost almost $4 billion a year, Buhari said a meeting with his counterparts from Benin and Niger would soon be called to determine strict and comprehensive measures to curtail the level of smuggling across their borders.

At the moment, the average Nigerian is not finding the FG’s decision funny. The consumers are feeling the heat on daily basis. Everyday, nothing less than 500 naira is being added to the price of a bag of rice.

A retailer in foreign rice in Abule-Egba area of Lagos State, Obinna Nwankwor, told the reporter that sales have been low since the price of rice started skyrocketing. He said the price was already shooting beyond what the dealers envisaged.

“If I had known that the government meant business and the closure was going to be total, I would have stocked my shop with more bags. I only have about five bags of rice before the problem started. If the situation continues as it is, then I will be totally out of goods in the next few days. What that means is that I will be out of business because foreign rice is the only major item that I sell.

“When I called my distributor yesterday to order a few bags, he said he didn’t have a single bag left in his warehouse at Sango Market. Those who were lucky to have just stocked their shops before the crisis started are now smiling to the bank. Some of them are not selling yet. They are hoarding theirs so that they can make more profit, as the price has continued to rise.

“Prices of rice, frozen chicken and turkey have gone up in the last one week. But the major item that is affected is rice. Other food items such as groundnut oil, which people smuggle through the borders, can easily be sourced within the country with almost the same price. The volume of foreign rice consumed by every family makes it difficult to ban the importation outright.

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“A bag of rice that used to be between 12, 000 and 12, 500 naira is now sold for 17, 500 while some dealers are selling for 18, 500 naira. You cannot get it less than N15 or 16, 000 at the border. One Derica cup that used to be sold for N230 is now sold for N280,” Nwankwor said.

When asked about the level of sales considering the new price, he said some persons would turn back and rather purchase noodles.

As the closure is fully implemented, business people and travellers continue to count their losses. It was learnt that apart from stalling buying and selling of rice among the dealers, the security measure has also frustrated several business deals with other neighbouring countries.

A car dealer, who lives at Owode, close to Idiroko in Ogun State, Alhaji Sule Owolabi, spoke to the reporter on the telephone, lamenting that trucks of fresh tomatoes were trapped at the border between Benin Republic and Nigeria for days until they became totally wasted. He said the owners helplessly watched as their capital went down the drain.

“It is telling on all of us. It is not only the rice traders that are affected. Those taking goods from Nigeria to other African countries are trapped too. We all depend on the heavy movement of goods and persons to make sales. It is the traffic that is making us to survive. But since the closure, we have been sleeping here all day,” he said.

At the Badagry end of the border, a resident at Oko Afo, Chief Chima Okey said the once bubbling towns and settlements around the border have suddenly become ghost towns. He said that security operatives manning the border would allow only the legal immigrants with valid travel documents through the border without carrying any goods for commercial purposes.

Consequently, many people with goods have been stranded at the border. It is said to be zero tolerance for smuggling and the order is religiously enforced by the security agents. And seizures of goods are being done without minding whose ox is gored.

“The hospitality industry is also affected. Most people, especially those who are going or coming from far parts of Nigeria, who are travelling in and out of the country through this axis would love to relax for some hours or overnight at a hotel. But everything is at a standstill as we speak,” Okey told the reporter.

A Lagos-based trader, Esther Adeosun, lamented: “I don’t smuggle rice or any contraband goods. I sell in Cotonou but live in Nigeria. I go there everyday to sell different Nigeria-made products and they like our goods too. But this is no longer possible for me and my family because the border is closed. It is too bad. I will advise government to make the checking thorough and focus on rice rather than leaving all of us to suffer.”

The spokesman of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Joseph Attah, has insisted that what was happening at the border was not closure.

“It is not border closure. We are having a joint security exercise, but because of the little friction that we had on the other day, which was immediately sorted out. Some people prefer to use the word ‘border closure’, which is not appropriate.

“The delay has been sorted out, so people now go in and out of the country after being properly screened according to the law,” he said.

The enforcement, as gathered, is being done by the joint security operation called “Ex-Swift Response.” It involves the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) in collaboration with the Armed Forces of Nigeria (AFN), Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and other security and intelligence agencies.

Meanwhile, the residents of the border communities, which include Ilaro, Idiroko, Oke Odan, Ipokia, Owode, Mawun, Alari, Koko, Badagry, Ajilete, Ago, Ighonyedo and Ifo now watch their economies collapse because their major businesses have been smuggling of rice, used clothes, frozen chicken and motorcycle riding.