Following the Federal Government’s border closure to smuggling, ADEKUNLE SULAIMON who visited adjoining Benin Republic communities along Seme border, reports the frustrations of the traders who had once benefited from the cycle of legal and illegal importation of contraband items into Nigeria.
Smuggling, believed to be the bane of the economy in a number of unlimited ways, simply because it is an avenue for the evasion of tax and other levies, endangers government policies by slowing down the development projects meant to be carried out with the revenue ought to be generated for the country.
Smuggled goods destabilise market prices since they are often cheaper than the ones supplied to markets through legal routes thereby exposing genuine traders to unsportsmanlike competition. It undermines the local industry not least because it under-cuts prices of goods manufactured in Nigeria thus crowding out the market for local products. The unfortunate result is the breakdown of neighbourhood businesses joined by loss of employment and the high pace of joblessness. There is similarly the low profitability related to wellbeing and security risks with respect to buyers who disparage unsatisfactory, lapsed and counterfeit items.
It has been over two months since President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the closure of borders and also placed an embargo on the importation of rice, groundnut oil, frozen foods, drugs, and other commodities considered to be contraband. Among the aforementioned, rice is believed to be the most preferred staple food for Nigerians.
A rice trader at the other side of the border in Benin Republic
The major food markets where parboiled rice is sold are dominated by around 70 percent of foreign rice, leaving no place for locally produced variant which has no place in the market because of Nigerians low patronage to it.
On June 13, 2019, the Comptroller General of Nigerian Customs Services (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd) represented at an event by the Assistant Comptroller General and Customs Coordinator in charge of Zone A, Mr. Kaycee Ekekezie as reported by several media organisations said that the NCS is making huge returns daily claiming it to be as a result of border closures which now enables for proper importation of goods/items into the country.
Nigerian Tribune visited some of the borders including Seme and other smuggling routes in Badagry, Yardi, Gbetromeh, Gbaji communities. Findings reveal that foreign parboiled rice produced in Thailand and India, vegetable oil and cars maintain the lead in the list of smuggled items into Nigeria.
The tale of Badagry-Seme routes
From Badagry roundabout to Gbaji Bridge, there are five checkpoints consisting of the Nigerian Police, Customs, Immigration officers. After the Gbaji Bridge, there is just one checkpoint manned by Mobiile police officers. In Yardi, there are two Customs checkpoints assisted by police officers. Sultan beach houses one custom checkpoint, meanwhile, at Kolington filling station, there is just one Customs checkpoint. At Akoro, there are two checkpoints, each manned by Immigration officers and Customs officers respectively. Gbetrome houses one. After Gbetrome are two checkpoints managed by the immigration officers. Asipa has two Customs checkpoints and immediately after Asipa checkpoints are three more checkpoints before getting to Seme border, totaling twenty checkpoints in all from Badagry to Seme.
The empty Pau market in Benin Republic
On getting to the conventional market popularly called Pau in Benin Republic, the state of the market showed that the closure of the border has caused a negative effect on commercial activities, resulting in poor sales and closure of several shops. In fact, one could barely tell that it is the popular rice market since the streets of the once busy crowded market were near empty.
Popular Pau market in Benin Republic after Border closure
Investigations also reveal that many of these items sold at far cheaper prices than in the Nigerian market, thereby boosting smuggling activities with attendant huge profits for the perpetrators. For instance, a 50kg bag of rice sold for between N9,200 and N10,000. After buying the said bags of rice, the smugglers usually paid at least N350 per bag to cross the border. But the bags of rice were sold in Nigeria between N18,000 and N20,000 even N22,000 per bag. For vegetable oil, a 20-litre ‘jerry can’ sells for N9,500, with additional N200 each paid to local truckers to cross the border.
“Before the closure, I sold 100 bags per day; now I barely sell five bags”
A trader at the rice market, Mr. Francis Abimbola, spoke with Nigerian Tribune on his ordeal since the beginning of the closure. According to him, “Before this time, I sold between 80 and 100 bags of rice in a day, although the Marigold parboiled rice is the most ordered, now I barely sell 5 bags before the day passes by. In fact, sometimes I don’t get anybody to patronise me, I close the shop earlier than expected.
“The little sales are even made by our own people here, who buy only in retail price to sell to their customers believed to be the final consumers.”
Mr. David Conde, another trader, recalled how Nigerians regularly flooded Seme market where they bought variety of items, which they transported back to Nigeria. He added that Nigerians were the heartbeat of Seme market, hence the hardship being faced by the ban placed on their patronage of the market.
An official of the Nigeria Customs Service inspecting a vehicle at the border
“In no time, I will be relocating to my village to look for alternative means of survival since the market is becoming unfavourable daily,” Conde said.
According to a frozen foods seller, Mr. Femi Abdurraji with “Dieu fait tout” (God does all things) Frozen Limited, “The sales of frozen foods weren’t this bad even when they were declared contrabands by the Nigeria government under Jonathan’s administration.
“Last week, about four shops that dealt in the sales of frozen foods were forcefully locked up by the owners who have gone to borrow loans to get their shops stocked up, only to be unable to pay up as and when due,” he said.
He further appealed that the government should reverse the decision on the border closure as the economy was growing down the drain daily. “People are really suffering here, our customers who manage to buy even small quantities to take to Nigeria are waylaid by the customs and deprived of the little bought for either consumption or sales.”
However, a business mogul, Musa Kadiri from Okene, Kogi State, lauded President Muhammadu Buhari, describing his action as that which would save the depreciating naira and locally produced items. He described the large-scale smugglers as “night-crawlers” saying that their cargoes were usually smuggled overnight..
‘We will stop smuggling with scanning machine’
It is no gainsaying that the Customs have seized many smuggled goods on various occasions, but such seizures have proven not to be enough to deter smugglers. Apparently, Mr. Fatai Ibrahim, an officer of the Customs insisted that the border command was strategising and conveying a significant level of knowledge and expert abilities, invigorating the whole land outskirt so as to thwart all endeavours of arms smuggling and different trans-outskirt wrongdoings into the country.
In this regard, he said the service has uncovered desperate antics being deployed by smugglers in order to beat customs operatives.
A trader at the market at Pau market in Benin Republic after Border closure
He spoke about a particular instance where a woman had loaded grains of rice in her body and also bought nylons in Seme, loaded them with rice and tied them around her waist, legs and hands, wearing an overall to hide her atrocities. On getting to the checkpoints, she had only a bag on her lap and when instructed to open it, she was pleading, saying it was just a little quantity of spaghetti she intended to eat at home with her children.
“I ordered her to alight from the bus so that I could advise her to desist from the act of smuggling and further bid her farewell. She first complained but finally obeyed. Immediately she stepped down, I noticed a few grains of rice on the ground; I was uninterested until it continued when I beckoned on her to follow me. I mildly hit her leg to know what was going on, only to find out that she had loaded herself with grains of rice. I called the soldier on duty, and we could not help but laugh hysterically at the action,” he recalled.
Ibrahim bragged that no amount of antics formulated by smugglers would go undetected by the officials. He said the dare-devil smugglers, who won’t stop from utilising the Seme course would keep on checking their misfortunes in a correctional facility when captured and indicted to fill in as an impediment to other people.
A customs officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity also underscored the need to amplify security along the fringes considering the security danger of unlawful importation of arms through the country’s seaports. He included that the command’s zero resilience to Nigeria’s security risk (by means of unlawful importation of arms) through fastidious screening of imported products utilising the scanning machine will be supported earnestly.
The free trade zone trade policy without the cooperation of neighbouring countries would be an exercise in futility since they provide alternative markets. Therefore, association with Benin Republic, Niger Republic, and Cameroon is essential for the success of any restrictive trade policy that will be made in Nigeria. Such participation ought to be outfitted towards the elimination of cross border price differences which create incentives for smuggling.
Against this setting, Nigeria should support the full usage of the Common External Tariffs understanding marked by the 15-member ECOWAS countries a few years ago. Stakeholders believe that the borders cannot continue to be shut; the necessary things should be done by the Nigerian government on price regulations and the improvement of locally made products for the extrication of the love of foreign products by Nigerians.