Peter Uzoho with agency report
The decision by the federal government to close all its land borders two months ago to tackle smuggling is affecting trade across the region, a report has revealed.
The report by bbc.com, noted that bustling borders have come to a standstill, with goods rotting and queues of lorries waiting at checkpoints in the hope the crossings will reopen.
The closures were imposed without warning on 21 August – and Nigeria’s neighbours are angry.
“It seems Nigeria was fed up about the flouting of its ban on the importation of rice over its land borders.
“The biggest contraband route was between Cotonou, Benin’s biggest city, and Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos, which is just a few hours’ drive away,” it stated.
According to the World Bank, Benin’s economy is heavily reliant on the informal re-export and transit trade with Nigeria, which accounts for about 20 per cent of its GDP, or national income.
And about 80 per cent of imports into Benin are destined for Nigeria, the Bank says.
Nigeria banned the importation of rice from Benin in 2004 and from all its neighbours in 2016, but that has not stopped the trade.
Nigeria is only allowing in foreign rice through its ports – where since 2013 it has imposed a tax of 70 per cent.
“The move is intended not only to raise revenue but also to encourage the local production of rice.
But smugglers have been taking advantage of the fact that it is cheaper to import rice to Nigeria’s neighbors,” the report added.
According to the Nigerian maritime site Ships and Ports, in 2014 Benin lowered its tariffs on rice imports from 35% to 7% while Cameroon erased it completely from 10%.
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Neighbouring Benin then recorded an astronomical rise in imports from Thailand, the world’s second-largest producer.
At its height, each of Benin’s 11.5 million citizens would have had to consume at least 150kg (330lb) of rice from Thailand alone.
So it seems pretty clear that the rice was making its way into Nigeria to meet the shortfall in local production for a country of almost 200 million people.
“And Nigerians’ appetite for rice is almost insatiable in a country where the grain is a staple.
“There was a time was when it was considered an elitist meal consumed only on Sundays. But now its affordability – plus the love for jollof rice – has made it a national dish.
“No. Benin is also a major corridor for second-hand cars to Nigeria, where there is a ban on importing cars that are more than 15 years old,” it added.
Official figures are difficult to come by, but Luxembourg-based shipping company BIM e-solutions said an average of 10,000 cars arrive at the Cotonou port from Europe monthly.
According to the Nigeria Customs Service, many are smuggled across the border.
The authorities also want to tackle smugglers going the other way. Many sell cheap subsidised Nigerian petrol in neighbouring countries.
“Many goods come in through the port of Lagos and are transported by road throughout the region by hundreds of thousands of lorries.
Nigeria’s immediate neighbours Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon – as well as Ghana and Togo have been hit by the crisis,” it added.
Ghana’s Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey said the country’s traders had incurred huge losses because their goods had been detained for weeks at the Nigeria-Benin border.
She advised the Nigerian government to “find ways of isolating the issues and the countries that it has problems with, so that Ghana’s exports can enter Nigeria’s market without being lumped up with all these issues that have emerged”.
In Benin, photographer Yanick Folly posted images of baskets of tomatoes, lined up and decaying near the border.
Benin’s Agriculture Minister Gaston Dossouhoui described it as “a distressing sight” when he visited markets in the town of Grand Popo.
“It’s very difficult for our producers. It’s a disaster,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.
In an effort to mollify its powerful neighbour, Niger has since imposed its own ban on the exportation of rice to Nigeria.
But it is the border communities, where traders often criss-cross for market days, that are suffering.
“In Rivers State, some traders at the rice depot section of the Mile 1 market in Port Harcourt have packed up and gone home.
“They say the dramatic closure of the borders gave them no time to stock up.
“And prices have gone up too. Foreign rice now sells for 60 per cent more, while locally produced rice has increased by almost 100 per cent. But there has been the up side,” it added.