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Smugglers reign large despite border closure

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Main entrance to Idiroko border in Ogun State on Tuesday.

• Over 200 illegal routes in Ogun
• Borders are too porous, Customs cries out

As the Yuletide season approaches, more smuggled items — mainly foreign parboiled rice, tomato paste, frozen chicken and cars — are still being smuggled into the country in large scale, closure of Nigerian borders notwithstanding. Investigations by The Guardian revealed that tonnes of foreign rice flooded Nigerian markets, after the EndSARS unrest tended to relax border security.

Although, there was no official directive to relax border operations, The Guardian gathered that the hard knocks on security forces by restive youths during the protests forced officers to exercise restraint, especially as one of their operatives was killed and many injured.

However, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) said it is strictly manning the nation’s gateways, in line with its mandate to protect the country against importation of illicit items.

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With the massive smuggling, price of foreign parboiled rice has dropped sharply from about N35,000 to about N22,000, depending on location. This, according to sources, was not unconnected with the prevailing smuggling activities.

As price of foreign rice drops, that of its local variant remains stagnant at between N21,000 and N25,000. This situation makes it difficult for Nigerian rice to compete favourably in the local market.

The Guardian visited Idiroko border in Ogun State and found that security officers have completely shut official border posts, while illicit activities are concurrently going on unhindered at unapproved routes.

Popularly called bush paths, unapproved routes are busier than official ones, with hundreds of motorbikes moving across the borders of the Republic of Benin and Nigeria engaging in illegal trade.

A security officer at the border, confided in The Guardian, said that security personnel were aware of happenings at the bush paths, which are more than 100 in Ogun State alone; he said officers only routinely patrol the routes because they were too many to cover.

Besides, the officer disclosed that the bush paths became more dangerous for officers because smugglers, who are more familiar with the terrain, could lay ambush for the team.

INTERACTION with some traders around the border revealed that the notorious smugglers use the night as cover and move in convoys.

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“It is entirely an industry: They have groups and godfathers who front for them. They are armed and full of charm. They are notorious and difficult to confront. Some of their godfathers have link with security agencies, so they know when to move and they move massively. They make the price of rice cheaper. We bought from them at N16,000 and resell at N18,000” a source at Owode told The Guardian.

The Guardian observed some petty smugglers at the border communities bargaining and re-bagging foreign rice. Many of those involved were locals, who resell the commodities wholesale. Others deal in palm oil, groundnut oil, frozen chicken, tomato paste, sugar and others.

AS at 9.10am on Tuesday when The Guardian visited, the border post was almost empty, with just few officers on duty. There was no movement of any sort, and the ‘rotten’ gates leading to the Republic of Benin were duly locked. Only one officer of the Immigration Service was on duty. He was sitting far from the gate, wearing mufti, with his camouflage cap.

He roared at The Guardian on attempt to cross the border: “Hey young man; where are you going? Do you know where you are going? Where are you coming from? Who are you? Where do you work? The intimidating questions came in torrents, leaving no room for the reporter to process any of them.

Then, looking a bit calmer after due response from the reporter, who presented himself as an innocent visitor to the border, the officer said: “You are at the border. You cannot go in. The border is closed. If you know what to do, you will pass. You will pay yourself in or you go and pass another (unapproved) route.”When asked, how much it would cost to cross the border, he said, “N1,000.”

Then, the reporter said, “ Thank you,” and turned back. The officer then called out, this time with a more gentle voice. How much can you pay,? He entreated. “Don’t worry, and thank you,” the reporter said and immediately left the area.

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At the bush paths, several vehicles where seen crossing over; while motorbikes dominated the route, conveying passengers and goods, such as rice, chicken sugar, palm oil and tomato paste, among others.

FIERCE-LOOKING touts manned their own illegal borders, tightly charging N100 per person and N200 for motorbikes before permitting them to cross over.
At Sango market, bags of rice were seen coming in batches, as some uniform officers aided smugglers to convey the items. A particular officer (name withheld) told The Guardian that he was engaging in the business as “means of survival.”

At the Owode Market, along the Idiroko Border Road, foreign rice sells for N18,000. At Sango market, the rice that was earlier sold for N27,000 was going for N22,000. At the Daleko Market, foreign rice goes for N25,000 against N35,000 it sold few months ago.

At the Seme Border, the officers were on top of their game at major border posts, but smugglers took charge of illegal routes. Just like the case in Idiroko, the motorbikes are major tools for smugglers, while other means of conveyance were cars and lorries.

The National Public Relations Officer, NCS, DC Joseph Attah, told The Guardian that the porousity of the borders posed serious challenges for officers, as smugglers monitor their movements and strategically evade arrest. He urged members of the public to share information with Customs when they notice smugglers around their areas.

Attah said: “The joint border drill is currently ongoing; so, operatives move around to intercept smugglers. But you can see that the borders are porous with many bush paths; that is where we need the media to help us sensitise the public.

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“There are some people there who are monitoring the officials; immediately the patrol team moves to the other side, they will call the smugglers to come and pass through the bush paths. This is sabotage on Nigerian economy.

“Officers will continue to do their patrol, they will continue to exploit intelligence to unravel illegitimate routes and trap the smugglers.”
ON weather there is hope of reopening the borders soon, in response to the economic recession, Attah said: “Government is reviewing the outcome of the diplomatic engagement and once government is sure that all the concerns that necessitated the border drill have been addressed, it will take appropriate measures.”

On combating smuggling during the Yuletide period, he explained, “the NCS studies every season and understands the challenges of every season and, therefore, comes out with necessary actions.”

Meanwhile, the memories of their ordeal during the EndSARS protest still linger in the minds of security agents. The Customs Area Controller, Ogun I Command, Compt. Michael Agbara, stated that the hoodlums who hijacked the EndSARS protest attacked Customs formations along the Idiroko, Obele and Imeko borders and forced the borders open to engage in massive smuggling for three days.

Agbara, said the vicious attacks they suffered resulted in death of an officer, AIC Solomon Alayge; while others were injured, and personnel’s belongings looted.

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He said: “In the early hours of Thursday, 22nd of October, 2020, many of our patrol teams were attacked, their patrol bases were vandalised and set ablaze. Our Officers and men were trapped as a result of the multiple attacks suffered along Oja-Odan, Ilaro (along Ilaro/Oja- Odan/Obele border), Ihunbo, Adisba, Owode (along Idiroko axis), Ijoun and Imeko.

“Many of our personnel’s belongings, including uniforms and other valuables, were looted. Many of our patrol vehicles were vandalised.“In what seemed to be a premeditated action, the hoodlums/smugglers in large numbers seized the opportunity of the security challenge, which made all security agencies focus on protecting their operatives and facilities at that period, to embark on massive smuggling of rice and vehicles for about three days,” he said.

He said the Command intensified effort by strengthening her workforce with reinforcement from the military. Agbara mentioned that the command, during the third quarter of the year, recorded 420 seizures, which had a total Duty Paid Value of N397,076,991.

‘’WE wish to reiterate that the continued attack on operatives of NCS and other sister agencies will not deter us from performing our legitimate duties,’’ he said.

At the Seme border, Lagos State, the new Customs Area Controller, Comptroller Bello Jibo, said contraband seized recently were 1,716 bags of foreign rice, 1,148 Jerry can of petrol, altogether 28,700 litres, 17 Jerry cans of vegetable oil and 10 Jerry cans of coconut oil.

“Others are 24 units of smuggled vehicles, three motorcycles, 991 pieces of medicament, 30 pieces of used tyres, eight cartons of 25 bottles each of apetamin multivitamin syrups and 48 packets of tramadol.

“We also seized 397 packages of 144 rubber condoms, 395 cartons of different tin tomatoes, 332 pieces and 120 bottles of betadine mouth wash, 160 capsules, 100 sachets of efferalgen paracetamol.

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“Others are 41 bottles of paracetamol syrup, five bottles of mealop syrup and 101 parcels of cannabis sativa known as India hemp,” he said.The controller said that the perpetrators of the act fled on sighting the officials and abandoned the vehicles and the items.

However, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), which is coordinating the border closure exercise, has recently approved release of over N130 billion goods stuck at the Seme border, more than one year after President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the abrupt closure of the borders.

The approval was conveyed in a letter signed by Major General E.A. Ndagi on behalf of the National Security Adviser, dated 13th November 2020 and addressed to the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali.

The ONSA letter reads in part: “I am directed to respectfully refer to letter NCS/INV711/020/ABJ/HQ dated 9th November 2020 and to convey the National Security Adviser’s approval for the release of goods held up at Seme border due to the ongoing partial border closure.

“The goods are being cleared by ANLCA as detailed at Enclosure 1. Accordingly, the Nigeria Customs Service is kindly requested to facilitate the release in line with extant regulations.”
Some of the transporters, whose vehicles were at the borders, applauded the development, describing it as long overdue.

Some of them who spoke with The Guardian, said a lot of their cargoes, which are consumables, have rotten and been damaged. Those who still have their cargoes intact are currently following up with the modalities set by the NCS.

With the latest approval for release of goods stuck at the Seme border, government might be considering full reopening of the nation’s land borders in no distant time.

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