By Gbenga Oke
Abba Moro simply stood there, ramrod, hands akimbo, mouth opened wide. Mind you, he is Nigeria’s Internal Affairs Minister.The sight was shocking; even to him. Welcome to Seme, Nigeria’s notorious border point to the West. The same thing replicates itself at the Idi’roko Border post.
The scenario simply reinforces the claim that Nigeria’s borders are porous.
Chaos rules! Traders carry out their activities in such a manner that you cannot tell when you have crossed the border. Observing the activities at the border, in fact, you may be on the Nigerian side and be haggling with a trader on the Benin Republic side.
You can buy any item of your choice ranging from rice to vegetable oil, household items, etc, with either the Naira or Cefa, currencies used in Nigeria and Benin Republic, respectively.
This conversation ensued between Sunday Vanguard and a frozen food seller at the Idi’roko Border which, just like the Seme Border, is not different from a bustling market:
How much is a carton of chicken?
Big or small?
What do you mean big or small?
If na small size or big size you want?
How much is big and how much is small?
Na N4750 for small and N6,800 for big
What’s the difference?
Oga you wan buy abi you dey ask
(At this point you change your language and level with her)
Madam I wan buy? (A car speeds past you, raising dust and you ask a question which angers the seller). But this dust no go spoil this chicken?
Oga I beg no spoil market for me go.
This conversation at the Idi’roko Border post was so funny because the frozen food seller, a Nigerian, was actually on the Benin republic side of the border.
The language spoken by most of the traders on either side is Yoruba, spiced with the truncated English Language known as pidgin. Although there are checkpoints with uniformed personnel manning some points, you can hardly distinguish between the Nigerian border and that of the other country.
People pass through the checkpoints unchecked.
Even the vehicles that pass through the checkpoints are not checked. Neither are the passengers.
The vehicles are cleared on the presentation of receipts showing that they had made some payments. There are no Nigerian flags flying, neither is any imposing structure to signpost Nigeria as the giant of Africa there.
Yet, this is Seme Border, where goods worth billions of Naira are imported into the country annually from the Republic of Benin, with duties running into billions too.
Goods imported into Nigeria through the border include second hand vehicles popularly known as Tokunbo, rice, vegetable oil and household items. And because of the unsavoury educational schedule in Nigeria, especially at the tertiary level, Republic of Benin has become a haven for university education for Nigerian parents who can afford it for their children.
The immigration officer in charge of the Seme Border, Mr Ogbe Jae, captured the situation when he said immigration activities at the border were virtually nil at some point. Jae told a nonplussed minister of interior, Moro, who visited the border on an on-the-spot assessment of the situation there: “The only people who clear with Immigration here are students because when they want to go for National Youth Service Corps, they must present evidence that they schooled in Cotonou and that is why they clear with us.”
Jae said there were matters to be resolved and agreement that needed to be signed for the Immigration at the Seme Border to function well.
According to him, up till the time of the minister’s visit, the Immigration and other Nigerian security outfits at the border were not allowed to carry ammunitions or fly the Nigerian flag.
His words, “There are several matters to be resolved by the Federal Government and agreements to be signed before we could be allowed to carry ammunitions here. When the agreements are signed, that is when we can carry arms at this border.
“The building of the border house was awarded by government but the Nigeria Immigration, which is supposed to be the first people you will meet when crossing the border, is sandwiched such that we are not the first any longer.
“With this arrangement, you cannot control illegal immigrants crossing because there are several routes they pass at the back which lead them to the Republic of Benin. Even where we stand right now is Republic of Benin and there is hardly anything you can do to stop anybody because we are staying on their land”.
Jae stressed further, “You cannot fly the Nigerian flag here until those agreements are signed; so if anybody slaps you, you cannot use gun or harass anybody here because we have been sandwiched in-between the security agencies of Benin Republic and it is their flag that is flying in full here.”
Moro, who was apparently taken aback by what the immigration officer said, stated, “Do you have the report?
“If yes, please I need a comprehensive report on my table because I need to act on it immediately”.
The minister went further, “Honestly, I am surprised and I don’t even know where to start from now. What it means is that Nigeria has no border here (at Seme) just like I said of Idi’roko. It is only your uniform that makes you Immigration officers and not that you are actually doing the work of an Immigration officer. I find everything here confusing”.
Earlier he had visited Idi’roko Border where he was alarmed at the state of the infrastructural facilities at the office of the Immigration there.
He shook his head in disbelief at what he saw throughout the visit.
According to Moro, his decision to pay the visit to both borders was borne out of the reports he had been getting that Nigeria did not have adequate Immigration services at both borders, a situation which makes it easy for miscreants to enter Nigeria easily.
This assertion, he said, made him leave Abuja and headed for Lagos enroute Idi’roko and Seme on unscheduled visits to see things by himself and to enable his ministry arrest the insecurity situation in Nigeria.
From the Airport in Ikeja, it took the minister, his entourage and this reporter over two hours, despite the siren blaring pilot car leading the convoy, to arrive the Idi’roko Border. Upon arrival, Moro headed to the Immigration office and inquired about who was in charge.
Many of the Immigration officers on duty did not even recognize him and some of them had to inquire from those on the entourage before they realized the man standing right there with them was the minister of interior.
Upon the realisation of the personality with them, calls were made to the top echelon of the Immigration at the border and, within minutes, all was set to conduct the minister round the premises which also houses the Customs, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), among other security outfits.
The first thing that caught the attention of Moro was the decaying infrastructure at the premises of the Immigration. The offices could be likened to what was recently shown on Channels Television about the decaying infrastructure at the Police College, Ikeja.
The environment was virtually a piggery while darkness took over the entire place due to lack of electricity and the entire surrounding had market men and women buying and selling.
It was also observed that all the offices lacked basic needs like air conditioners, tables and chairs while the whole environment could be likened to a dungeon.
There were electrical wires all over the offices, unused water tanks littered the environment while the toilets and bathrooms were nothing to write home about.
Checking the other facilities in place at the Immigration office, the minister could not help but ask, “Is this the kind of environment you people operate in and you do not care about your health? This is worrisome that all is happening here and nobody is bringing it to the attention of government”.
As if that wasn’t enough, the visit to the demarcation called border between Nigeria and Benin Republic left the minister in a bigger shock. The borders had no gates! Rather the demarcation was done with bamboo trunks which could not guarantee any security or serious scrutiny to stop people from coming in and out of the Nigeria.
The reaction of Moro, on sighting the bamboo was: “How do you differentiate between Nigerians and Benin Republic citizens here, especially with this free movement in and out? “How do you know people who are entering Nigeria to cause mayhem or those people that are miscreants?”
He left the border and headed to the Customs office where he was welcomed by Customs Area Comptroller, Ogun State, Prince Ade Dosumu.
The minister’s first reaction on arrival was the well organised and neat environment in which the Customs personnel were working. He commended the Customs Comptroller for taking the initiative of working in a well arranged and hygienic environment just as he tasked the Immigration to borrow a cue from the Customs. Moro stated that there was the need for a synergy among all security operatives at the border in order to arrest the insecurity situation in Nigeria.
His words, “There is need for a synergy among security outfits at this border to properly address the influx of insurgents into Nigeria because, without collaboration, there will be a problem in arresting this insecurity problem Nigeria is presently going through.
“My visit here is to ensure our borders are properly guarded and I think the Customs, Immigration and all other security agencies must come together. I am impressed by the Customs but disappointed by the other sections here”.
He further said, “You people here represent the first touch when anybody wants to enter Nigeria, but with this open border without any control, the possibility of hoodlums, terrorists with their devilish acts entering Nigeria is made easy especially when you use bamboo and blocks to make a demarcation, it cannot stop any hoodlum from entering Nigeria”.
The minister, however, disclosed that the Federal Government will build a plaza at the border. His words, “Our plan is to build a plaza at this borderline to further improve on our security situation while effort is in place to repair all dilapidated infrastructures at the offices”.
Responding, Comptroller of Customs, Ogun State Command, Dosumu, commended the minister for the visit to the border just as he stressed that there was a lot government could do to strengthen the security outfits at the border. He said Idi’roko border is one of the oldest borders in Nigeria but no sitting minister had visited the border to look at the infrastructure on ground and the need to improve on them.
His words, “This border is one of the oldest borders in Nigeria and it has been like this from time immemorial. Before and since my assumption here, this is the first time a minister is visiting and we are happy to have you here, it shows you want to see things for yourself. We commend your courage”.
He went further, “There is synergy among the security agencies operating here and we are trying to improve on the infrastructural amenities to ensure we have a hygienic environment”.
Dosumu allayed the fear of Moro, saying there was 24-hour surveillance at the border and the agencies working with their Benin Republic counterparts at ensuring the border was safe for all.
We have security in place to checkmate any insurgency.
The Army, the Police have put in place 24 hours surveillance and we have been able to establish security cooperation with the agencies of Benin Republic and that is why there are no border clashes between both countries. We also share information and meet from time to time”, the Customs boss said.
The minister, before departing the Idi’roko border, also met with Mr Janvier Akotegnov, the DPO of Igolo, a neighbouring border town in Benin Republic, in an effort to foster collaboration between the Nigerian security operatives and their Beninese counterparts.
Moro’s visit was concluded with a parade by men of the Customs in his honour before his convoy departed for Seme Border around 2pm.
The trip to Seme Border took several hours as the road was riddled with potholes.
We arrived at Seme Border and, from the point of arrival, everything seemed wrong with the setting.
The bamboo demarcation discovered at Idi’roko replicated itself at the Seme Border while men of Immigration and other security outfits operated from inside containers, a situation which left the minister dejected for the several hours he spent there. Meanwhile, what the minister did not notice was that whereas he was conducting his visit, there were other unmarked routes through which smugglers do their business successfully, smuggling into the country cars, electronics, food items and many more.
Those familiar with the smuggling business told Sunday Vanguard that there are dozens of unmarked routes through which cars and food items are smuggled into Nigeria; just as there are many more footpaths that allow for the free flow of people.