Written by Olawale Rasheed and Hassan Ibrahim
Sunday, 18 September 2011
Influx of religious extremists from the Marghreb into Northern Nigeria and consequent expansion of religious fundamentalism may not abate for sometime to come, unless a concerted attention is paid to the nation’s poorly-policed borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, investigations by Sunday Tribune has revealed.
Checks at the nation’s Northern borders revealed an extensive level of permissiveness in border crossings arising from close ethnic and religious contiguity which the Nigerian authorities are at a loss as to contain.
Just as in the case of the nation’s South-West borders with Benin Republic, the Nigerian borders with Niger and Chadian republics are loosely policed and movements to and from the border regions are mostly free, safe for occasional efforts by the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS).
Investigations at Ilela, Jimbiya, Banki and Damborou-Ngala border points showed that a borderless unofficial regime operates in the areas with even immigration officers facing mob action if they attempt to enforce strict control.
The situation is complicated by the common historical ties between Nigeria and its Northern neighbours. For example, Zinder, the second biggest city in Niger, was part of the old Nigerian Bornu Empire with the Beriberi tribe, a subset of the Kanuri, as inhabitants.
The same situation is obtainable in Maradi, the third biggest city of Niger, which was previously part of Katsina and where Nigeria’s currency is freely acceptable under the dominant tribes of Hausa and Fulani stock.
To further confirm the country-within-country situation in the Northern region, it was learnt that mutual migration between Northern Nigeria and the Marghreb dated back to the 18th century, a development said to have been aided by the leniency of the British colonial authorities.
For example, a recent report from the University of Sussex Global Migration Origin Database indicated that the ethnic mix between Nigeria and its Northern neighbours is more extensive than previously imagined as about 750, 000 Tuaregs from Niger Republic reportedly migrated to Kano city between 1945 and 1955.
Sudanese census put the number of Nigerians in the country at close to two million with fully Arabised Nigerians reportedly holding positions in the Sudanese government and security services.
An Igbo traveller posted this brief about the porosity of the nation’s borders, especially in the Northern region: “There are four main entry points into Niger. The busiest is Sokoto route, which crosses at Ilela. Mini buses and bush taxis run daily to the border, just past Ilela, crossing to Birni N’Konni, you can get on a bus straight for Niamey.
“Travelling between Kano and Zinder (Niger) is equally straightforward. The final option is between Katsina and Maradi. From Niger, it is easier to cross at Gaya. You wll probably have to hire a bush taxi to take you from the Nigerian side at Kamba on to Sokoto.”
Findings revealed that the ease of entrance, coupled with ethnic and religious contiguity, is increasingly becoming a threat to national security. It was alleged in the course of investigations that some border officials compromise border security on account of religious and ethnic affiliations.
An official, who did not want his name in print, told Sunday Tribune that suspicions are very high that religious extremists pass through the border with minimum distractions.
“This affiliation is a serious challenge. There are instances when suspicious movements are allowed, especially through unmarked border points,” he noted.
It was also learnt that even in official border points, security officials are always cautious in border control, especially when people opted to perform religious prayers on either sides of the border.
The alleged permissiveness, Sunday Tribune further learnt, is accentuated by the low number of border posts along thousands of kilometres of Nigerian border with Niger, Chad and Cameroon republics with existing border posts on that line being less than 12.
The border personnel are also very small with ineffective communication gadgets, few patrol vehicles and lack of basic border accommodation with officers reportedly operating under trees and on foot to chase illegal immigrants.
While the authorities are finding it hard to police the borders, Sunday Tribune gathered that the nation is also at a loss on how to handle illegal immigrants already in the country, due to fear of backlash from their countries of origin.
It was learnt that while thousands entered Nigeria illegally, many Nigerians are also in several Marghreb countries illegally.
“The challenge is that many Nigerians are in Niger, Chad, Sudan and others with big businesses and holding the nerves of those nations’ economy. So, if you deport their people here in Nigeria, they will do the same and even appropriate our investments.
Millions of dollars in remittances are sent into Nigeria annually. Such rupture of relationship will affect such returns and further complicate our economic woes,” a foreign affairs officer who is involved in immigration politics stated.
Immigration offices in the Northern region, however, refused to comment on the issues raised during the investigations, insisting that only the service headquarters in Abuja could comment.
The Minister of Internal Affairs, Comrade Abba Moro, also confirmed the challenges of border security and revealed that a system of hightech security surveillance of the entire border region of Nigeria was being worked upon by the Federal Government.
“When completed, from Abuja, we will know everything happening in our borders,” the minister stated.
The Comptroller General of Immigration, when contacted, directed the service spokesman to address the state of border policing which is a statutory responsibility of the Nigerian Immigration Service.
The service spokesman, Mr. Joaphim Olumba, addressed the challenges as follows:
Level of manpower“I will say the number is not sufficient, especially at the border points. While our officers are well trained, the border line is too extensive. There are plans to raise the manpower level.”
Number of border points“The border posts are not sufficient. But you cannot increase the border posts without increasing the personnel level. Our officers sacrifice a lot under very difficult conditions. The operational facilities in term of border barracks, communication facilities and patrol vehicles are insufficient. The problem is with the illegal unofficial routes which the service is trying its best to police.”
Challenge of ethnic affinity“Many just condemn the service for not policing the border. Only few people care to know that the most serious challenge facing the service is this religious and ethnic affinity. The border is not only porous, but also contiguous. You don’t even know when you are entering Niger or when you are in Nigeria. People from across the border lines have co-existed for centuries, inter-married, share same cultures and worship in the same mosques.
“We find it hard to even do our job because of this historical facts. To control the border on market days is even more troublesome. So, we devise series of strategies to monitor movements across the border. We now issue tally number on market days to control entrance and exit. The nation’s borders need to be properly demarcated, if the border is to be better policed.”
Alleged compromise of security“No officer within the service will joke with his job and compromise national security on account of ethnic and religious affiliations. Officers hold allegiance to the service and I must say that officers posted to each command are mixed. Religious consideration can, therefore, not influence border control. If anything like that is noticed, the report will get to the headquarters and appropriate sanctions will be applied.”
Joint border patrols“ECOWAS is assisting a lot in this respect. There are plans to set up a joint monitoring team. This will, however, start at Seme Border and later extend to the Northern border. The various agencies within Nigeria are also collaborating through joint patrols. But immigration patrols mostly alone, especially in the remote illegal routes under very difficult circumstances.”
Agenda for better border control“The new security situation has made installation of hightech surveillance a necessity. This is part of the programme of the comptroller general and the minister is working hard on this. The reality is that as of today, we don’t have surveillance equipment to monitor the border.
“The comptroller general is also committed to a programme of well-structured national border. Towards this, she has focussed on forging close operational relationship with the National Boundary Commission, the Border Communities Development Agency, the International Migration Organisation and others.
“Some of the comptroller general’s initiatives would have manifested more but for the fact that she assumed office when the 2010 budget was almost implemented and the 2011 budget passage was also delayed”