Nigeria closed its western border with Benin on Sunday and said it would remain shut until the Beninois government took tougher action against rampant smuggling and banditry along the 700 km-long frontier.
Thousands of travellers were stranded at the main border crossing at Seme, 60 km west of Lagos, after President Olusegun Obasanjo's government ordered the border gates to be shut. However, eyewitnesses said cars with diplomatic plates were still being allowed through.
Nigeria's surprise action effectively cut the main highway along the coast of West Africa that is used to exchange goods between countries as far apart as Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon.
The Nigerian foreign ministry said in a statement the border would remain closed until Benin's President Mathieu Kerekou took firmer action against smuggling and banditry.
For years cars stolen in Nigeria have turned up on sale in Benin and large quantities of cheap Nigerian petrol have been smuggled across the border.
At the same time, human trafficking has become rife in both directions. Nigerians seeking clandestine entry to Europe often leave via Benin, while West African children, recruited to work for low wages on plantations in Central Africa are dispatched in the opposite direction.
“In the past many complaints were made to the Beninois authorities, but failed
to elicit the appropriate and satisfactory response,” the Nigerian foreign ministry said. “The decision to close our border with Benin Republic was therefore taken in Nigeria's overriding national interest.”
Long queues of vehicles formed on each side of the border after barriers went down, leaving travellers uncertain about how they would get home.
“I went to buy goods in Lagos for my business in Cotonou and now I’m
stranded, I don’t know what to do,” Prosper Hunpounou, a Beninois
businessman, told IRIN.
The move by Nigeria may contravene its treaty obligations as a member of the Eonomic Community of West African States. The organisation's 15 member countries have pledged to allow the free movement of people and goods between them.
Although rising crime was cited as Nigeria's reason for sealing the border with Benin, commercial issues may also have played a role in the move.
In recent years, Nigerian officials have expressed concern at the huge volume of cargo traffic which has shifted from the port of Lagos, which is bedevilled by shipping delays, high port charges and corruption, to the more efficient port of Cotonou in Benin. From there, the goods are then trucked overland into Nigeria.
They fear that the transfer in freight movements has led to big losses in port and customs revenues for Nigeria.