It was on 23 October 2018 that the presidents of Benin and Nigeria inaugurated the new border crossing between their countries with great pomp and circumstance. President Patrice Talon came by car from Cotonou; his Nigerian counterpart, President Muhammadu Buhari, preferred to arrive by helicopter. They wore similar tunics, and greeted each other warmly.
Ten months later, on 28 August, when they met in the lounges of a major Tokyo hotel on the sidelines of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), the atmosphere was tense, the smiles forced. Nigeria had recently decided to close its land border with its Beninese neighbour – for at least 28 days. Announced on 20 August, the ruling is also less strictly applied on the borders with Niger and Cameroon. But it has much stronger consequences for the Beninese economy.
Pressure from big business
There are many reasons why the Nigerian president has been so firm. Having launched into a protectionist programme, Buhari says his counterpart is not doing enough to stop the large-scale smuggling – especially of rice, which Nigeria also produces – between the two countries. But Buhari was also under pressure from the business community.
“A number of Nigerian business leaders have been complaining about Cotonou’s attitude. They claim their trucks going to Benin are overtaxed at the border,” says a Beninese businessman with links in Nigeria. “In addition, businessman Aliko Dangote, who bought the Nigerian government’s shares in the Lafarge group, wants to sell his cement in Benin, which Talon is prohibiting.”
“Our cement factories are already at over-capacity, and we are doing a lot to fight smuggling,” retorts one of Talon’s government colleagues. “How can a member of the ECOWAS group, which is governed by free movement, decide overnight and without consultation to close its border with its neighbour? It’s not acceptable!”
Between Talon, the businessman, and Buhari, the soldier, it has never been a meeting of minds. In the first months of his mandate, Talon even gave the impression of neglecting his counterpart.
“Relations between two countries are first and foremost based on those between their presidents,” says a former minister under Mathieu Kérékou (1972-1991 and 1996-2006). “President Thomas Boni Yayi was close to Olusegun Obasanjo. Today, Nigeria is not reassured by the Talon administration, it seems disconnected from Nigerian realities.”
“Nigeria has always considered Benin as a country of fraudsters and nothing more. This created a feeling of omnipotence in Abuja,” says a member of Talon’s inner circle. “We want to change all that and have an equal relationship. There has to be mutual respect.”
In 2006, when Boni Yayi launched his bid for president, Obasanjo opened the doors to other African leaders and introduced him to Nigeria’s business elite, from Dangote to the CEO of United Bank for Africa (UBA), Kennedy Uzoka.
The two Yorubas have retained very strong ties. Obasanjo regularly leaves his fiefdom of Abeokuta, 100km north of Lagos, to visit Boni Yayi in his town of Tchaourou and invites Boni Yayi to attend royal ceremonies and weddings.
During the latest political crisis in Benin “Obasanjo leaned heavily on Buhari to intervene,” says a West African diplomatic source. The 28 April parliamentary elections, in which opposition parties were not allowed to participate, launched a power struggle between Talon and Boni Yayi. Talon’s government accused Boni Yayi of provoking violence and he was kept under house arrest for several weeks. It was only the day after Talon’s visit to Abuja that he was allowed to leave Benin on 22 June. A week earlier, Obasanjo had expressed concern about Boni Yayi’s situation in a letter to the African Union (AU). Cotonou has always denied that it acted under duress.
This is not a political matter. The problem is broader: we are facing a giant who does what he wants.”
“At no time did Buhari ask Patrice Talon to release Boni Yayi,” says a member of Talon’s government. However, according to several sources, Buhari did not like the attitude of his counterpart, in particular the accusation by the Beninese government that Nigerian citizens had taken part in the electoral violence.
So, have personal politics sullied the two countries’ relationship? “There is no diplomatic problem between Benin and Nigeria. The presidents speak regularly to each other,” argues a source close to Talon. “This is not a political matter. The problem is broader: we are facing a giant who does what he wants. At a time when the sub-region is working to establish a single currency, this is rather worrying.”
The economy, victim of diplomacy
Officially, exports to Nigeria represent 13% of Benin’s total export volume. But according to the World Bank, informal trade between the two countries accounts for 20% of its GDP. Mainly resulting from the re-export of second-hand vehicles, frozen products, drinks or rice, it is a considerable source of income that makes the Beninese economy dependent on its neighbour.
The border closure will lead to “a significant reduction in the volume of trade, customs revenues and the state’s overall resources expected this year,” says the minister of state for planning and development, Abdoulaye Bio Tchané. “If the situation were to continue, it could reduce our tax revenues and have an impact on the expected economic growth for 2019, as well as on the forecasts for the coming years,” he continues. In 2015, the fall of the naira already had a serious impact on the Beninese economy.
Two years later, Buhari wanted to ban the import of second-hand vehicles from the port of Cotonou, a sector that contributed 9% to Benin’s GDP, providing more than 15,000 direct jobs and nearly 100,000 indirect jobs. This measure, which was finally suspended by the Nigerian Parliament, demonstrates the country’s desire to better control the flow of goods at its border.
“The current context confirms our determination to develop our economy through industrialisation and transformation. We no longer want to be a country of smugglers,” says a close colleague of the Beninese president.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.