Of all Nigeria’s immediate neighbours, none has as much strategic importance as the Republic of Benin. Yet in terms of land mass its 112,622 km² land mass barely matches the combined size of Zamfara and Niger states. Unlike Nigeria's other neighbours, however, Benin holds the unique distinction of being the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy, a crucial link in the projected pan-African superhighway and the biggest source of movement of goods and persons under the ECOWAS protocol. Its population of just over 10 million is less than half of Lagos' over 21 million bellies that special status.
However, successive Nigerian governments have failed to cultivate a special relationship with Benin and make its leaders espouse policies, especially on the economy that align with Nigeria’s. That large scale smuggling has become the biggest threat to Nigeria’s economic well-being is down to the level of cooperation or lack of it from the government of Benin. The collapse of Nigeria’s textile industry through smuggling of cheap fabrics, the influx of foreign rice that is posing mortal danger to government’s efforts to encourage local production as well as massive importation through land borders of vehicles are almost exclusively accounted for by Benin.
To the credit of its policy makers and managers of the economy, Benin republic has been quite smart in leveraging on its big neighbour to drive economic growth. In shipping, its only seaport in Cotonou strongly rivals the port complexes in Lagos, gaining much shipping traffic carrying goods for the Nigerian market. Vessels laden with vehicles, agricultural products, containerised goods and other general cargoes destined for the Nigerian market are often attracted to the Cotonou port with its lower port charges and tariffs while the more efficient management of its port services through the concession of terminal operations to the private sector has made Nigerian ports play second fiddle to their Cotonou counterpart.
These have been made possible by the aloof disposition of Nigeria to Benin's economic policies, some of which border on outright sabotage of Nigeria’s economy. Records on rice importation aptly illustrate this.
On October 23, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari and his Benin counterpart, Patrice Talon, inaugurated the Seme-Krake Joint Border Post funded by the EU for the Economic Community of West African States. The Joint Border Post (JBP) of Sèmè-Kraké was built in the framework of the ECOWAS Road Transport and Transit Facilitation Programme, an integral part of the regional strategy for implementing a comprehensive action programme on infrastructure and road transport. It is a modern border, built according to international standards to meet the expectations of the ECOWAS people.
The diplomatic niceties that characterised its commissioning notwithstanding, the occasion should serve as a point for the federal government to wake up to the realities of the nature of economic engineering pursued by the Beninois government which essentially is geared towards undermining the Nigerian economy for its benefit. While the federal government may be reluctant to admit it or its economic planners have failed to realise it, the rice policy is facing serious challenges due to the Benin Republic’s tariff regime. Under the terms of the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of goods and persons, Benin may be perfectly in order in opening its borders to the illegal transportation of banned goods into Nigeria.
Therein lies the responsibility of the federal government to engage its Beninios counterpart by encouraging it to adopt tariff structures that are not in direct conflict with the regime in Nigeria to protect its economy. In using tariffs as a tool for discouraging the importation of identified goods, Nigeria's economic planners should reckon with the undisguised inclination of the government of Benin to countervail such policies to benefit their economy and undermine Nigeria's well-being.
The much vaunted “big brother” disposition of Nigeria should have parameters neighbouring countries ought to be apprised of and encouraged to respect in formulating their own policies. The Seme-Krake Joint Border project should be a take off point for resetting Nigeria's relations with its immediate neighbours, beginning with the least endowed but most strategic one, the Republic of Benin.