Barack Obama once said that “we are defined not by our borders but by our bonds”. However, the border experiences and not the border determine the level of bonds between two countries. Effective diplomatic bridges always eliminate troubles at the border. That is why the combination of border security and domestic enforcement of the law constitute national security. The borderline is the conduit for the importation [and exportation] of ideas, goods, technologies, and other necessities for our well-being. It is also the pipeline for admitting insurgents, jihadists, war mercenaries, contraband goods, small arms, illegal immigrants and all the scary undesirables that create flavourless life.
The quality of support from neighbouring countries, on the other hand, depends on the seriousness of the country and its border security agents’ patriotism. For example, until Nigeria decided to shut its land borders against its neighbours’ for undermining our economy, they persevered in the excesses and boosted their economies as a result. The Benin Republic is the main culprit. For several decades, the country transformed itself into a transit route for reexporting goods that non-members of the region cannot readily bring into Nigeria, leveraging the ECOWAS free trade among members. It imported by far more foreign rice and frozen chicken than its country of about 12 million people can consume and reexport them to Nigeria. Unfortunately, in addition to rice and chicken, other undesirables such as munitions, jihadists, insurgents, drug peddlers made their way into the country.
Although the land border closure approach might not have optimally resolved the problem, it nevertheless emphasized the reality of the trouble at the border and the degree to which our neighbours can either improve or escalate it. Countries, regardless, need each other and especially excellent neighbours to make meaningful progress in both the economy and security.
There are at least four ways by which Nigeria’s neighbours directly facilitate the exportation of insecurity into the country. The first is by failing to curtail insecurity in their countries. As an accommodating big brother, Nigeria is always the place to seek asylum when contiguous neighbouring countries experience serious conflicts. Even countries that do not share a border with us see Nigeria as a place of safety when there is a crisis in their own countries. Consequently, the failure of leadership in neighbouring countries to contain domestic catastrophe is a crucial factor. Second is the Nigerian leadership taking cross-border ethnic ties too far. For instance, many stories and video evidence make the rounds about how the Fulani ethnic group across the region considers that Nigeria should be their native homeland. Our leaders seemingly consent to that by their body language and the massive influx of immigrants of the ethnic stock. Unfortunately, at the back of such permitted ethnic/cultural driven immigration are the fire and gunpowder of herder’s conflicts with crop farmers across the country. There is every reason to believe that such ties underscored the support that the current president got from two governors from the Niger Republic when he sought re-election.
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Third, although not explicitly forbidden by the electoral law and Constitution, such partisan involvement of governors from other countries in our electioneering processes is simply an interference possibly because of pre-existing socio-cultural ties. The fourth is declining socio-economic prospects. Governance in Africa typically delivers mismanagement of public resources and poor economic performance. The resulting poverty across the continent naturally pushes the citizens of the affected countries to search and migrate to areas that are supposedly greener. Unfortunately, while migrating, they also come with several other unwanted items of baggage.
Today, relative peace and a substantial level of cooperation exist between Nigeria and its neighbours. But it has not always been like that. Nigeria and Chad, for instance, had confrontations over the ownership of Lake Chad. Both countries mutual interest in oil prospects facilitated their cooperation. They set up joint military activities on the border to prevent tensions. But with Nigeria’s investment of $1 million to develop the Chad Basin Development Authority on the Nigerian side, the contention for the ownership of Lake Chad spiked. The Lake Chad basin provided a rich environment and facilities for agriculture, pastoralism and fishing and consequently attracted migrants from all over the Sahel. By April 1983, Chadian forces invaded and took over nineteen islands on Lake Chad. However, the Nigerian troops successfully recaptured the islands and expelled the Chadian troops beyond fifty kilometres across the border. Part of the crisis resolution, which comprised the militarization of the boundary and construction of road facilitating rapid movement of soldiers, also enhanced the continued migration.
The Benin Nigeria border has been historically notorious for the smuggling of ammunition, drugs, children, and terrorism. The borderline was severally closed in 1985 for its use in Nigeria’s economic sabotage. Ten years after, following the illegal execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, resulting in many Ogonis allegedly fleeing to the Benin Republic, the border was closed. At the same time, the Nigerian government accused the Beninese authorities of granting asylum to its enemies. By 2003, cross-border crime along the Nigeria Benin border exacerbated, resulting in the closure of the border twice and reopened after the leader of the criminal gang from Benin was handed over to the Nigerian authorities to face charges. Benin has also maintained the reputation of a transit country leveraging its ECOWAS membership to reexport and dump Asian commodities into Nigeria.
The sour point of the Nigerian Cameroon relationship is primarily around the disputed ownership of the Bakassi peninsula. Eventually, the international court of justice ceded the peninsula to Cameroon. Many Nigerians who by the judgment became Cameroonians are angry and returning to designated settlements in Cross River state, thereby exacerbating cross-border migrations and crime. Before settling the peninsula ownership disputes, the border remained a strong migration pipeline for criminals and armed bandits who regularly killed Nigerians. However, criminal activities on the border, including sea piracy, have continued.
Despite the historical and ongoing differences, the insecurity in the region has become a point of confluence. It has forced neighbours to collaborate against their common enemies, namely cross-border criminals, religious fundamentalists, and terrorist groups. These criminals essentially target and wreak the most havoc in Nigeria but run to these neighbouring countries to regroup. Even in the retreat mode, they continue their mayhem in those countries. As good neighbours that seemingly believe in the notion of “one for all and all for one”, affected countries in the Sahel came together under separate bilateral security arrangements and together under a Multinational Joint Task Force to reclaim their threatened destinies. But virtually every collaborative effort suffers some level of free-rider challenge. Nigerian neighbours’ commitment to the multinational joint task force is a good proxy for gauging the level of cooperation in bailing Nigeria and themselves from the clutches of insecurity.
Nigeria and the Niger Republic have had a long-standing cordial relationship. The strength of the association was evident in 2013 when the country speedily agreed on joint border patrols with Nigeria to curb insecurity. It is also actively involved in the military efforts of the multinational joint task force. The combined forces of Nigeria and Niger have severally conducted massive clearance operations of major Boko Haram hideouts along the border. In 2016, the government of Niger established demobilization sites and other non-military counter-insurgency strategies. It also continued to frustrate the recruitment of insurgents from the Diffa region and all along the Komadougou River. More than 1700 persons are currently in the judicial nets because of their alleged involvement or links with the group.
Chad has remained a veritable ally to Nigeria in the fighting of Boko Haram. Its troops have severally, with Nigeria’s consent, crossed into Nigeria to contain the insurgents. It also dispatched some of its forces to Cameroon and Niger, signalling its frontal readiness to take down the insurgents. It has sent soldiers to Niger under operation Gama Aiki to clear the insurgents in that country. Overall, Chad’s significant deployment of military assets under the Multinational Joint Task Force arrangements at the lake area and its national army on the lakeshore have had restrictive effects on the insurgency’s expansion in the basin. Chad has remained a strategic military force for counter-insurgency operation in conflict areas within the region. Apart from the imprisonment of several captured insurgents, Chad set up local defence militias, which has played significant roles against Boko Haram’s operations. Chad has also paid a costly price for its leading military role in the conflict. In a seven-hour confrontation with Boko Haram insurgents in March 2020, ninety-eight Chadian soldiers lost their lives, while scores more were wounded. In a retaliatory fight, Chadian forces neutralized more than 1000 militants and took sixty suspects as prisoners of war.
Cameroon’s campaign against Boko Haram insurgents did not start early compared to other Nigeria’s contiguous neighbours. However, despite the United States blockade of its acquisition of strategic fighting equipment, Cameroon is seriously investing in the war arsenal and contending vigorously with Boko Haram insurgents. Cameroon adopted the combined strategies of militarizing the Far North region, closing border crossings and concentration of displaced persons around urban areas to contain Islamic insurgents’ infiltration. As of 2016, Cameroonian authorities sentenced approximately ninety members of the Boko Haram group to death. The number of those receiving capital punishment has been increasing since then.
Benin was the last country among Nigeria’s neighbours to join the Multinational Joint Task Force for sure. However, it readily became a reserve rapid intervention force. The countries northern side is exposed to Islamic insurgency, currently creating a crisis in its neighbouring Coted’Ivoire. There are speculations that the country’s terrorism risk heightens because of its counter-insurgency support in Nigeria and Mali.
In conclusion, initially, most of Nigeria’s neighbours distanced themselves from involvement in the insurgency operation. Typical of African leadership, rarely did they imagine that it would eventually spread into their territories. Regardless, neighbouring country commitment in military engagements needs revving up. The late Chadian president admonished other countries, particularly Nigeria, to exhibit a higher level of seriousness to clear out the insurgents on its side. He was right because the insurgency originated here, and we will also be the biggest losers if we do not act fast. The challenges, however, remain complicated. Beyond funding, there is also the intricate problem of insurgents’ infiltration of the military. In one radio program circulating in WhatsApp, a caller who claims to be an ex-sniper declared that he left the war because some of his colleagues killed those eliminating the jihadists in large numbers. This concern calls for a genuinely thorough surgery of the operatives executing the war, or we continue to lose the trust and support of our neighbours.