Animasahun Salman, who visited the Illela border between Nigeria and Niger Republic in Sokoto State, writes about the travails of Nigerians currently stuck in Niger following the announcement of a border closure by the Federal Government
The long line of articulated vehicles crowded the shoulder of the motorway that connects Niger Republic to Nigeria in the Illela border town of Sokoto State.
Anger, frustration and palpable fear were written on the faces of the drivers and their motor boys who had gone to deliver goods days before the military takeover of the democratic government in Niger.
Their hope for a quick and successful return to the comfort of their beds and the warmth of their home had been diminished.
So This Happened (214) Reviews Nigeria Labour Congress Nationwide Strike, Others | Punch
They have continued to wait endlessly for the reopening of the border to facilitate the continuation of their journey, even as hunger and fear has set in amid the uncertainty. Their hope of quick return was further dashed on Friday as the Federal Government ordered a total shutdown of all borders with the country.
On July 26, the Presidential Guard in Niger detained its democratically elected President, Mohamed Bazoum, and his family members and announced a military takeover.
In a televised broadcast, senior officials of Niger’s several defence and security forces formed a junta and announced the seizure of power, consequently announcing a suspension of the constitution and the democratically elected government.
The spokesperson for the group, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, stated that the takeover was to put an end to the regime that allowed a “deteriorating security situation and bad governance.”
The coup is the fifth successful coup in Niger since it gained independence from France in 1960.
While the announcement in the country was greeted with several pro-coup protests and demonstrations, it only earned condemnation and sanctions for The Economic Community of West African States and the international community, except Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali which have declared support for the military junta.
Nigeria, in its response to the coup, cut off electricity supplies to Niger and closed all land borders between it and the country.
Nigeria’s President and Chairman of ECOWAS, Bola Tinubu, had on July 30 met with fellow ECOWAS leaders to discuss appropriate ways to restore democracy in Niger and the sanctions to be imposed on the military coup leader.
Also taking further steps, Tinubu, in his letter to the Senate said, “Following the unfortunate political situation in the Niger Republic culminating in the overthrow of its President, ECOWAS under my leadership condemned the coup in its entirety and resolved to seek the return of the democratically elected govt in a bid to restore peace, ECOWAS convened a meeting and came out with a communiqué.
“Closure and monitoring of all land borders with the Niger Republic and reactivating of the border drilling exercise, cutting off electricity supply to the Niger Republic, mobilising international support for the implementation of the provisions of the ECOWAS communiqué; preventing the operation of commercial and special flights into and from Niger Republic; blockade of goods in transit to Niger especially from Lagos and eastern seaports.”
Currently, Niger is the fifth West African country led by a military leader. Other countries include Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Chad.
Stranded Nigerians lament hunger
Residents of Illela, the border town between Sokoto State and Kwani town, in Niger Republic, seemed to be the first casualty of the sanctions imposed on Niger Republic by ECOWAS.
The people of the Illela community received news of the border closure with fear and trepidation. A repeat of their ugly experiences during the last border closure was what they dreaded.
But three days into the announcement, the worst fears of the residents came upon them.
The ever-busy town which hosts one of the busiest borders in the north is now bereft of activities it was previously known.
When our correspondent visited the town, trailer drivers stuck at the border post between Nigeria and Niger in Ilela, pleaded for a quick resolution of the crisis.
They appealed to the Federal Government for an immediate reversal of the border closure to allow them to regain entrance into their home country, Nigeria.
A motor boy with one of the articulated vehicles returning from Niger, Jimoh Abass, appeared tattered and dejected when our correspondent met him.
He said he had been stuck at the border for over a week without any hope of being granted access into Nigeria.
Abass stated that he and the other drivers had exhausted the little money they had to get food. As of the time of meeting him, he said they relied on whatever help they got from some of the residents in Illela to eat.
He stated, “Honestly, we are tired. We have been stuck here for some days when we were returning from the Niger Republic. We came from Lagos to deliver goods in Niger. Unfortunately, on our way back, we were denied entry by security agents from Nigeria who said that our border was closed for now.
“If we were able to escape from security agents in Niger where the problem is, why will they deny us entry into our country for God’s sake? We are appealing to Mr President, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to intervene and order for the immediate opening of this border before we all die of hunger here. We are all here in a place called no man’s land. It is between the Nigeria and Niger border, without any security or whatever.
Troops neutralise bandits, free victims, recover arms in Sokoto, Katsina
“Insecurity is ravaging everywhere. We are appealing to the Federal Government to help us come back to our country and reunite with our families.”
A truck driver, Muhammed Lawal, was almost in tears as he narrated his ordeal. He stated that he was coming from Niger’s capital city, Niamey, when he was told he could no longer continue his journey.
He appealed to members of the public to come to their aid as quickly as possible.
Lawal added that the drivers stuck at the border post were broken and lived in constant fear due to the insecurity.
He added, “We are using this opportunity to send a save our soul message to Mr President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to consider the immediate opening of the border.
“We are all Nigerians doing our legal duty as drivers for God’s sake, we should not be treated like criminals or aliens in our country. We left Jos to deliver Irish potatoes in Niamey and we had all our papers before we left Nigeria but here we are now without the hope of when we will return home. The only mistake we made here is being a citizen of this country who embarked on our daily legal activities but now treated like common criminals in our land. We need to be permitted to come back to the country after embarking on a business trip.”
Also, at the Nigerian end in Illela, our correspondent observed more than 100 trailers keeping vigil at the border post.
It was gathered that most of the truckers had spent about 10 days at the border post without the knowledge of when to move from the spot.
Another trucker, Sani Muhammad, described his being stuck at the border for over one week as horrible.
He stated, “I have been here for about 10 days; stuck in one place without knowing when I am going to leave here. We have exhausted all our money on food to the extent that most of us here don’t know what to do next.
“We can’t go forward or backward. As things stand now, we don’t know when and how to leave here. The most unfortunate aspect of it all is the issue of hunger, which is seriously dealing with us.”
Also, a trucker, Nuhu Ibrahim, said he had spent over two weeks at the border post.
He appealed to the leadership of ECOWAS to quickly reach a compromise with the new military leaders in Niger to restore normalcy in the country.
He cautioned against the use of force, which he said could have more negative effects on Nigerians living in border towns.
Ibrahim said, “Use of force should not be encouraged in any way by ECOWAS. It will hurt the lives of our people, especially those of them living in border towns. They should think of the lives of our people living in this area who are direct neighbours of Kwani, a border community in Niger.
“We are already paying for the effects of insecurity in this area, when we go into war with Niger, who knows how that will affect our people? Our advice to President Bola Tinubu-led ECOWAS is to continue negotiating a reasonable resolution of the crisis.”
Meanwhile, some of the drivers who attempted to return to Sokoto were held by security agents in a small community about 35 km from Illela town, Tudun Koki.
The truckers called on the Nigerian Customs Service to allow them to return to their company since they could not proceed to their destination in Niger.
One of the drivers, Zarahdeen Muhammad, lamented that they were detained by security agents “for no just cause.”
Muhammad said, “Some of us have spent up to 14 days at Illela before deciding to go back home, but on our way home, we were detained on the road by our security agents.
“We need quick government intervention to allow us passage back home to meet with our families.”
However, the ever-busy Illela town, which boasts of an international market, has become a ghost of its former self as business activities had almost collapsed within the town.
Some residents who spoke with our correspondent described the Niger crisis and the subsequent border closure as a bad omen for the community.
They called on the government at all levels to bring the situation under control and restore sanity and development to the community.
A resident of Illela, Abubakar Sani, said there had been a reduction in business activities in the community.
“Our business activities have dropped drastically in this town since the border closure was announced. I am sure that you are aware that the border is the major thing that contributed to business activities here and now with the closure, things are not easy for us again,” Sani said.