Despite the fact that the Federal Government ordered the closure of the country’s land borders 14 weeks ago, Daily Trust on Sunday reports that foreign rice and other contraband commodities still flood Nigerian markets.
Hamisu Idris (not real names) steps out into the hot afternoon sun that makes everything, including the air you breathe, hot, at this time of the year in Gwagwalada, Abuja. He will go for shopping, strangely at a bus station in the town. A driver is coming from Katsina State, ferrying passengers and goods; and Idris, whose store of rice, spaghetti and oil has finished, will have to meet him to restock.
All over the town are shops with rice, spaghetti and cooking oil for sale, but Idris will not buy from them because they are local. The closure of Nigeria’s borders since August has ensured that foreign rice and other contraband goods are not available at shops in the town.
But smugglers are making sure that these commodities find their way through Niger Republic and journey all the way to customers with a taste for the foreign.
The driver Idris is meeting specialises in moving the illegal goods by bribing his way across over a 500 kilometre distance to deliver them at Gwagwalada.
When Idris meets him this time, the driver told him about slight increase in prices, but assured him about supply. “He was so sure that he asked me to just mention the number of bags I wanted and he would bring them,” Idris, said.
He was told that a bag of foreign rice is now N23,000 and a jerry-can of cooking oil goes for N12,500.
A month earlier, Idris purchased a bag of foreign rice at the rate of N21, 000 from the driver. At the time, the driver told him how easy it was to supply foreign rice from Maiaduwa border to Nigeria’s capital, passing though hundreds of security gates.
First, the bag of rice needs to be concealed inside a bigger bag that is padded with another food item, millet or corn. When it is not properly concealed, security agents, mostly Customs officers, will advise the driver on how to neatly disguise the original content, before accepting a bribe to let him pass.
Hundreds of other drivers also do the runs, he revealed.
Idris said he believed that the border closure had reduced the flow of foreign goods into the country, but is far from addressing it, as smuggled goods still abound across the country.
Recently, he recalled, he and his friend were contacted by a familiar sales agent to source for a buyer of 300 trailers of foreign rice. “We were shown all the evidence that the deal was real and I will not mention them to you here, so we got a supermarket owner who was interested. When we met with the suppliers, the first thing the buyer raised was the fear of losing the goods to Customs, and the suppliers gave him a guarantee that such was never going to happen. They promised to deliver all the 300 trailers right in his bedroom if that’s what he wanted, or to any place of his choice,” he said.
The deal, he said, went far until the suppliers raised the cost of each bag to N17,500 from the N16,500 initially agreed.
“I have got evidence that the deal was real. If I say it, they will know I was the one who disclosed it. But border closure or not, you can get whatever you want brought to you right here to Abuja from Niger Republic,” he said.
‘Smugglers don’t care to kill, die’
A Customs officer who spoke to our correspondent agreed that smuggled goods still find their way into the country even though he did not believe that it has to do with the activities of compromised officers.
The officer, who is currently deployed to one of the borders in the North and does not want to be named, said smugglers would never give up because that is the only business they know; hence they will employ every means to remain in business.
According to him, one of the means they use to distract Customs officers on patrol or at checkpoints is to stage some low-level smuggling that will attract the attention of officers, and as soon as they move in to scuttle it, the smugglers will activate the “real-thing” elsewhere, so that before the team finishes and storms the new point, all their consignments of illegal goods have moved into Nigeria. “And by the time you say you want to go after them inside the cities, they scatter in all directions, creating a commotion that will force you to give up in order not to endanger innocent lives,” he said.
Another tactics they use is to get members of local communities to mob Customs officers so that they can escape in the ensuing melee.
“Because smuggling is the only business they know, these people can kill. They have killed our officers before. They can engage in rituals and all sorts of things to put us out of their way,” he said.
He explained that the smugglers had built warehouses in communities around the border, where they hide goods and ferry them into the country at night.
He, however, said their use of network of informants is what has the major drawback on the operations to check them.
“They buy phones for housewives who will climb trees or rooftops to alert smugglers about movement or approach of Customs patrol teams. Smugglers are daring and can tell you that you cannot stop them from it. If one of them is killed in the process, they are not discouraged, instead they behave as if nothing happened, or their lives don’t matter,” he said.
He said it’s through all these tactics that illegal goods still find their way into the country.
“The Customs Service has improved our remunerations, welfare packages and incentives to discourage us from abating smuggling activities; and that has helped. But that is not to say there are no bad eggs in the system, who will take the wrong way; but they are few,” he added.
Rice and other contraband items are still being smuggled in Katsina despite the total border closure. However, the Nigerian Customs Service said it had achieved 85 per cent compliance.
Daily Trust on Sunday observed that the recent total border closure has further exposed the vulnerability of the porous border situation in the state, with officials acknowledging that there are over 1,000 illegal entry points between Jibia and Katsina town alone.
In Katsina State, there are four recognised border posts with Niger Republic – Magama in Jibia, Kongolom in Maiadua, Babban Mutum in Baure and Dankama in Kaita local government areas.
It was observed that commuters and smugglers now use several untarred and sandy roads passing through rocks and farmlands to ferry people and contraband items across the border.
Although these official border posts are shut, nothing seems to have stopped as movement of goods and services is still ongoing but through illegal routes.
A visit to Kongolom and Magama showed that the border has been barricaded, with officials turning back vehicles and motorcycles.
However, few meters to the border at Magama Jibia, people and vehicles were seen passing unhindered to get access to neighbouring Faru town in Niger Republic.
Further investigations showed that settlements like Bayan Bariki, Government Day Secondary School, Magama, Dan Arau, Rainin Wayo, Alele , Korama, Gadirge, Sabon Garin Magama, Makada and Mai Dabarau, all in Jibia Local Government Area, have become routes for people to pass through.
At Kongolom, Maiadua Local Government Area, most smugglers of rice are using local routes from Maimaje, Botsotsuwa, Tsatsumburum and Yekuwa settlement, all in Niger Republic, to ferry their commodities into the country, using motorcyclists.
In Kaita, rice is smuggled through farmlands from Mai Kani village. Sources confided in our correspondent that local youths are being paid N6,000 for a 5km trip to ferry rice from the said village, using Peugeot J5 buses and Golf cars.
In Daura, most of the shops visited showed that foreign rice is not displayed but sold on request to customers. The goods are usually delivered at customers’ houses for fear of harassment by security officers.
This is unlike Katsina, where foreign rice is seen by roadsides and shops in markets. It is sold at N17,000, which is above the price of an average local rice, which sells between N15,500 to N16,500.
Some villagers at various border communities told our correspondent that their local routes and footpaths had become “border posts’’ as hundreds of vehicles and motorcycles pass through with people and smuggled items on a daily basis.
Malam Hassan Ali (not real name) whose house is along one of such routes behind Bayan Bariki in Magama Jibia said, “Every now and then you will see cars stocked with people and goods passing.’’
Another resident of Alele village, Mohammed Aliyu, said some of these routes were just footpaths, but motorists have widened them due to frequent usage.
During a visit to Magama Jibia, commercial vehicles were seen trying to access Niger Republic through some of these untarred roads. They ferry passengers and commodities to Faru and back to Nigeria.
Lamenting a little price hike in goods, a businessman in Jibia town, who did not want his name mentioned, said, “We witnessed a hitch in an operation, but I can assure you that we will get our goods by weekdays.’’
“This weekend, many security men came to this town because there was an attack at Hirji, a social spot in Niger Republic. That’s one area we use in moving our goods. We couldn’t operate because of the high number of security men and investigation going on in the area,’’ he said.
Investigation showed that big-time smugglers and businessmen engage youths to operate. The youths, locally known as Rai Banza, are paid N1,000 to ferry a bag of rice across the border. Others get the same amount to move it from Jibia town to Katsina metropolis. They operate on motorcycles and are sometimes seen in large numbers or individually, passing through longer routes to evade Customs officers.
Instead of going through the Jibia-Katsina road, they move to Batsari Local Government before linking Katsina to deliver the rice.
Some of the youths who go directly to Katsina from Dan Faru or Dan Issa in Niger Republic, using Peugeot cars popularly called Gwarama by locals, charge between N2,000 to N3,000 to deliver a bag of rice to shops and depots.
Most times they drive through farmlands to get to Katsina town.
Women are not left out in this illegal trade. They employ several tactics to smuggle rice. For instance, they divide a bag into three or four places and back them, using their Hijabs to conceal it and pass the over 12 security checkpoints along the 30km Jibia-Katsina road in commercial vehicles.
Despite the high risk involved, Fito, as the illegal business is called, is one of the most lucrative and thriving among residents of the area. They simply see it as a means of earning a living despite confrontations with law enforcement agents, during which many lives have been lost.
A bag of rice presently sells between N11,500 and N11,800 at both Dan Isa and Hirji in Niger Republic, although the price fluctuates, depending on exchange rate as business is done in French francs (CFA).
To get to Magama, a border town at Jibia in Nigeria, rice sells at N14, 500, but by the time it gets to Katsina, the price jerks up to N17,000.
The head of operations of the Nigeria Customs Service, Bishir Abubakar, said that despite the challenge posed by vast border lands, his men were doing their best to address the menace of smuggling.
“First of all, we have a very vast area of coverage in sector four, and the expectation is that we should be everywhere. When we started about two and half months ago, Jibia has always been one of our major flashpoints, both in terms of operation and activities of the people of that area.
“We are not here to kill anybody; however, by our training, when you attack us we are expected to retaliate before you finish us. That is very clear. But despite that, we do everything possible to exercise what we call rules of engagement. We have been informed, and we have seen that people of this area are not in good terms with security agencies.
“Last week, we intercepted 14 trailers of tiger-nuts and dates that were loaded from Jibia. We arrested them, but the market association came to prove to us that the goods were kept in their stores at the end of the season,’’ Abubakar said.
He added that the meeting with key stakeholders in the area was to educate them on their activities and appeal to them to help in calling their children to order to avoid smuggling operations.
On the allegation that some of his men are compromising, Abubakar said, “I cannot say yes or deny it; we are all Nigerians. Certainly, there are good and bad eggs in all the segments of the society.
According to the Comptroller of Customs, Katsina command, Abdullahi Kiriwa, nine suspected smugglers were arrested in two weeks as they tried to move various contraband items into the country.
Parading some of the items seized from the smugglers on Monday, Kirawa said they were valued at N62 million.
He promised that despite the porous nature of the Nigerian borders, his men would continue to synergise with other security agencies by sharing intelligence in their operations.
“I want to call on the people to assist Customs with useful information that would be used in confidence to check smuggling activities, which are bent on destroying the nation’s economy,’’ he said.
He listed smuggled items to include 1,367 bags of rice, 295 jerry-cans of petrol, 297 bales of secondhand cloths, 75 new wrappers, 295 jerry-cans of 25 litres of vegetable oil, 53 bags of foreign sugar, 14 cartons of battery, 15 motorcycles and 9 cars.
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that clashes between men of the Customs Service and residents have resulted in loss of lives and property on both sides.
In Kebbi State, smuggling of petroleum products is a major activity around border communities. The porous nature of borders along River Niger and the lucrative nature of the business are boosting the illicit trade across borders to Niger and Benin Republics. Other commodities are also smuggled.
Locals at Beyindi, a village near Zaga in Bagudo Local Government Area of the state, told our correspondent that more than 20 tanker-loads of petroleum products were seen in the village on a daily basis.
“They would empty the petrol in the tanker into jerry-cans and ferry them to Niger or Benin Republic through the River Niger,” he alleged.
Another resident also told Daily Trust on Sunday that petrol tankers are parked near Tunga bridge in Bagudo and after Kalakala roundabout, from where they would be moved to Genene. After emptying the product into jerry-cans they would be moved to Benin and Niger Republics through River Niger.
“They used to shift locations. If they park the tankers here today, tomorrow they will park it somewhere else, before driving them to where they would empty their consignments into jerry-cans. They are assisted by some locals to perfect their activities. From what we heard, they sometimes pay as much as N300,000 before moving the tankers through the communities to where they are smuggled out of the country through the waters. But we don’t know who they are paying the money to,” he said.
He further said petrol stations in Bagudo, Samia, Maje, Kaoje, Lolo and Illo, under Bagudo Local Government, were not up to 30, yet petrol consumption in the area is higher.
“We learnt that fuel consumption in this area surpasses that of Abuja because of its upward movement to Niger and Benin Republics. Maybe that was why the Federal Government placed the ban on petrol movement within 20 kilomtres to the borders,” he said.
When our correspondent visited Kamba, Lolo and Dole Kaina, petroleum products seized from smugglers were displayed in jerry-cans, as well as their vehicles.
A community leader in Lolo said the price of petrol in the area was high, even before the ban by government because they hardly got it. He said the dealers preferred to take it to Benin Republic or Niger to sell.
“We are in a serious problem here. The petrol we use is from Benin Republic. We have over 17 petrol stations here, but only few of them are selling petrol to people. The dealers prefer to take it outside the country through the waters. We would have to go from here to Benin or Niger to buy petrol at a very high price,’’ he said.
The Assistant Comptroller of Customs in the state, Alhaji Bashir Abubakar, during a courtesy visit to Governor Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, said the command in Kebbi confiscated 4,500 jerry-cans of petroleum products of 25-liter capacity from smugglers. He said the commodity was intercepted at the Beyindi area of Bagudo Local Government..
Abubakar said, “It has been observed that many filling stations at border areas have been receiving supplies of petroleum products, but they are not selling to customers. They prefer to smuggle them outside the country.’’
In Sokoto State, smuggling activities are still going on at Illela despite the border closure, which is meant to stop importation and exportation of goods in the country.
Illela shares border with Konni in Tawa State, Niger Republic. It was learnt that despite joint operations by security agents, the same routs are used by smugglers for their illicit activities.
One of the residents of the area told Daily Trust on Sunday that foreign rice, among other commodities, are imported from the neighbouring Niger Republic through the Illela axis because some of the security operatives were compromising
“We do bribe our way. However, it does not always work as some of the officers do not accept bribe,’’ one of the smugglers said.
A security source in the area confirmed to our correspondent that as a result of the attitude of some of their men, a lot of irregularities still take place despite the ongoing operation.
Our correspondent observed that foreign rice flood major markets and stores across the state despite border closure. It was also learnt that petroleum products are still transported in jerry-cans across the border through secret routes.
When contacted, the spokesman of the Sokoto area command of the Nigeria Customs Service, Magaji Mailafiya, declined comment on the matter and told our correspondent to contact their national public relations officer, who is the spokesman of Operation Border Drill.
Despite border closure, foreign rice is still smuggled into marketers in Adamawa State.
“We still smuggle rice from border to town and pay a fee of N1, 500 per bag and sometimes at the rate of N1,000, apart from the purchasing price,” one of the marketers told our correspondent.
Asked why they still smuggle rice despite the ban, he said they made more money in selling foreign rice than the locally processed type.
Another rice seller who did not want his name mentioned said that due to pressure from Customs officers, there was a time they could not find foreign rice in Jimeta market.
A restaurant owner, Maryam Shola, said she was no longer making much gain because there has been a hike in other food items.
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