By Vera Wisdom-Bassey
Some months ago, the Ogun Area 1 Command of Nigeria Customs Service, Idiroko, celebrated a seizure of 7,000 bags of parboiled foreign rice said to be equivalent to 12 trailers. Disclosing this in a press briefing in Abeokuta, the state’s capital, the Command’s Area Comptroller, Peter Kolo, confessed that his command had never recorded such quantum seizure of prohibited rice. The man who put its Duty Paid Value (DPV) at N116, 586,607 commended the gallant efforts of men and officers serving in the Command for the feat. He urged them to do more.
He added that during the first quarter of the year (January-March 2021), the Command arrested and seized about 19,000 bags (the equivalent of 38 trailer loads) of 50kg of foreign parboiled rice with DPV put at N307,891,696.
Smugglers’ efforts to beat security measures
Well, a recent visit by this reporter shows that as the Yuletide season approaches, smugglers seemed to have intensified their efforts to beat whatever security measures the Command might have put in place to checkmate their activities and to set another record as far as anti-smuggling raids are concerned.
Almost every night, these days, you hear the sustained staccato of gunfire as they engage in fierce gun battles with men and officers of the Nigerian Customs Service in areas like Ajilete, Owode, and Idiroko borders. Sometimes, the sound is so scary that you never want to sleep.
An investigation by our reporter shows that the smugglers seem to have created over 200 smuggling routes through which they smuggle into the country goods like foreign parboiled rice, tomato paste or tins, frozen chicken, groundnut oil, and cars. Mainly bush paths and trails well known to them, they are kept busier than the official ones, with hundreds of motorbikes and scores of cars made of skeletal bodyworks crossing and crisscrossing their ways into the Republic of Benin. But on the whole, motorbikes (Okada) dominate the routes by conveying passengers and goods from point to point.
No matter how hard the Nigerian Customs Service try to man the nation’s gateways, in line with its mandate to protect the country against the importation of illicit items, the smugglers seem bent on making nonsense of their efforts as Christmas approaches. Sources consulted by Saturday Sun said that it is either the organisation does not have enough manpower and operational vehicles to stem the smugglers’ activities or it is not willing to endanger the lives of its men and officials by engaging in a wild goose chase with them. The sources insist that Customs officers know the ins and outs of various smuggling routes like the way they know the palms of their hands.
Findings show that the bush paths run into and across houses of the smugglers and houses built by indigenes of the communities living near the borders. They serve as transit points, and most times, as conduit pipes. Sources say that the customs operatives are very much aware of the existence of the smuggling routes but nevertheless choose to turn a blind eye to the goings-on there either because they are too many and frustrating to man or they are afraid of losing their lives in areas they are not too familiar with. Other sources add that they are not willing to antagonize the host communities for whom the smuggling business seems to have become a big source of income.
One of the sources recalled how threats by restive youths, after one of the protests against what the natives see as the high-handedness of the customs security operatives, turned awry, forced the Customs men to begin to exercise saome restraint in their operations. Our reporter noticed that most vehicles being used by the smugglers don’t have number plates for fear of being caught or trailed by the customs. The operation usually begins at nightfall as from 8 pm and lasts till 6 am the following day. And, after the night operation, during the day you will see the smugglers sleeping in their various houses while waiting for another night to come.
Counting the costs
But investigation revealed that there are some occasions when operatives are not willing to turn a blind eye to some heightened smuggling activities going on in the area, and this often leads to deadly gun duels between them and smugglers. This way, some parts of Ogun State have gradually become a war zone. The fatal clashes have often come at a very high price. Sometimes it has rendered some people from either side, widows and widowers, and their children, fatherless or motherless or orphans. In some cases, parents have become bereaved owing to the loss of their children caught in the crossfire. So far, the battlegrounds are Ipokia, Ihunbo, Idiroko, Oja-Odan, Ilara, Ilaro, Ayetoro, Sango, Ota, Owode, Imeko-Afon, Ijoun, and Ketu, all in the Ogun West Senatorial District.
The reason the clashes are limited to only the Senatorial District, a source said is, owing to its status as the area that shares borders with the Republic of Benin. And, now with Christmas approaching, these clashes are becoming frequent that hardly would a month pass without one taking place between the Customs men and smugglers with attendant loss of lives and goods.
The smugglers who appear to have good intelligence networks have a field day smuggling, through these illegal routes, contraband goods and products which they then bring down to the market and other parts of the state for sale. Some traders around the border who patronize their services revealed that the notorious smugglers use the night as cover and, usually move in convoys. Hence they are able to engage customs men and officers who try to stop them or seize their goods.
Some of the petty traders living at the borders and who smuggle in rice and groundnut oil can be seen re-bagging and repackaging them on the premises of some of the fuel stations located across Owode, after which they sell them at a very high price. Many of the people involved are locals. But because foreigners from the Benin Republic residing in Owode who engage in the same smuggling business lool like and speak the same language with the locals, sometimes it is difficult to tell who is who.
On each market day at Owode, the items are displayed for sale by women who either engaged the smugglers to bring them in or purchased directly from the Idi-roko market. While a bag of foreign rice sells for N18, 000 at Owode, it goes for as high as N27, 000 at Sango-Ota. Investigation shows that Owode market holds every five days, during which time traders come from different parts of the state and outside it to purchase foreign goods on display as well as sell theirs.
In a related development, the premises of Yewa International Market, commissioned in 2006 by the administration of the former governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, serve as storehouses now for smuggled goods. According to Mrs. Oluwatosin Martins, the Iyaloja of the market, if the place can be operated with the intention it was built for in mind, it will go a long way in opening up the area to international trade. In a chat with Saturday Sun, the Babaloja of the market, Mr. Rasaki Busari, recalled that the administration of Senator Ibikunle Amosun tried to revive trading activities in the market but his effort was later abandoned by his successor.
He said although the area is notorious for smuggling activities, the government frowns at the illegal economic activities not only because it causes the loss of excise duty revenues in billions of naira, but also because it has succeeded in bringing bad name and image to the place.