By UDEME CLEMENT
The first point of attraction at the borderline within Nigeria and Benin Republic , popularly called Idiroko, is the movement of border traders from one direction to another. Like any other border ambiance, numerous economic activities synonymous with border points are also common there.
While some traders use the services of locally made tricycles with open roof as means of conveyance, others move on foot transacting different businesses. Officers of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and Immigration are on both sides of the border to check people passing through the place in order to curb illegal trades.
The difference between Idiroko and other borders across Nigeria is its porous nature. The border has many entry and exit points, even as the people are extremely volatile, thereby making it difficult to police the border. The community dwellers within the border points see smuggling as an enterprising business and are finding it difficult to refrain from illegal trades, which constitute serious economic sabotage to the country.
A local trader at the border, who gave his name as Mr. Kola Yusuf, in a chat with Sunday Business, attributed the attitude of the people to years of association with the border community. He said, “Border trade is lucrative and it is the major business we have been doing for years, because we do not have industries here. “
Also, Mr. Ade, surname withheld, 29 years, was seen at the petrol station of Conoil within the border with 10 litres jerry-can purchasing fuel repeatedly from the service outlet. His activity underscores the thriving smuggling of petrol across the border.
He said, “I am into fuel business and I have never been suspected by Customs because I use a small jerry-can to buy the product as if it is for my own use. At times, I buy from different filling stations within the area to avoid suspicion by the station managers. I prefer going six to seven times with a small container, than buying twice with a big jerry-can and be caught by security officials at the border.”
He went on, “I stopped the business of second-hand clothes and shoes since February 2011, because the new Customs people in Ogun now are very strict. Even if you escape from the border, they will arrest you at the check point on the road, seize your goods and you can end up in jail. I know one person from Ipokia community sent to prison by Customs. Most Customs officers who used to be friendly with us are no longer in this area and that is another problem. Before, the people in Owode area were known for crossing of cars but now the business is dull because of Customs”.
Sunday Business, during the tour across Benin and Nigerian border, observed that the border points are not clearly defined, making it difficult to distinguish between Nigerian border and Benin. Beside, some houses are half way into Nigeria and half way into Benin .
Some people who smuggle contra-band items into the country through the border even believe that they are trading, since they had engaged in smuggling for decades without thinking of the havoc it does to the nation’s economy through importation of substandard goods, fake drugs and unhealthy food items like chicken and turkey.
Another lucrative business at the border is carrying people with motor cycles commonly known as (Okada) across the border for a fee of between N500 and N1,000 depending on the bargain. The okada riders are many and operate beside a big motor park where passengers coming from Nigeria usually stay.
An Immigration Officer, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said, “We operate with our intelligence network because the people mix together freely and trade with one another. Beyond that, most people from Benin you see at the border here speak Yoruba fluently, making it difficult sometimes to identify who is who. But we have a way of knowing them”.
Trading in jewellery is another business that security agents at the border are yet to uncover. Sunday Business gathered that many individuals involved in this line of business are women. They purchase the items and conceal them in their hand bags to escape security checks.
“You can buy jewellery of N100, 000 into your hand bag and enter Nigeria to sell without any hindrance. No security agent will stop you to search your hand bag because the items are smaller in size. So they will think you are just carrying a normal hand bag”, said Madam Nsini Unoh, doing jewellery business beside a bureau-de-change in Benin/Nigeria border.
The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Idiroko Customs Command, Chike Ngige, while giving insight into the efforts of his men to curb smuggling at the border, said, “The anti-smuggling campaign of the Command has been in its intensity and we are winning.
On daily basis, we have been recording seizures of Tokunbo vehicles, frozen products, rice, used-clothes among other unwholesome imported goods. Although we have porous border points dotted along Nigerian border with Republic of Benin , we have been doing our best to curtail smuggling. Our anti-smuggling efforts have been yielding huge results both in terms of huge numbers of seizures and the multiplier effects on improved revenue generation.
“Presently, we are recording huge revenue from imported vehicles which, hitherto, were smuggled without import duty. In a month, about 1.900 vehicles are presented for duty payment as against 80 and 300 vehicles recorded in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Since the inception of this present Customs administration in Ogun Command, many tactical measures have been put in place to secure our border from criminals who would attempt to use our borders to smuggle arms and ammunition and other unwholesome goods but found Ogun border, highly policed by customs officers impenetrable.
All our imports in trucks and trailers go through scanning and 100 per cent physical examination when necessary before they are released from Customs control. By this act, smuggling of arms through this medium are checked. In the course of performing these functions many officers are attacked by smugglers or hoodlums paid by the smugglers. Over the years, we have lost a good number of officers in the line of duty, but we are not relenting.
“We have been meeting and dialoguing with traditional rulers who are the grass-root chief security officers of the borderline communities to call their subjects involved in smuggling to order, and they have promised to cooperate in this regard. Recently, we held two town hall meetings, where all stakeholders involved in cross-border trades freely expressed their views .Traditional rulers, youth leaders and other government agencies were in the meetings. We held several similar meetings with traditional rulers separately.
The Customs High Command has been doing its best in providing needful logistics for the Command’s operations. Quite recently, over 30 Hilux jeeps were given to the Command for its operations and a good number of AK 47 rifles. The operational tools have boosted the morale, confidence and innate tendencies of the officers to do better for the service. Since mid May 2012, when special focus was given to interception of frozen poultry products smuggling, over 3600 cartons of the products valued at over N17million had been seized and destroyed by burning.
“Recently our officers were attacked with guns, cutlasses and charms. One happened at Ilashe along Idiroko/Atan road, where a group of smugglers attacked our officers with dangerous weapons in an attempt to retrieve seizures. They were overpowered and one of them was arrested with sword and charms. The suspect by name Mr. Sunday Adisa has been charged to court already.
“We impounded a commercial bus brought in across the border but painted in Lagos colour to escape security checks. We intercepted another vehicle smuggled into the country with the banner of Odua People Congress (OPC) with an inscription, OPC Squad Yewa, Chief Apena Agbaye of Ijebu Ode. We impounded smuggled vehicles that were mixed up in the entourage of the governor to escape arrest. We had seizures of second-hand clothes used to conceal Indian Hemp.
“In a bid to escape with contra-band items about three months ago, some smugglers operating within Ajilete community attacked our officers, burnt one of the patrol vehicles and destroyed Ajilete Customs check-point along Idiroko road, Yewa South Local Government Area, Ogun State