Professor Anthony Asiwaju’s Border that Unites and Anti-Nigeria Sentiments: Quo Vadis for Regional Integration?

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With Bola Akinterinwa Vie Internationale

The Faculty of Arts of the University of Lagos started a new lecture series on Thursday, 12th December, 2019. The introduction of the new lecture series came up on the heels of the quest to remain internationally relevant and one of the best qualitatively available in terms of academic output. In this regard for instance, the Faculty, which was established in 1975, introduced an Annual Seminar Series in 1985; Journal of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Lagos, 25 volumes of which have been published; Unilag Journal of Humanities; Faculty of Arts Monograph Series; the latest of which was written by Dr. Bose Okuntola, Senior Lecturer, and published in March, 2019.

The introduction of a lecture series is an additional effort to the foregoing and, therefore, cannot but be a welcome development in the quest to be among the leading faculties of arts in global education. The first in the new lecture series is that of Professor Anthony Ijaola Asiwaju, an Emeritus Professor of Comparative African History and Borderlands Studies, University of Lagos. Professor Asiwaju, a Member of the Federal Republic and Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria, gave his lecture on ‘Unilateral Border Closures: Thirty Five Years of Retrospection on Nigeria and Africa.’

The lecture, which was held in the Board Room of the Faculty of Arts, was quite significant in terms of topic, date, and submission. In terms of topic, there are three important operational words in it: unilateral, retrospection, Nigeria and Africa. As regards unilateralism, it is a word that has become unpopular in the lexicon of inter-state relations. Efforts are generally being made to prevent unilateral actions in international relations to the advantage of collective strategies. The choice of collective approach in the conduct and management of international affairs is synonymous with the promotion of multilateralism, which goes beyond both bilateralism and plurilateralism.

Consequently, if Professor Asiwaju consciously used the word, ‘unilateral’ in his topic, he was also consciously drawing attention to illegal border closures. Put differently, if we are talking about the closure of Nigeria’s borders with the immediate neighbours, is the closure unilateral? If it is, is it illegal? And if it is, what should be the most appropriate way of handling the matter?

On the date of the lecture, it is equally significant. It first reminds me of the charges brought against former Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu and his eventual conviction. Some Nigerians have drawn attention to the fact that the three names of the former governor, are four-lettered, meaning a total of twelve letters. More important, his trial lasted for twelve years. His punishment is twelve years of incarceration. And perhaps most notably, his conviction did not only take place on the twelfth, but also on the twelfth month of the year. In this regard, emphasis is on ‘twelve.’

In the context of Professor Asiwaju’s lecture, the narrative is not different. A Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, Professor Asiwaju gave his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of History at the University of Lagos on Wednesday, 12 December, 1984, a year that marked the centenary of the 1884 Berlin Agreements by which Africa was partitioned by the colonialists without due regard for the territorial harmony of the various ethnic communities.

Unfortunately, 12 December, 1984 fell on a Thursday, and not on a Wednesday as it is in 2019. The point is that it was still 12 December. And more importantly, in 1984, the inaugural lecture focused attention on unilateral border closure. The lecture was entitled ‘Artificial Borders.’ In 2019, the first in the series of the Faculty of Arts lectures again focused on unilateral border closure. And, of course, most interestingly, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, then a military Head of State, not to say the head of a regime or junta, who unilaterally closed the border with the Republic of Benin in 1984, again, as an elected President, unilaterally closed Nigeria’s borders with the immediate neighbours on August 20, 2019.

The constant reference to unilateralism here should be understood against the fact that Nigeria is a signatory to both the 2005 ECOWAS Cross Border Initiatives Programme (CIP) and the 2007 African Union Border Programme (AUBP). In the thinking of Professor Asiwju, the rule of sanctity of agreements ought to prevail especially that the disregard for the obligations created by the agreements is creating much hardship for the border communities, and, for that matter, not helpful to regional and continental integration.

This is precisely why the thirty-five years of retrospection by President Asiwaju, one of Africa’s foremost borderlands scholars, if not the foremost, should retain very scholarly attention, especially that he also hails from a border community, Imeko in Ogun State, which is about to play host to the Celestial International University. What is the retrospection and new thinking of Professor Asiwaju about? In other words, how do we understand the thirty-five years of retrospection? How do we also explain President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB)’s attitude in 1984 and 2019?

Retrospection and Issues
Four main rationales for the 2019 lecture were given by Professor Asiwaju: need to revisit the issue of unilateral border closure now that it is more than thirty years old and in light of the openness of the archives. As Asiwaju put it, his lecture ‘is an open invitation to graduate students in history, who may wish to pitch their tents with us in the largely under-researched and yet rewarding sub-field of territorial and boundary history of Nigeria…’
A second rationale is the topicality of the subject by virtue of the border closure thirty-five years after the first one. The new closure, in the eyes of the fronterizo and Balogun of Imeko border community, Anthony Asiwaju, the August 20, 2019 closure of borders was evidently ill-advised repetition,’ which has ‘already filled the air with similar reports as in 1984 of the excruciating pains and sufferings currently being visited in the helpless masses of already structurally disadvantaged, politically marginalised and infrastructurally deprived border communities…’

Third, Professor Asiwaju strongly believes that, in the manner his inaugural lecture of 1984 inspired Major General Muhammadu Buhari, his 2019 lecture can have the potential of also impacting on President Muhammadu Buhari in such a way that the current policy of border closure could be reviewed. The belief cannot be easily thrown away because of the powerful arguments brought forward by the professor. The only point of observation, to which we will come after, is that the environmental conditionings of 1984 appear to be completely different from that of 2019.

Fourth, and perhaps more significantly, the rationale is also to generate informed discussion and stimulate research interests in questions and issues. For instance, what are the dynamics of the 24 April 1984 border closure and the re-opening of the border on March 1, 1986? As asked by Professor Asiwaju, ‘why were the borders kept officially open virtually interrupted in the past thirty-three years irrespective of the several regime changes…? What informed the present return to negative nationalism à la Trump? For how long would the borders remain closed and Government’s insensitivity to the sufferings of the border communities continue unabated?

Without scintilla of doubts, the foregoing questions are interesting research problematic. In this regard, can it be rightly argued that the August 20, 2019 border closure is ‘evidently ill-advised? Is Professor Asiwaju not also right to suggest that the border communities are suffering a great deal as a result of the border closure? Over the years, Professor Asiwaju has always been a major proponent of borders that unite. In other words, a border normally divides. To talk about borders that unite, what should we mean by that if not to imply that there is the need for border cooperation at the level of Nigeria and the limitrophe countries? A border can divide but what if emphasis is not placed on it politically?

Professor Asiwaju undoubtedly belongs to the school of thought of Raimondo Strassoldo, an Italian sociologist, who he quoted as saying that ‘spatial boundaries have ambiguous features. They divide and unite, bind the interior and link it with the exterior, they are barriers and junctions, walls and doors, organs of defence and attack… and in respect to frontier areas, they can be managed, so as to maximise any of these functions… as they can be militarised as bulwarks against neighbours or be made into areas of peaceful exchange.’

In this regard, Professor Asiwaju accepts that a border can divide and can also unite. However, he is preference is the need for borders that unite. This is why his attitudinal disposition has all along favoured border cooperation and the prevention of any policy that entails the sufferings of the border communities. Whatever is the case, it is against this background that the essence of the December 12, 2019 lecture should be explained and understood.

First, it is noted in the lecture that before Nigeria acceded to national sovereignty on October 1, 1960 ‘the generally, legally defined borders, even though not so completely or satisfactorily demarcated, were efficiently administered virtually without recourse to being formally closed against the mainly French neighbouring colonies. The only exceptions in this period were the short episodes of tension of the World Wars… During each of those wars, especially the second and more tragic, the tensions created by the fall of France to Germany and anxieties in British Nigeria vis-a-vis limitrophe French West African colonies of Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger to the west and north respectively, where the short-lived Vichy-based German colonial rule of defeated France had extended their control.’Put differently, under colonial rule, there were generally no border closures.

Second, as from October 1, 1960 the foreign policy of the first government of independent Nigeria, led by Prime Minister Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, was Africa-centred. Nigeria was very supportive of African Unity. In fact, Nigeria played active part in the making of the Organisation of African Unity, and particularly in shaping the perspectives of the Monrovia school of thought, which advocated functional cooperation first, as opposed to the Casablanca school, which preferred political unity first. Professor Asiwaju is therefore quite right in noting that, under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, border closure was never an issue to be contemplated upon.

As explained by Asiwaju, ‘Nigeria’s borders in this period were not known ever to have been closed in view of this commitment to the policy of African regional integration. The language and state practice of unilateral border closure came with the military intervention in Nigerian politics and attendant interruption of the democratic process. It was first heard and known with the first military coup d’état of January 1, 1966; and thereafter, it formed the signature tune in the announcement of each subsequent military coup d’état: July 1966, May 1975, February 1976, December 1983, August 1985, and November 1993.’

Third, Professor Asiwaju underscored the point that ‘the unilateral border closure ordered by the first Buhari administration in Nigeria was so enforced that it nearly led to the collapse of the Economic Community of West African States over his head, when briefly, during the nearly two years rule, he was elected presumably on purpose as Chairperson of the ECOWAS Council of Heads of State and Government.’ This observation is pertinent in terms of the character of purposefulness of Major General Buhari who is always on record to be tough and disciplined. He is generally considered to be a no-nonsense man and impartial.

However, the continuation of Professor Asiwaju’s observation clearly negated any seriousness or objectivity of purpose of the Major General. His record of impartiality was called to question. As he noted, ‘in spite of its operational severities, the 1984/1985 military regime collapsed largely at the altar of double dealings in its execution and the colossal corruption it introduced into the personnel of border-enforcement institutions… The battle cry then, as now, for all the draconian measures taken to close the borders and keep them closed, was zero tolerance for cross-border crimes, especially smuggling and currency trafficking; but this was marred by massive official corruption, double standard and … [a]mong other episodes was the widely publicised mysterious passage of twenty-three suit cases allegedly stuffed with officially-banned foreign currency and allegedly belonging to an unnamed Northern Emir, which escaped the otherwise stringent security screening at the popular Muritala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos.’

In light of this observation of double standard, it is useful to ask other questions: is it, indeed, the person of Major General Buhari that should be directly held responsible or his coterie of advisers? Major General Buhari came up with the policy of War Against Indiscipline in 1984 and all Nigerians quickly began to adjust. One of the reasons, however, for ousting him was also precisely the impacting success of the war on indiscipline. His policies conflicted with the interests of Nigeria’s development partners. This is to suggest that Muhammadu truly had genuine national interest at heart and made strenuous efforts to protect them, but was frustrated out by the Babangida coup.

With the question of the double standard raised at the level of a Northern Emir, this is where there is really a need for further research, particularly in light of the current scourge of war against corruption in Nigeria. The war is raging on, but again, it is also fraught with official corruption in many ramifications. Many politicians have withdrawn their membership from their political parties, to join the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), purposely to have their corrupt practices covered up.

In other words, the APC is nothing more than an instrument for the promotion of corruption, which clearly negates the publicly announced Government’s anti-corruption policy. And perhaps more inquisitively, how do we explain one aspect of President Buhari’s attitudinal disposition, which does not seek to promote impartiality in political governance? He is always very quick to sanction other criminals, but very slow in cases where he apparently has vested interest? Why was the Northern Emir not arrested and prosecuted when he was military Head of State? His attention has been drawn to many cases of people with corrupt records in his government but he turned deaf ears to them. The non-action in the matter of the Northern Emir is part of what is giving the President the character of a very partial person. This also partly explains the increasing animosity vis-a-vis his administration.

Fourth, Professor Asiwaju noted that since General Babangida opened the borders on March 1, 1986, there have not been any closure of borders, with the exception of the one- week border closure with the Republic of Benin under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency. The closure was not economically, but security, motivated.

Ahmadou Tidjani, a Nigérien national based in Benin Republic and dealing with stolen goods from Nigeria, was in possession of the expensive car not only forcefully grabbed from President Obasanjo’s daughter, Iyabo and her friend, in Nigeria, but also killed the two daughters of the friend in the process of the attack. The killers escaped to Benin Republic. Ahmadu Tidjani in whose possession the stolen car was found, prompted the one-week border closure protest on the part of the Government of Nigeria. Tidjani was promptly arrested, extradited to Nigeria, prosecuted and jailed.

Even though the criminal died in prison, there is no disputing the fact that the foregoing points of observation, particularly the fourth one, clearly show that there are several complex issues in Nigeria’s border relations with the limitrophe countries. When the issues are economic, they are also given regional and international political colourations. Nigeria’s relationship with any of the Francophone neighbours cannot ignore French interests in any foreign policy strategic calculations. In fact, some Non-governmental organisations went to protest against the Government of France in the Embassy of France in Abuja Lagos, last week allegedly for France’s support for the Boko Haramists. What really is the French connection in Nigeria’s relations with the immediate neighbours? What really is the way forward? Should there be closure or non-closure of borders?

Regional Integration and Quo Vadis?
Without any shadow of doubt, Professor Asiwaju’s submission that border communities are suffering and are not entitled to that type of suffering, is quite tenable. Is it the Government of Nigeria that should solely be held responsible? This is where there is the need to look at the environmental conditionings of the current border closure: how do we explain the Francophone support for Morocco’s quest to join the ECOWAS in spite of the fact that Morocco belongs geo-politically to the Maghreb region? How do we explain the slow pace of execution of the Economic Partnership Agreements done by the European Union and the ECOWAS leaders? Why is it that the non-ratification of the agreement by Nigeria has become the main impediment to the agreement, even when thirteen countries have ratified it? Why is it that Benin Republic is always troubled when there is border closure?

One truth is not far-fetched: the yearly budget of Benin Republic is only finalised after Nigeria might have passed its own, just to allow for the adoption of lower tariffs. Most of Benin Republic’s importations are targeted at the Nigerian market. The same is true of the Economic Partnership Agreements. As the level of anti-Nigeria sentiments also appear to be on the increase in Africa, regional integration ought to give way to self-preservation and survival. On the issue of suffering of the border communities, this is where the Government will have to urgently address.