NIGER COUP: With N3,000, smugglers in Nigeria’s Illela border enjoy free pass despite closure

AMIDST the Niger crisis and the ECOWAS decision on border closure, The ICIR’s Olugbenga Adanikin and multimedia reporter Sinafi Omanga visited the border communities to document what is left of the real-live activities, crippled businesses, low-security presence and how smugglers and commuters breach Nigeria’s Illela porous border, paying between N200 to N500 at each border checkpoint under the watch of the Nigerian security operatives to enter Niger Republic. 


It was precisely 12:01 p.m. on August 24, 2023.

A security official at the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Illela border, sat quietly under a fairly grown tree to catch some shade from the scorching sunlight blazing at its peak.

Glued to him is a small transistor radio, a black earpiece tightly fixed at both ears, and a Joint Task Force (JTF) inscribed black T-shirt. 

The Niger Republic military junta that led to the ousting of the Mohamed Bazoum administration has caused a shift in the usual security presence and buzzing activities at the Nigeria-Niger border area.

The officer was not in the usual full camouflage. But, one could tell the dark, mid-sized man was on duty manning the Nigerian-Niger border at Illela Local Government Area, Sokoto state. 

From about 100 metres to the regular border gate is an erected pole with white on green inscription ‘Farewell From Nigeria.’ No vehicular or human movements. One could see the closed border with a long rusty iron barricade.

It was a dead silence. Nearby was an 18-foot iron pole with a video surveillance system and giant antennas.

Nigeria - Niger Border under lock and security surveillance. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
Nigeria – Niger Border under lock and security surveillance. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

Illela is one of the insecurity-prone, deadly, local governments in Sokoto, with 11 districts. They are Illela, Araba, Damba, Sabon-Gari, Garu and Kalmalo. Others are Darna Tsolawo, Tozai, Gidan Katta, Gidan Hamma and Rungumawan Gatti.

In August 2023, The ICIR visited the Illela border communities to observe the usual border events, movements and cross-border trading and to ascertain whether or not President Bola Tinubu’s order on border closure received the utmost compliance following the consensus among the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to shut their borders against Niger due to the military junta.

“What do you want?” the officer at the boundary post asked. “We have come to observe activities at the border point”, replied the reporter. “As you can see, the border is shut. So, no movement.” He sounded hostile, as having journalists in the corridor called for suspicion. He stood and walked away. 

Before the border, there were a few commercial motorcycles loitering about 300 metres east of the border, just by a telecommunication mast.

They perched under a tree, presumably waiting for potential clients – indicating possible movements across the porous border.

When the officer returned, some commanding officers (CO) from the Immigration and Department of State Security had asked to meet with The ICIR team. The CO of Nigerian Customs failed to turn up after being invited by his colleagues. The top officers were in mufti and did not disclose their identities. They were reluctant to speak with the journalists. According to them, they were not permitted to speak to the press, yet they shared a few concerns about bandit attacks.

Few weeks ago (July 2023), two officers were killed, and three were recovering, one of the top officers disclosed. The assertion was close to an earlier news report of a deadly bandit attack on two officials of the NIS. “As you can see, the border is closed, and no one can pass through this premises.”

But that claim was not entirely true; there was more to the barricaded highway.

Amidst border closure, smugglers have a field day under security watch

For a visitor who had tried accessing the francophone nation via the major highway, Niger is assumed inaccessible. 

A commercial motorcycle was captured conveying a set of mattresses across Nigeria's porous border, Illela, to the Niger Republic. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
A commercial motorcycle was captured conveying a set of mattresses across Nigeria’s porous border, Illela, to the Niger Republic. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

But findings revealed commuters had discarded the regular route for alternative paths in the scrubland to access Niger. Cart pushers, okada riders, and petty smugglers use the porous border points.

The ICIR can, therefore, confirm, with multiple evidence, the movements of persons, animals and goods across the porous border areas while the heavy trucks remained grounded on the regular route.

It is no longer news that Nigeria has several un-maned border points. The immediate past chief of defence staff, Lucky Irabor, an army general, in October 2022, put the figure at 137. But the most disturbing discovery is the proximity of the illegal route to the main border gate; illegal movements are done under the watch of security operatives for a sum.

Residents at the border communities sought the opportunity to make quick cash while the security operatives looked away. That brings us to the question of whether the border was indeed closed as a result of the junta.

At about 1:46 p.m. on Thursday, August 24, the team observed a tiny footpath at the northeast edge of the famous Sabuwar-Kara market. It is a notable cattle market in Illela, but it was empty during the visit.

For several minutes, commercial motorcycles and cart pushers would occasionally ply the route. Some with passengers and others with goods.

Adjacent to the path, within the empty market, was a cluster of commercial bike riders. Most of the motorcycles popularly known as ‘Okada’ were without plate numbers. They were in the business of transporting people and goods through the narrow path across the border.

Plastic containers, grains, soft drinks, small-sized mattresses (student beds), regular Muslim prayer jugs, farm produce, and animal feeds are transported at the porous routes. They were smuggled under the watch of immigration officers, mobile police and customs at a cost.

With N3,000, you can gain access to Niger and return   

From the regular inward and outward movements across the border, to ascertain if truly goods were smuggled across the border or if the goods ended up somewhere within the Nigerian territory. After all considerations, we took the risk to follow the trail. At this point, we established payment of about N500 at each security checkpoint along the border route in the bush under the watch of the security operatives.

 

Security operatives extorting money from smugglers at illegal border routes in Illela, Sokoto State. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
Security operatives extorting money from smugglers at illegal border routes in Illela, Sokoto State. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

Multiple sources earlier revealed the presence of security operatives scattered across the bush on both sides of the border (Nigerian territory). As such, we were mindful of the risk of uncovering the truth. 

 

The primary mandate of the immigration officers and other security operatives was to secure the porous border, prevent movements, and enforce the border closure policy. But the security officials were more interested in demanding money from the travellers. 

It took The ICIR team N6,500 to cross the border to Niger and return. 

Agric products checkpoint at De Konni, Niger Republic, an alternative border route to Nigeria via Araba community. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR
Agric products checkpoint at De Konni, Niger Republic, an alternative border route to Nigeria via Araba community. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

Analysing reason for the border closure

On July 26, the military toppled the democratically elected government in Niger Republic, spiking anxiety among West African nations. Coup in the West African bloc is gradually becoming a new normal, and Niger, since 2020, became the fourth to experience military rule after Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.

Led by Abdramane, a Colonel-Major, the military chief insisted on seizing power while attributing his action to worsening economic challenges and insecurity in his country. He went further to build new alliance with the neighbouring francophone nations – Burkina Faso and Mali with an unconfirmed claim of having the backing of the Russian Federation. 

The ECOWAS came up with punitive actions following the government takeover. The bloc was even more determined to launch an invasive attack to restore power to the ousted leader. The decision altered regional trade and communal relationships with the Niger border communities; no flight zone affected flight operations and the African Continental Free Trade (AfCTA).

On Tuesday, August 22 laste year, the African Union (AU) threw its weight behind ECOWAS by suspending Niger over the military coup. It announced the action would remain until civil rule returns to the country.

Abdramane has since cut ties with France and the US and has almost prepared for war against the ECOWAS member nations following the threat by the regional government asking it to return power to the democratically elected government of Bazoum.

Multiple stakeholders, including religious emissaries, were sent on peace missions to dialogue with the aggrieved junta, but little or nothing came out of the discussion. The only improvement in the peace move would be the Junta’s plan to stay in office for three years, after which it promised to relinquish office.

“I am convinced that…we will work together to find a way out of the crisis, in the interest of all,” he told the ECOWAS delegation chaired by Nigeria’s former head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Interestingly, many youths in the country appeared to support the military action.

Meanwhile, sanctions from the ECOWAS bloc have since prevented trading activities and cross-border movements into the francophone country. Nigeria shut its power distribution to Niger, among other sanctions, to make the military administrator revert its decision.

But preliminary findings earlier revealed Nigerians, particularly border communities around the region, were displeased due to the collapse of trading activities. As a result, the northern residents have since advocated for dialogue rather than planned military action. Among prominent Nigerians, the Former Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El Rufai, described the Nigeriens as brothers whom the ECOWAS should not attack.

“As ECOWAS beats the drums of war, I recall the 1970s rock classic by Dire Straits, ‘Brothers in Arms,’ because a war within our subregion is a war between brothers. Indeed, the people of Niger Republic are the same as those living in Northern Nigeria.”

How we crossed…

Rahamatu Adamu Sale, a middle-aged female source, was first to respond when the team lead indicated an interest in visiting Niger. This was after a series of observations across the porous border. Seated under a shed, she was in the cluster of five other ladies who acted as merchants.

“You really want to cross the border? she queried. ‘Yes,’ The ICIR responded. 

“It is risky”, she warned. The terrain has been an enclave of bandits that have terrorised the border communities for months.

Next, she met with selected commercial motorcyclists and reached an understanding.

“It will cost you N5,000 each.” After many pleas, she agreed with two other ‘okada boys’ to take the trip for N3000 for both persons on each bike and an extra N500 in appreciation. 

It was the best chance to establish the border breach and illegal movements of persons and goods right under the watch of armed security operatives.

Travelling through the rough path and meandering the dangerous portions, The ICIR counted at least six security checkpoints before entering the Niger Republic. At each point, the Nigerian security operatives, through a third party dressed in mufti, demand N500 from the passersby. Some smugglers often part with N1,000 depending on their negotiating power.

People with goods and donkey carts also attempted to cross each border spot. A woman, who appeared to be in her early 30s, was seen pleading with one of the security operatives to accept N200 as she could not afford more, but the immigration officer insisted on N500. 

Smugglers on Donkey head to the Nigerian border from Niger Republic. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
Smugglers on Donkey head to the Nigerian border from Niger Republic. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

Eventually, the team entered Niger through the border point behind the kara market and returned through an alternative route behind Araba, back into the Illela community. 

Exposing the illegalities at Nigeria’s porous border was a tortuous journey. The fear of being arrested by the Niger security operatives was one, and landing in the hands of bandits was another. Regardless, we moved.

Arriving in Niger, the local telecommunication network suddenly disappeared at Dekonni, Niger Republic.

The team sighted the Niger security operatives and the Phytosanitary Control Office, Ministry of Agriculture, Niger Republic (Republique Du Niger Ministere Charge De L’Agriculture, Poste De Controle Phytosanitaire), and multiple warehouses under lock. While on these findings, the anxiety of being caught by the Niger authorities occasionally ran through the mind.

The ICIR can, therefore, confirm the movement of goods, people, animals and extortions along the Niger-Nigeria porous borders in connivance with the Nigerian security operatives while the heavy-duty trucks stood at a halt. As of the visit, we can confidently report that an earth road (clay) was being manually put together at Araba, a few distance from Illela, to serve as an alternative vehicle route into Niger.

Abubakar Tsafe, Customs Public Relations Officer at the Sokoto/Zamfara Command, recalled, during his reaction, a similar report where the Service was accused of movements across the border. “I cannot deny the possibility of having smuggling going on in those parts of the location,” he said, stressing that Illela is a border community with several porous border points.

He attributed the weakness to banditry attacks and asked that intelligence information be shared with the Service to manage the borders effectively. “There is a limit to what we can cover.

“The border across Illela is vast; even today, we made seizures from people trying to move across the border.”

While the Police Force Spokesperson, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, kept mute after being contacted via calls and text message, Tsafe said there is a link between smuggling and banditry, with free access to illegal border routes.

He confirmed earlier findings of The ICIR where Custom officers were shot dead and others kidnapped along the axis. “I tell you, the one we can get hold of, we make arrest.”   

The spokesperson of the NIS, Tony Akuneme, said the Comptorller-General of the NIS was committed to sanitising the system of corrupt officers. He asked for the name tags, but he was told the suspected officers had their tags removed. But, he promised to investigate as he was on a trip with the CG  from Zaria to Kaduna.  

Border closure collapsing economic activities

On August 13, 2023, Nigerians under the aegis of Arewa Economic Forum lamented huge economic loss since the Nigerian government shut its border against Niger. The forum declared it was losing N13 billion weekly with 2,000 stranded containers.

“Trade between Niger and Nigeria is largely informal, especially in perishable goods, and only last year alone, it was estimated at N177bn in goods and services like livestock and food items,” Ibrahim Yahaya Dandakata the forum’s leader told newsmen in Abuja.

The ICIR can confirm as of the visit, multiple trucks were stuck at both the Niger and Nigeria sides of the border.

Reports revealed that beyond the huge sum, the border closure has led to gradual rot of perishable items meant for exports to Niger. The then Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Adewale Adeniyi, on August 4, visited the border stations to ensure the borders are under lock and orders by Tinubu, who doubles as the President of the ECOWAS nation implemented to the latter.

Regardless of the crisis, The ICIR can confirm Niger Republic is a strategic partner to Nigeria, even though this is not the first Nigeria will be closing its border against Niger. It did partially in 2019. Bilateral trade between both nations as of 2022 is now pegged at over $226.34 million.

Data from Comtrade on international trade also showed that exports to Niger stood at $195.85 million as of 2021. Top in the exports, according to the data last updated in August, identified tobacco, mineral fuels, oils, fertilizers, and Cocoa, including cement, among others    

But Niger’s exports to Nigeria, as of 2022, were $67.84 million. Notable in the list of exports are live animals, edible vegetables, oil distillation products, sugar, and sugar confectionaries, to mention but a few. This implies trade between both nations has been steady until the recent development.

But beyond perishable products, The ICIR, during the field visit, discovered the popular cattle market is one of the major economic hubs in Northwestern Nigeria, also affected. It is also called the Sunday market. Usually, every Sunday, thousands of traders across the neighbouring nations troop into the cattle market to do business.

They would usually trade in cattle, camel, donkeys, rams and other ruminants. But it was empty during the visit. This implies a loss in economic value. Suppliers of Liquefied Petroleum Gases (LPG) were not left out. They were already stranded as of the visit

A set of LPG Trucks stranded at the Illela Border, Illela Local Government Area, Sokoto State. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
A set of LPG Trucks stranded at the Illela Border, Illela Local Government Area, Sokoto State. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

Parked adjacent to the Mobile Police checkpoint, Illela market, multiple trucks were stuck due to the border closure. The team counted at least 13 LPG parked trucks, whose drivers hoped the border might soon open.

Bashiri Kasna, one of the drivers, said the day The ICIR visited the border made it 25 days since they arrived at the closed border.

“Life is difficult; we are struggling to survive here…..there is no avenue to feed ourselves and our family,” Kasna said. “We cannot go back because we will be at a loss. We are facing many difficulties; if you ask anyone within this border, they will tell you that the situation is worsening daily…”

One of the trucks had as its registered plate number Jigawa, RNG 920 XC.

The traders expressed worry that further closure of the border would be detrimental to the huge trade between both nations. The Arewa traders appealed to the President to consider their plea for both their interest and nation-building due to accruable taxes once the ban is lifted.

Border closure breaking family bond, crippling local businesses

Suleiman Ibrahim, a father of 15 children and married to three wives, was born in 1972 in the Aliyu Jodi district, Sokoto. He lives at Sabo Garin Giraphshi, a new settlement largely dominated by the Nigeriens in the Wamakko local government area.

Sulieman Ibrahim, a resident of Niger Community, Sabo Garin Girapshi in Wamakko Local Government, Sokoto State, narrates his ordeal due to the border closure. Photo Credit: The ICIR.
Sulieman Ibrahim, a resident of Niger Community, Sabo Garin Girapshi in Wamakko Local Government, Sokoto State, narrates his ordeal due to the border closure. Photo Credit: The ICIR.

His parents, both Nigeriens, migrated to Sokoto in 1954. They lived in the same Aliyu Jodi area until his mother died in 2017. Still, Ibrahim prefers to be identified as Nigerien despite being born and living in Nigeria for most of his life.

While two of his wives and 13 children live with him in Nigeria, he has not stopped pondering on the third wife, with three children domiciled in Niger. “Contacting them has been terribly difficult” according to Ibrahim, who begged the Nigerian government and the ECOWAS to reverse its promise of using force to restore power to civilian rule in the Niger Republic, his second home.

Ibrahim urged the regional authorities to use dialogue between the warring parties, stressing that the Nigerian government’s cut in energy supply had already worsened his family’s situation in the Francophone nation.

Unlike Ibrahim, Zainab Seidu, a born Nigerien, came to Sokoto when she was 12. She was married to her Nigerian husband, a trader who had a successful cross-border business.

Zainab Seidu, a 59-year-old Niger migrant, wants the military Junta to complete the 3-year proposed tenure. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.
Zainab Seidu, a 59-year-old Niger migrant, wants the military Junta to complete the 3-year proposed tenure. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

She is currently 59 years old, with seven children and 20 grandchildren. But Seidu lost her husband in 2012. She is now more bothered about her immediate family’s grandchildren but worried about an imminent attack on her relatives in Niger.

“Democracy is the best government, but when soldiers take power, they should be offered the chance to bring the changes they promised to offer.” She advised the ECOWAS to allow the junta the three-year proposed military rule or try to reduce the duration through diplomacy.

Though Ladidi Aliyu, a Nigerian businesswoman based in Sokoto, does all her businesses within the Nigerian territory, most of her clients are from Niger.

She is into sales of women’s fabrics. The business she started in 2017 with about N70,000, she said, has grown to a net worth of 20 million. According to her, she never believed it, but it grew, especially with support from her spouse, who also exports goods to the neighbouring francophone country.

Ladidi Aliyu Nigerian trader at Sabo Garin Girapshi, Niger community lament her business collapse over Niger crisis. Photo Credit: The ICIR.
Ladidi Aliyu, a Nigerian trader at Sabo Garin Girapshi, in the Niger community, laments over her business collapse due to Niger crisis. Photo Credit The ICIR.

During an interview at Sabo Garin Girapshi, she told The ICIR she made at least N400,000 weekly. But her worst nightmare is the border closure. Her customers who travel twice a week to her store have stopped for obvious reasons.

This implies from August 4, when the border was shut, till the interview, Ladidi has lost over N1.6 million, still counting. And it is unclear when ECOWAS will reverse its decision on the border closure. She is among several other traders raising the alarm as to how the policy is frustrating their cross-border businesses.

Amuda Yusuf, the chief executive officer of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise (CPPE), told The ICIR while reacting to the crippling businesses how inevitable the border closure policy would hurt the economies of both Nigeria and Niger.

He said, unlike when ECOWAS sanctioned Liberia and shut its border against the country, Liberia did not share any border with Nigeria. Hence, there was no direct impact on Nigeria’s economy. But Niger borders multiple states in Northern Nigeria. He concluded by announcing that the political objective would supersede the economic costs.

“The truth is this kind of sanction is like a double-edged sword. It does not only affect Niger; it is also affecting Nigeria, just like the Russia-Ukraine crisis. It economically impacts the people, but the political objective will take precedence.”

He emphasised that smuggling through various means, under the watch of security operatives, is inevitable, especially in the current circumstance – a trend that existed even before the border closure.

“The other time Buhari ordered border closure, people were still smuggling. Once you have this kind of closure, it is an opportunity for agencies at the border to make money. So, I am not surprised.” You see people move tankers across the border even during previous border closures. Petroleum tankers are not small baskets of products, yet they cross the borders, which also are very porous.”

FILE: Muda Yusuf, Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, CPPE
FILE: Muda Yusuf, Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, CPPE

Prof. Freedom Onuoha of the Department of Political Science and the Coordinator of the Security, Violence and Conflict Research Group frowned at the extortions at the porous border points; he said such act remains a regular occurrence even within Nigeria’s territory.

“A more sustainable solution will include implementing system-wide reforms that enthrone the disciplinary matrix as a framework for guiding the promotion of officers, installation of high-tech surveillance gadgets at the border posts, compulsory use of body cameras by all border officials, institutionalising a robust reward-sanction regime and proper remuneration of personnel,” he suggested.






     

     

    However, in the context of the imposition of sanctions and border closure to compel the junta to return power to Bazoum in Niger, Onuoha said it would be extremely difficult to enforce comprehensive compliance as such policies were poorly conceived. He argued they (the policy) failed to accommodate the realities of the business people whose trade or goods are not only perishable but also uninsured. “As a result, their desperation to cut loss feeds perfectly well into the extortionate propensities of security and border officials, making circumventing the border closure a sure practice and inadvertently encouraging corruption in that space.”

    Ladidi, as of the visit, is sad that her business is shrinking, yet she is helpless.

    She is considering divesting into other businesses – renting smaller apartments to retain her capital. But does she have the business acumen to run the new venture? It’s a risk she might need to face amidst the continuous lockdown of the nation’s territorial border with Niger. 

    *Note: This report was done in 2023

    Olugbenga heads the Investigations Desk at The ICIR. Do you have a scoop? Shoot him an email at [email protected]. Twitter Handle: @OluAdanikin

    Sinafi Omanga is a journalist with The ICIR. His Twitter handle is @OmangaSinafi and Email: [email protected]

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