Friday, June 14, 2024

Its The Border, Stupid!

In the third week of June, a wild claim took over some sections of Nigeria’s twitter-sphere. Tweets surfaced, alleging that voter registration sanctioned by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was ongoing in Nigeria’s neighborhoods, especially Niger and Southern Chad. The claim which was made as part of the grievances of young people against the electoral umpire on what they perceived as deliberate voter suppression from some power centres using INEC as a tool, was strong enough to warrant a rebuttal from the commission, which termed it as malicious fake news.

Rejecting such allegations as mischievous propaganda without visiting its underlying causes is inimical to causes that dedicate resources to fighting disinformation on the Internet. The fact that much of Nigeria’s internal instability originates from its borders is a fact not acknowledged enough, and for the few who do, the talks move wildly away from an acceptance of the problem to an outright rejection of such revelations on grounds of deflection. For instance, senior political figures in the current federal government have blamed the killing of farmers on foreign herders of the Fulani stock, claiming that Nigerian herders are also victims of such violence. This statement is half true and deserves all the scrutiny it gets because it is mostly used as a proxy for the larger security crises, especially those caused by the government itself. But that is not to say that it should be thrown out in its entirety.

Nigeria’s borders span 5330 kilometers with about 1490 illegal entry points. It is a country of over 923 000 square miles with poor resources and manpower for guard duties. To simply put, much of the internal problems in Nigeria stem from the fact that it has lost control of its borders, and as a result, its territory has become contested territories for a variety of interests–both state and non-state.

A porous border is an open invitation to plunder. To say this has been the story with Nigeria is putting things quite mildly because the situation is much worse. The Nigerian border does not rank anywhere near the most policed in the world. It is on a fast lane away from the demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula and even the close areas are an unknown quantity in Nigerian strategic thinking. The effect is not all that hard to fathom. The Boko Haram insurgency has been sustained for so long because of the seamless nature of the commute between the countries of the Lake Chad Basin Islands.

This is something that has its advantages (the ability of countries in the Multinational Joint Task Force to enter into each other’s sovereign territory in pursuit of terrorists without necessarily being found afoul of International law) as well as its headaches as terrorists have used the seamlessness to their advantage while attacking strategic locations in one territory and running to the nearest for sanctuary provided by the unwillingness of the latter to make such sanctuary uninhabitable for that purpose.

Nigeria has two economic corridors. One on the west which stretches from Lagos through to Kano and ends at Jibia in Katsina State (also known as LAKAJI), and the other on the east begins from Port Harcourt and terminates at Maiduguri, also known as the Eastern Economic Corridor. The Nigerian civil war which took place in the Old Eastern Region devastated trade and economic development in the area and as a punitive measure, the federal government never bothered to rebuild it as part of its post-war development efforts. As such, all the active ports were concentrated westwards in Lagos, leaving Nigeria in a strategically vulnerable position of only one productive economic area.

As a result, since the 1970s, most, if not all of the country’s security challenges have originated in the eastern geographical area and spread westwards. In the present context, most of the arms that come into Nigeria from the land and sea borders come in from that area. The Niger Delta Insurgency was fuelled by arms that came into the creeks from the Gulf of Guinea. Just last week Tuesday on 21st June, troops of the 13 Brigade, 82 Division, Nigerian Army, intercepted a Toyota Camry conveying assorted ammunition en route to Utanga village towards Obudu mountains in Cross River State. A thorough search conducted on the vehicle revealed it was conveying 72 Improvised Explosive Device chargers, 121 dynamite liquid wraps, 200 rounds of 7.62 mm (NATO), and 82 rounds of 7.62 mm (Special) ammunition. Other items recovered in the intercepted vehicle are military uniforms and kits. There is little doubt that these weapons were headed to Cameroon where that country’s military is dealing with separatist agitation in its South West.

The above example is just one out of several weapons and drug busts carried out by security forces which are clearly not enough. The inadequacy is a function of negligence and lack of understanding of strategy which Nigerians are paying for. The discussion within official policy circles has remained largely within the framework of illegal entry points which government agencies are finding it difficult to cope with. However, that same focus has not been placed on the formal entry points which, for all intents and purposes, have been practically abandoned to terrorists.

This has been the story of Jibia. In August 2021, terrorists killed two Nigerien soldiers who strayed into Nigeria. The latter was on the trail of the terrorists who had launched a cattle rustling operation in Niger from Jibia. It was in the same Jibia border post that 12 Worshippers were abducted from a mosque during Ramadan in the same year. Currently, the area has been terrorized to the point of chasing away any form or semblance of Nigerian government presence and is now a territorial enclave for terrorists who use it for cross-border operations such as the abduction of a US national in Niger who was brought into Katsina for safe keeping in 2020.

This also accounts for why the federal government’s border closure policy failed. The stated goal of that policy asides from its economic reasons had security in mind. It was done to stop the flow of illegal weapons. It did not. A border closure cannot be effected in a territory or border where the state does not have control. That leakage also partly explains why the military offensive in the North West in September 2021 failed–the terrorists simply shifted base northwards into Niger, and southwards into Kwara and Kogi.

The alarm bells that are yet to be rung are quietly chiming in the South West border entry points which are undoubtedly Nigeria’s most economically productive. While it has been a playground for smugglers of items like chicken and rice, it is fast becoming one rife with a territorial disputes with the lesser quantity Benin Republic being on the ascendancy. In June 2021, a Christian missionary activist Pastor Kunle Garb was arrested at Igbokofi, Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State by Gendarmes (Benin Republic police) in a Gestapo style. Since 2008, Benin has claimed ownership of that land and several others in Yewa without any appropriate response by the Nigerian government. As a matter of fact, the lack of response is serving to embolden other countries who invade Nigerian territory and plunder it at will since 2020, the number of territorial incursions into Nigeria by both state and nonstate agents has exceeded ten, including the incident in October 2021 in which Cameroonian soldiers invaded Manga community in Taraba in search of separatists and killed at least 11 Nigerians.

For the average Nigerian who has been at the receiving end of insecurity made worse by foreign terrorists and illegal arms flowing through very poorly manned borders, the sort of respite needed to tackle such challenges head-on has not been found among the sectors responsible. One of such sectors is law enforcement. In March 2021, a frightening piece appeared in the opinion section of the Nigerian Tribune which captured the border problem and state complicity quite succinctly:

The strange faces from the Niger Republic with their ‘ships of the desert’ huddled in Kano camps. Reports said their presence spread instant fear in Rimin Zakara and Dorayi Babba in Ungogo and Gwale local government areas of the state. Terrified locals argued that the strangers were in the area for criminal activities under the pretext of selling something. But the state police command said it had done investigations in conjunction with the Nigerian Immigration Service, and discovered that the aliens had genuine documentation to enter the country. Kano Police spokesperson, Abdullahi Haruna, told the media that: “We have not found anything incriminating on them. Investigation showed that they are potash merchants from Damagaram in Niger Republic, and they have proper travel documents. We invited their leaders for questioning, just as we contacted the Niger Consulate over the issue. Further investigation revealed that they do not stay more than 20 days in Kano, during which they sell their commodity and buy foodstuff at Dawanau Market for their return journey to Damagaram.” Case closed!

The author of the piece also noted that the year before, in August 2020, Zamfara State governor, Bello Mattawale, hosted the Prime Minister of Niger Republic, Mr. Brigi Refini and in that meeting, the governor announced that bandits were using camels to smuggle arms into Nigeria from Niger. He said, “We are aware that due to the pressure on those who smuggle weapons into Nigeria using vehicles, they have now resorted to the use of camels.”  Seven months later, a procession of camels entered Nigeria and landed in Kano in the middle of an undeclared war, and the police say they are harmless potash traders.

The idea of border security goes beyond keeping one’s country safe. It is about helping to protect the country’s economy and to encourage trade and tourism. It is about creating a safe, easy, and stress-free way for legitimate travelers to enter the country. To do this, the Nigerian government has to go beyond crying about the problem to implementing workable solutions. It has to start with getting the manpower problem of the Nigerian immigration service fixed. It has to use its diplomatic leverage to coerce its neighbors if need be, into better, an effective intensive collaboration that will not stop after two weeks. Walls might look medieval but in this context, it is very much needed.

The country also suffers from poor identity management which makes it easier for terrorists to operate without consequences. The duplication of identity services across multiple agencies outside of the national identity number provided by the National Identity Management Commission makes such an effort look redundant. The valuable insights generated by a border system and its ecosystem must be protected. Information security is key. More than this, it is essential to Nigeria’s reputation and international relations that actions taken are ethical – reflecting principles of human rights and fairness, and have the appropriate community of interest transparency. Decisions should never be entirely automatic; there must always be a ‘human-in-the-loop.’ Data provided by individuals or industry to enhance border operations must respect international standards for privacy and appropriateness of use.

What is even more crucial to the points listed above is the need for the necessary political will to enact solutions to the border crisis. So far, it has been seen that the government for many years has refrained from taking crucial decisions for border security in the North because of the haphazard nature in which the country is created as many Nigerians have relatives across the border. This is also true for the North which has some houses divided by the border. The strong ethnic and cultural attachment that colonialism could not break has impeded progress for far too long and made people worse off. That has to change immediately if we are to survive. And for the policymakers who are not keen on making such changes because of the likely political fallout, they have to understand that the tsunami of insecurity may not spare them far enough to play identity politics with the lives of the people they want to lead.

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