IN 2019, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved N52 billion to purchase E-border surveillance systems for the country.
The project was part of efforts to ensure effective monitoring of the nation’s borders through technology. Once fully implemented, the system would monitor and provide real-time information from major border posts in the country.
Ultimately, it was an effort to check the age-long porous border crisis bedevilling the country for years due to inadequate manpower.
“You will recall that when we came, I made the observation that our borders are very porous and diverse and that it is impossible to man these borders physically,” Abdulrahman Dambazzau, the former Minister of Interior, told the FEC members in 2019.
He identified 1, 400 illegal routes which had become access ways for cross-border criminal activities.
Mohammed Babandede, the former Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), also at a public function, lamented the inability of the immigration officials to man the 140 border points in the country effectively.
He also admitted to the porosity of the borders, alluding to the same argument that the nation’s borders cannot be effectively managed without a comprehensive surveillance system at the border points.
“Therefore, there is the need for modern technology to be able to monitor our borders,” Dambazzau, said, “We also thought of the capacity to respond to emergencies at the borders.”
As such, the federal government opted for technological surveillance to improve the protection of the porous borders — which the president, Mohammed Buhari, once said can only be done by God.
The project is handled by the National Immigration Service (NIS) and supervised by the Ministry of Interiors.
The NIS indicated that the borders would be equipped with tech devices like high-definition video surveillance for pedestrians, observable thermal and optical bi-spectrum for low visibility environment, unified internet protocol telephony and videoconferencing facilities and advanced eLTE multi-media walkie-talkie communication.
Dambazzau said it was to be completed in two years. That is, 2021 as the NIS earlier launched a pilot project which turned out successful.
“This project will cover 86 border posts and monitor 1,400 illegal routes used for smuggling and all kinds of cross-border criminal activities.
“The Nigeria Immigration Service will work very closely with the air force, the army units deployed near the borders, and the customs regarding smuggling,” the former minister added.
However, The ICIR can confirm that it is yet to be completed four years after the project approval. The electronic border surveillance systems project has been footdragging, thus, contributing to the influx of people from the unmanned areas.
Why the project was delayed
In the course of this finding, The ICIR found that going by Dambazzau’s statement, the project should have been completed by 2021, but the project did not even commence in that year – 2019.
It started in 2022, about three years after approval. The Federal Ministry of Interior blamed it on the lack of funds. FG said it failed to implement the project because it could not get the N52 billion loan it sought from the Chinese Exim Bank.
The ICIR sought to find out the loan status from interior ministry officials, but it proved abortive. This reporter contacted the interior ministry’s spokesperson, Shola Fasure, but he referred to the NIS spokesperson, Tony Akuneme.
The ICIR later contacted Akuneme, but he would not provide details of the project over the phone call. He asked that the inquiry be sent to the short message mobile application – WhatsApp. This reporter did as directed, seeking the opportunity to ask all relevant questions, but he did not respond. He later referred this reporter to the Acting PRO, Kenneth Kure of the NIS, two weeks later after a reminder.
Still, as of the time of filing this report, Kure is yet to respond.
Nigeria has a long debt history with China. Experts have argued that the debt profile could seriously threaten its economy.
In 2021, the federal government spent about $598.59 million on debt servicing to the World Bank and the Exim Bank of China. An estimated $207 million was paid to the Exim Bank of China for different projects which the loan was used for, which included Airport Terminals, communication systems, water & electricity distribution, railways, etc.
Even after the clearance of this amount, Nigeria still owes about $3.67 billion to China.
Insecurity and Porous Border – the siamese twin
Reports have shown that poor border axis management is a prolonged challenge that has fueled Nigeria’s security challenges. As a result, it also crippled business activities in border communities due to the insecurity situations.
Most borders are poorly managed; they have become conduits for illegal and notorious crimes such as illegal migration, illicit transactions, hideouts for insurgents and bandits and the trafficking of small arms and light weapons and drugs.
Actors responsible for the violent attacks differ in regions but are all aided by access to ammunition smuggled into the country. The bulk of small weapons in Nigeria is illegally possessed.
A report by SMB Intelligence puts small arms in the hands of civilian non-state actors at 6,145,000. This number represents 8.71 per cent of the total small arms and firearms circulation.
The northeast has the highest concentration of border communities and the worst border-related crimes; the northwest has some of the most notorious borders in the country—the country also has boundaries with Benin and Togo in the Southwest area where smuggling is rife.
According to the chief of defence staff, Lucky Irabor, the illegal border routes in Nigeria are impeding the fight against terrorism. Because they are unmanned and easily penetrable, the borders are a key source of criminality and violent crimes and will continue to be if security is not improved.
Budgets for surveillance equipment
Though the e-border project commenced much later in 2021. The ICIR findings revealed the ministry had budgeted over N1.78 billion for the provision of surveillance and communications equipment at the border in the last six years.
The ministry began to budget for the project in 2018, a year before it’s approval.
That year, the Ministry of Interior budgeted N900 million for the equipment, then N147.4 million the following year. In 2020, it budgeted N95 million, then N140.3 million in 2021 and almost N333.6 million in 2022.
Also, in its 2023 proposed budget, the ministry allotted N166.8 million for the project.
Checks by The ICIR also showed that the ministry began to budget for E-border installation consultancy in 2021.
For the same consultancy, it budgeted N200 million in 2021, N90 million in 2022 and N40 million in 2023.
When The ICIR reached out to the interior ministry’s spokesperson, Fasure, he said he has little knowledge about the state of the project and is not in the best position to address the subject.
In October 2022, the interior ministry eventually awarded the e-border contract to the Chinese tech giant Huawei. This was after repeated efforts to shield the contractor from public knowledge.
A former prosecutor with the Special Presidential Panel on Recovery of Public Property, Tosin Ojaomo, 2021, requested the list of companies involved in the multi-billion naira project, but the ministry declined.
Akuneme subsequently told The ICIR that the equipment had been installed in 17 of the 86 legal border routes in the country. This figure, however, differs from the number of border points earlier announced.
The NIS spokesperson disclosed that none of the e-border equipment would be installed at illegal border routes, as against what Dambazzau, the former interior minister, had said in 2019.
According to him, illegal borders are difficult to monitor, and the resources are limited, thus, illegal borders are excluded from the project.
“There are so many routes, and we do not have the resources to manage all the routes, including unapproved routes, so we are concentrating on approved routes, and we still need more resources if we can cover them all.
“But we will continue expanding our scope according to the available resources.
“Yes, we would like to police the entire country, but I don’t think we are capable; even America, with all their workforce, has been unable to stop Mexicans from trooping in,” he said.
Focusing solely on the approved land borders for the project implementation would possibly mean that crimes carried out at illegal borders might continue unabated.
Implication of excluding unmanned borders from e-border initiative
A Security Analyst with the SBM Intelligence, Confidence McHarry, while reacting to the project execution approach, said the government’s decision to focus on approved borders considering its financial pool and workforce is understandable. However, he disclosed it would adequately affect its ability to protect the unmanned border areas scattered across the nation.
He expressed concerns that the focus on just legal routes meant the crimes carried out in porous areas would continue to thrive.
MacHarry said, “the government does not have enough workforce to man all its borders, including areas rife with insecurity.
“There are so many illegal entry points. The initiative to focus on what they can man is understandable, but the impact can be grim as border porosity will continue to be a problem.”
To solve the challenge, McHarry said the government needs to look for the requisite resources to protect the borders.
Another security analyst, Timothy Avele, believes installing technological equipment at the approved border areas would reduce the crime rate at border areas.
Avele, the managing director of Agent-X Security Group, a security startup in Nigeria, described the initiative as a move in the right direction.
He however notes that if there is no strong political will and corruption is not addressed, even the equipped borders will function at a minimal rate.
“Despite the good intention behind the e-border project, the major drawback is the political will to implement it wholeheartedly without reading any negative meaning into its implementation by states.
“Another negative and perhaps the greatest hindrance will be corruption by the security agents and officials who will mount and monitor these projects.
“Regardless of the equipment quality; if corruption is not prioritised, the government will only be wasting funds,” he said.