The government took a landmark step against smuggling of rice into our country recently but the media is largely silent about it. I expect all journalists and TV cameras to focus on especially the Nigeria-Benin border. Save for the first day when a few TV stations showed pictures of long queues of vehicles, nothing might as well be happening at the border. But I expected media frenzy in the form of 24-hour news coverage, commentaries, and news from obscure border areas that smugglers might potentially exploit. It’s an opportunity for colleagues to conduct investigations and reveal what some corrupt Nigerian Customs officers wanted to hide and for which they ruinously assaulted a Lagos-based journalist who once investigated happenings in the border areas.
News had since come that the president of Benin Republic, Patrice Talon, visited President Mohammadu Buhari in the course of an event in Japan. Now, it wasn’t the day our government threatened to shut the borders over smuggling activities that it carried it out. It had said if smuggling of rice that we produce in abundance continued it would be compelled to take this step. When the customs service issued this threat last year, I applauded on this page. With the loud silence that this measure has met in the media, I imagine I’m one of the very few persons who are enthusiastic about it, apart from rice farmers, that is. So, I presume that those who benefit from smuggling are deeply woven into the fabric of this nation. For it’s not just rice that this closure affects, it’s all the illegalities that many Nigerians either commit or benefit from. Those affected must be wishing the government unprintable things. But this is neither the time to look back nor the time for the president to waver in his resolve.
A few things that I come up against in our system make me realise how so many Nigerians don’t bother with how this nation fares, once their pockets are filled. Self-interest drives human steps, of course. But fulfilling of personal interest in such a way that the nation is harmed must be resisted by those in authority and whoever has the good of this nation in mind. A few years ago, I walked into a shopping complex to pick a few items. There was this well-appointed boutique managed by a young man whose spoken English and discussion made me rate him as a graduate of a tertiary institution. There was a discussion he was having with his customers about the Treasury Single Account introduced by the government at the time. He passionately enumerated how business had not been moving as it used to. I didn’t agree with his line of argument, but I gave him credit for logically presenting it. Then, he let me down when he said he didn’t mind if anyone stole government money (which the TSA was meant to curb) and came to patronise his business. He said he wouldn’t be bothered that people took what didn’t belong to them from public treasury, as long as they had money to buy from him. I thought this was a low level of reasoning, the most selfish thing I had ever heard. But it’s how most Nigerians reason. Yet, when the nation doesn’t meet its obligations to its citizens because so much looting of resources is going on, this same set of people are quick to criticise the government. They are online, doing great harm to this nation in their little corners but dishing out abuses to any government that takes a step to curb their acts of illegality and turn things around for the nation as a whole. This situation makes me come to the conclusion that when it comes to rescuing our nation from thieves, no necessary measure should be spared no matter what critics say. I’m sure this young manager of a boutique has heard of Nigerian youths who cross the desert to get to Europe only to die in the Mediterranean Sea because they are seeking greener pastures. Nevertheless, to him, the government was wicked by curbing thievery.
Where does all of this concern President Buhari? The President of Benin Republic visited him over the border issue. What our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, told the press was what we knew of what transpired in the course of that meeting. He said Talon told the President that what was going on at the border had brought hardship to his country and he appealed that the decision should be rescinded. Onyeama added that Buhari said he heard Talon, that he wasn’t unmindful of the suffering of the people of Benin Republic, and as such he would consider reopening the border. Then, he would later call a meeting involving Nigeria, Benin, and Niger where they would set out measures to curb cases of smuggling. This order of Things-To-Do that Onyeama said Buhari enumerated is what I have reservations about. The arrangement doesn’t sound good to me, especially after all these years that the government of Benin Republic has been rubbing the face of Nigeria in the mud over smuggling issues, believing ours is a nation of fools. The last time I mentioned this matter of rice smuggling, I was of the view that President Buhari should take very drastic action against saboteur nations on the other side of our borders. Now that he has taken action, I would feel disappointed if he loosened this noose without achieving his set objectives. But did our government set any objectives before it closed the borders? If it did, then it doesn’t add up that the President wants to show kindness to Benin first, then he calls a meeting later to find solutions. Solutions must be found first.
This brings me to the matter of how we conduct foreign affairs here. Do we have set goals, targets, or measures to be deployed in phases against nations that misbehave towards Nigeria? Most nations have set measures they take against external threats categorised as Low, Medium, High, Very High, Extremely High. Each of these has under it a series of steps that a nation immediately takes when confronted with situations such as the one across the border that threatens our economy, or our citizens in places like xenophobic South Africa. I don’t think we currently have a policy arrangement with set measures that we trigger immediately this nation faces intransigencies from other nations.
The foreign affairs minister should draw up different measures to meet different threats to our interests. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, a think-tank, should assist the government in this regard. When we have such details spelt out, the conduct of foreign affairs would be predictable, neither ad hoc, nor a situation whereby diplomats don’t know what to do when they are confronted with certain situations. This makes it easier and faster for us to act, and recalcitrant nations know ahead what awaits them. While I don’t approve of the behaviour, I suppose lack of prompt and visible reciprocal action was the reason Nigerians in South Africa got so frustrated that they visited their anger on our high commission in that country recently. Compare this to the reciprocal and commensurate action taken by the US embassy in Nigeria as soon our government raised visa fees for Americans travelling to Nigeria. Waiting for unpalatable situations to happen before we start thinking of what to do is an unwieldy way to conduct foreign affairs.
As for those insincere pleas from foreigners over closed borders, I call on Buhari not to be kind at this time. He can’t afford it at a time when other nations won’t do for us what we should do by ourselves. This is a case in which leaders of neighbouring countries have decided that if Nigeria isn’t serious about curbing smuggling, they shouldn’t be the ones to do it for us. Now that we’re showing seriousness, we shouldn’t baulk until we’ve achieved notable turnaround. It’s a display of power; such is what nations understand on the international stage, not show of weakness. The President doesn’t need to look farther than what his counterpart in the White House has done to Mexico and Guatemala that take America’s generosity for granted.