Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How Anglo-French Colonial Rivalry Fuelled Smuggling

Business Day 07-07-09

The incidence of what in modern parlance is regarded as smuggling, in Nigeria can be traced back to the second half of nineteenth century following the annexation of kingdoms, royalties and territories in West Africa by the British and the French. The consequent establishment of different economic zones by these colonising powers and the imperial rivalry between them fuelled by conflicting heritage and values and the prevalent protectionism of that era certainly created a favourable economic climate for the illicit movement of goods across Anglo–French territories, especially between the Nigerian territory and that of once ancient Dahomey, now Benin Republic.

Following the annexation of Lagos by the British in 1862, Freeman, the then governor of Lagos, set up the first customs post which was to ensure that a two per cent duty was collected on goods imported or exported through Badagry. It is remarkable that both the local and foreign traders began to resist these custom duties which were seen as extra burden and sought ways to avoid its payment. On the part of the local trading population, their resistance to duty payment may have been informed by the fact that the making of international boundaries caused a split of communities and cultural entities between the British and the French. The different tariff regimes that this split communities were made to belong irked their sensibilities, as what was previously local short distance trade between their communities thus became international trade subject to customs control.

Commenting on this partition and its impact on the political economy of the West African sub-region, A.I. Asiwaju, a border historian notes that the tradition of rivalry between France and Britain which in the first instance, compelled the partition of… regions at the turn of the nineteenth century… laid the foundation of two contrasting colonial administrations… and led to the implantation of rival economies featuring different markets…”

At the period when a uniform 2 per cent duty was paid on both exported and imported goods in the Lagos-Badagry corridor, the duty on French goods was as high as 10 per cent This was in consonance with the protectionist policies of the British and French which bordered on the need to create overseas markets for their burgeoning home industries. The colonies were perceived as captive markets which should not be open to competitors. It is interesting that such protectionist posture still informs the trade policy of not only advanced economies of today but also the developing ones.

It is apparent that in the event of such customs requirements, the trading community became challenged and smuggling became an option. The incidence of smuggling in the 1860s became phenomenal as “large quantities of spirits and other forms of French wine continued to find their way into Badagry through Porto Novo” Smuggling of goods was at this period as even done today through boats and canoes in the night period. They plied routes that made them avoid the prying eyes of law enforcement agents.
As early as 1864, the colonial administration in Lagos promulgated an ordinance that prohibited smuggling. However, this law did not stop smuggling or discourage smugglers. The setting up of revenue courts that tried smugglers was one way the colonial government addressed the case of smuggling. It is reported that “in 1906 [one] Capt. Walter Martins was arrested for carrying prohibited goods in his ship and was imprisoned for twelve months…”

With negotiations between the British and French over the incidence of smuggling and other matters of common imperial interests leading to the creation of an International Boundary across Nigeria and the Benin areas on the 10th of August 1899, smuggling still continued across the two territories. While the French imposed low tariffs on goods, the British that depended much on these duties for colonial administrative expenses imposed high tariffs. It is noted that the French did not encourage the importation of “durable English bicycles into their territories, thus forcing up the price of English bicycles and encouraging their being smuggled into Dahomey [now Benin Republic] from Nigeria”.

To prevent resisters to the strict French colonial administrative framework which fuelled involuntary protest migrations from Dahomey (Benin) to Nigeria, the French colonial administration imposed very high duties on the importation of arms into Dahomey. This was much higher than it was in the Nigerian territory. This variation in duties equally encouraged smuggling of arms into Dahomey.

This colonial pattern of smuggling fuelled by contrasting economic and tariff regimes is not dissimilar with the trend, especially since the 1970s. John Igue, a prominent Beninois economic geographer has traced the present flux of smuggling of goods from Benin into Nigeria to the period of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) when Nigerians, essentially of Igbo stock sought refuge in notable Beninois cities like Cotonou, Porto-Novo and Ouidah. These refugees who were essentially traders used these cities as havens and platforms for the fuelling of an export and smuggling trade into Nigeria. In agreement, Tom Forrest, a research economist the University of Oxford, in his prosopography on Nigerian private enterprise catalogued the profiles of Abiriba-Igbo traders who since the late 1960s continued their trade in second-hand clothes in Benin and Togo following its ban in Nigeria and the vagaries of the Nigerian Civil War that adversely affected the eastern territories. This migration of Abiriba-Igbo second-hand clothes dealers to Benin explains the present domineering and visible presence of Igbo traders in Cotonou.

In addition to the role of a growing settler Nigerian population in Benin, the increasing dependence of Benin, a close western neighbour of Nigeria, on the re-exportation of goods to Nigeria as a major source of national revenue and even employment for its population has continued to fuel the incidence of smuggling of goods- either totally prohibited in Nigeria or those with high import duties in the country. It is remarkable that Benin Republic generates over 50 per cent of its national revenue from port charges and fees at Cotonou port dependent on being a conduit of importation for re-export to Nigeria.

Historically, smuggling in Nigeria has been sustained by a political economy that rests upon a protectionist argument. Whether under colonial rule or since independence, import tariffs have been used to protect home factories in the case of the British and local factories since the period of self-rule. The logic of strong consumer taste, domestic effective demand and country neighbours’ deriving sustenance by pursuing alternate economic regimes has combined to render Nigeria’s protectionism ineffective.

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