With Nigeria’s porous borders and corrupt law enforcement officers, anyone can conveniently cross into and leave the country or smuggle in goods without having to answer questions or present relevant documents—until a border closure was announced in August.
“OKAY, let us pray,” announces the cab driver. For years, the forty-something-year-old has safely conveyed passengers through the three-hour distance between Kanga, a border town in Benin Republic, and Abeokuta, Ogun State.
“In the name of Jesus… Thank you, father, that you have made this journey hassle-free for us,” he continues passionately, at the same time steering his old-model Mazda 626 through the untarred road.
“If we have committed any sins that may hinder our prayers from getting answered, father, holy spirit, forgive us. Make us holy. If there are forces, seen or unseen, that may want to sabotage today’s journey, forces of witches and ritualists, blood-spilling forces, in the name of Jesus, nip them in the bud. All enemies of progress on this path, go into oblivion! All spirits must bow in the name of Jesus!”
After four minutes of praying and mumbles of ‘amen’ from the passengers, the driver, whom many—including himself—simply prefer to call ‘pastor’, soon stops to receive one bag of rice, which he places in the trunk. “It is so I can have something to buy fuel with,” he explains with a smirk.
In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari stated that rice importation has been cut by about 90 per cent and praised improvements in the local agricultural sector for this. The figures from the Thai Rice Exporters Association showed that while in 2015 the Asian country exported 644,131 metric tons (MT) of parboiled rice to Nigeria, this dropped to 58,260MT in 2016 and then 23,192MT in 2017.
Rice exports to Benin Republic, however, skyrocketed by an even greater measure within the same period.
Benin imported 805,765MT of rice in 2015, but this figure grew to 1,811,164MT as of 2017. This is in spite of the 2013 Benin Coarse Grains and Rice Report stating that the country only requires 385,000MT for local consumption. The bulk of the rice received into the francophone country—as admitted also by former agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh—is therefore smuggled into Nigeria.
Rice smuggling is quite profitable and is done by many taxi drivers operating at the Ilara-Kanga park to make extra cash. According to one of the drivers, a bag of rice in Benin costs N9,700 while the selling price in Nigeria is as high as N17,000. The driver who smuggles it in from Ilara has an average cut of N2500 per bag.
But it is not only rice that is smuggled into Nigeria. Bringing in migrants without papers is another lucrative practice; and, usually, all goes well as long as the palms of border patrol officials are well greased. While a Nigerian coming into the country is asked to pay a fare of N1500, Beninese are charged as high as double that amount.
This reporter travelled to Bohicon, Benin Republic, on Thursday, August 8, and returned to Nigeria on Saturday, August 10, via the border at Ilara without an international travel passport. Yet, he was not queried anywhere along the road—despite the presence of numerous security checkpoints every few kilometres.
‘Pastor’ gripes that across the stretch of road there are six checkpoints manned by operatives of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and nine belong to the Nigeria Customs Service. There are a few other checkpoints too where we have officers of the Nigerian Army and Nigeria Police. In all, this reporter counted no less than 26.
N200 note: the new travel passport
In February 2018, Nigeria’s ambassador to Benin, Kayode Oguntuase, pointed out that there are 42 illegal checkpoints between the border at Seme and Mile 2, Lagos, and that security personnel at these places extort money from travellers. Transporters who ply the route have also complained of losing between N9,000 and N10,000 to extortion in trying to cross the border. But this problem is evidently not limited to the Seme cross-border route.
There seems to be a long-standing tradition between the smugglers and security operatives regulating how much the charge is per bag of rice or illegal immigrant. But this is subject to negotiation. ‘Pastor’ who picked up only a bag of rice has to pay officials of the NIS and Customs N200 at every stop.
On the other hand, policemen, whose checkpoints are closer to the Abeokuta end of the stretch, could be offered N100. One of them, at a checkpoint about 15 kilometres from Ogun State’s capital, had on a blue uniform with a name tag ‘Otu Rasheed’.
During the trip, while the driver always states correctly that he has only one bag of rice in the car, he is not as honest about the number of Beninese passengers. “I only have two Egun people [used generally to refer to migrants from Benin Republic],” he says at the third checkpoint. “The rest are Yoruba.” Whereas, a headcount he conducted at the start of the trip had established that there are two Yoruba passengers and four from the neighbouring country.
At another security checkpoint where a relative of his is on duty, the driver escapes paying by declaring he has only Yoruba passengers.
In many cases, the illegal exchange of money is not done under the table but so openly that passers-by also witness it. In one instance, a law enforcement agent, in fact, asks if there’s still room in the car for another bag of rice.
* * *
“Collect N200 from him,” an NIS official donning black tee-shirt and jeans cries at the fourth checkpoint. “Sefiu, I said collect N200 from him. He doesn’t have a choice.”
“I am not fighting with you, we are only doing our work,” he adds. “If you carry one bag of rice here, we’ll collect our money. The same thing if you carry 10.”
‘Pastor’ explains as he starts the engine that he recently conveyed the officer and insisted on charging him N2,000, the same fare paid by everyone else. The officer had since vowed to make all the money back through extortion.
“In smuggling rice, to enter Ilara there is simple. To move from Ilara to Abeokuta is where the problem is,” the driver says, to no one in particular.
Halfway into the journey, a few kilometres before we get to Obada Idi-Emi, the driver is lucky to be stopped by a generous official who has on a black long sleeve shirt with a blue collar.
“Don’t be angry sir, I was able to carry only Yoruba people today. I have one bag of rice too. Please, oga mi; this is what I have left. I still have to settle immigration,” the driver pleads.
After he is signalled to proceed, he goes on to brag about the importance of being cunning.
“My people, it takes wisdom,” he says with self-satisfaction.
“The bible says we should combine wisdom with faith and combine faith with knowledge. The operatives are ready to collect all you have with you. They don’t give any considerations. Don’t they know how many checkpoints we pass through before getting to their place?”
A motorcyclist tranporting several bags of rice crosses the border into the Nigerian territory at Ilara.
A border where business booms
A new arrival at Ilara, a border town between Nigeria and Benin, is likely to first notice two things aside that signposts are written in French language: huge trucks and warehouses at every turn. It is a goldrush and everyone is struggling to have a share, but this time the trending commodity is not a hoard of gold. It is rice.
The trucks are used to transport rice from the coastal city of Cotonou to the border communities, where warehouses of various sizes abound. The bags are then loaded on top of motorcycles and taken into smaller stores in Nigeria, from where the cabbie-smugglers take over.
Traders and drivers in the town are reluctant to share insights into how the business is run because of the fear of unknowingly implicating themselves. One of the big warehouse owners recently ran into trouble with law enforcement agents and had to pay in respect of eight truckloads of rice, narrates one of them.
A sales boy at a smaller shop, trying to wriggle out of the conversation, says the shop was just recently established and he doesn’t know much about the business.
“But if you check this route here,” he adds dramatically while pointing to his left, “there are a lot of magazines [trucks]. A lot!”
“If you go to the other end of the road too,” he says, now pointing to his right, “there are a lot of them. This untarred road leads directly into Nigeria.”
Bags of rice are offloaded from a huge truck and stored at a warehouse at Ilara-Kanga.
Nigerian govt. intervenes
In August, Nigeria partially closed its western border with Benin, triggering protests from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Though statistics from the World Agricultural Supply and Demand estimates suggest the country hardly produces half of its local consumption need, President Buhari has said the closure is meant to curb the “alarming” rate of rice-smuggling.
The recent reinforcement of border security, codenamed Exercise Swift Response, has according to the NIS led to many arrests of people attempting to come in through unlawful routes.
“The border is tight now,” remarks NIS spokesperson Sunday James in an interview with The ICIR. “Nobody enters into this country without a valid document and nobody exits the country without valid documents.”
He also explains that the agency has put in place standardised machinery to check excesses at the border. One of them is the migrant e-registration.
“We are registering all migrants residing in Nigeria whether regular or irregular,” he says.
“That is another way of controlling the entrance and exit of people into the country. And if within the country we are controlling non-Nigerians by virtue of registration, you should know definitely that anybody that is going to come from outside the country must go through clearance and checks.”
He says the project, flagged off on July 12, has documented a total of 4,733 of migrants as of Friday, September 6.
Foreigners generally have to get a visa before they can come into Nigeria, James explains, and then citizens of the ECOWAS member-countries “must come with valid travel documents: ECOWAS travel certificate and ECOWAS National Biometric Identity Card”.
That was, however, not the reality at the border weeks ago.
‘Pastor’, during a later phone conversation with this reporter, confirms it is now very difficult to smuggle in either bags of rice or foreigners.
“Rice can be transported from Cotonou to Ilara but getting it into Nigeria is very difficult. As a matter of fact, they don’t allow us to bring even one bag,” he laments.
He says there are however drivers who still smuggle in items. But they do this at great risk through the forest routes. If caught, the smuggled commodities would be confiscated. He tells this reporter that travel documents are also checked under present circumstances.
In his words, “If you are going to bring in anyone without a passport, it’ll have to be fayawo [through secret detours].”
‘Pastor’ is hopeful though that the borders will be re-opened soon and it will be business as usual.
“Even if it is one trailer-load of rice you need from Cotonou or half… We know how to do it without a problem,” he says confidently. “But I will advise we exercise some patience.”
* This investigation is supported by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.
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