Nigeria’s southwestern border with Benin is disreputably chaotic. Travelers and traders combat corrupt officials, hawkers and buzzing moto-taxis just to get over.
The new passage point has sprung up near the well-worn dirt tracks and roadside markets that the West African bloc ECOWAS hopes will make the movement of people and trade a lot easier. President Muhammadu Buhari flew in by helicopter to cut the ribbon at the Seme-Krake Joint Border Post this week with his Beninese counterpart Patrice Talon.
The well-guarded 17-hectare site conforms to international standards and has been built for an estimated $21-million. State-of-the-art scanners to detect illicit goods and a weighbridge have been installed.
Customs, immigration and other officials will no longer have to work out of makeshift offices in battered shipping containers and huts.
The president of the ECOWAS Commission, Jean-Claude Kassi-Brou, said as well as boosting trade and helping travelers, the border post will help cut smuggling, fraud and corruption.
The European Union is providing ECOWAS with nearly €64-million to create seven similar facilities from Nigeria to Ivory Coast, between Ghana and Burkina Faso, and Guinea and Mali.
Ketil Karlsen, the EU ambassador to Nigeria and ECOWAS, told AFP: “A better flow of people, goods and services… translates into job creation, opportunities and development possibilities.”
On the face of it, developing economies through more formalized trade seems common sense, particularly at Seme-Krake, which is one of Africa’s busiest border crossings. Some 70% of regional trade is estimated to be conducted in the corridor stretching 900 kilometers along the Atlantic coast from Lagos to Abidjan.
Economic growth is also needed in Nigeria, where about 87 million of its more than 190 million people are classed as living in extreme poverty, and in low-income Benin.
Nigerian economist, Nonso Obikili said the new border post could spur the creation of others if it shows that trade across a land border can be as smooth and efficient as via seaports.
ECOWAS and the EU both say Seme-Krake is a starting point, as questions are asked whether such a facility is really needed and will even be used.
People from the 15 ECOWAS countries already have the right to free movement and residency in other member states. Not everyone uses formal crossings.
A 2011 study by the National Institute of Statistics (INSAE) in Benin recorded some 171 border crossing points with Nigeria and its other neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger.
Trade-wise, it’s a similar picture, with used cars and fuel, food and agricultural products smuggled through the bush to get round import bans and high tariffs in protectionist Nigeria.
Motorcycles carrying sacks of banned foreign rice and cars with suspiciously high rear suspensions are commonplace on Nigerian roads near the border.
“In term of smuggling, I don’t think it will make a difference,” said Obikili.
“Smugglers don’t really use the Seme border anyway, as it has always been heavily policed.”
Nigeria’s government has been increasingly publicizing work on much-needed road, rail and airport infrastructure projects as elections approach early next year.
The notorious road between the border and Lagos is not one of them and its current state could even prove counter-productive to the aims of the new border post, at least in the short term.
It can take the best part of a day to travel the entire 70 kilometers of the Lagos-Badagry Expressway, which has been called “an international disgrace”.
Cars, trucks and motorcycles move at a snail’s pace through a moonscape of giant mud-filled potholes, fly-tipped rubbish and abandoned construction debris. Foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama, who travelled by car to Tuesday’s opening, told local media the state of the road was “totally unacceptable”.
“You cannot be talking about the free movement of people and goods without the prerequisite infrastructure to facilitate it,” he was quoted as saying. Perhaps not coincidentally, ministers on Wednesday approved a budget request for 63 billion naira ($173-million) for upgrades on the road.
But funding is no guarantee in Nigeria, where corruption regularly prolongs infrastructure projects and schemes started by one politician are often abandoned by their successors.
Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagos advisory firm SBM Intelligence, said trade would only increase “if Nigeria got it right”. For that, he argued, the government “needs to just create the enabling environment” for the private sector, then “get out of the way”.