A convoy of nine cars loaded with different goods sped recklessly, intimidating other vehicles plying the busy Sango-Owode international road in Ogun State.
They headed towards Sango from the Owode border with varieties of suspected smuggled goods. The driving was dangerous, the manoeuvres, daring and reckless. It was akin to a life-and-death mission. The incident was in March. As typical in the axis, the smugglers are feared and avoided. To many, they are the kings of the road.
As if on cue, all vehicles coming from both ends hurriedly veered off the road to allow the smugglers have full access and smooth ride. The repeated shouts of “fireworks” by passers-by and traders at the Atan T-junction rent the air. It was a cacophony. Some persons hailed the smuggler’s dexterity behind the wheel. Some others condemned the act.
In spite of the traffic congestion at the busy bus stop that evening, it took the rugged-looking cars seconds to scare other vehicles off the road. As they moved, a long cloud of smoke and dust pervaded the air. Their action spontaneously opened the floodgates for discussions and debate by residents and onlookers on what they had just witnessed. Visitors to the area stood still, mouths agape.
Although there is a heavy presence of Customs officials and security personnel at different checkpoints on the road in Ogun leading to the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic, foreign-used vehicles, bags of rice, and unhealthy food items like frozen chicken and turkey are smuggled through the axis daily.
On many occasions, in a bid to escape with contraband items, the drivers on the illicit mission have had a collision with oncoming vehicles, resulting in varied degrees of injuries. Deaths have been recorded and many vehicles involved in the accident damaged beyond repair.
The smugglers have had gun duels with Customs officers, and some officers have been sent to the grave in the process. On different occasions, smugglers operating within Ajilete community have attacked Customs officers, burnt patrol vehicles and destroyed the Ajilete Customs’ checkpoint along Idiroko Road in Yewa South Local Government Area of Ogun State.
In January, there was a fierce battle between Customs officers and the people of Owode-Yewa in Yewa South. The incident led to the death of five persons and left many others injured.
The people of the community accused Customs men of killing innocent people while shooting randomly in the town. But the Customs quickly countered the residents’ claim.
The Nigeria Customs Service’s public relations officer in Ogun State, Abdullahi Maiwada, said the incident between the NCS officers and the suspected smugglers in Owode-Yewa was initiated by the hoodlums. He said some smugglers and their accomplices had ganged up against an anti-smuggling team to stop it from discharging its legitimate functions in Owode-Yewa community.
It was gathered that trouble started when the Customs officers raided a shop along Elekute in Owode-Yewa, where bags of rice said to be smuggled were stored and they tried to remove the bags, which shop owners and some youths objected to, leading to a showdown between the shop owners and the officers.
The people had argued that the goods in question passed through seven communities before entering Owode, and demanded why they were not arrested at the border before getting to the community.
A young man who deals in footwear at Atan Junction on the expressway told the reporter: “We thank God that there were no gunshots today. What you saw today is a small thing. At times, 20 vehicles could be going at once. You could see how people were shouting. It is what we witness here all the time. It is not new to us.
“The drivers are not normal human beings, especially when you see what they do at times and the kind of risk they take. Most of the vehicles they use are specially redesigned multi-purpose vehicles built solely for smuggling. You could see the driver standing while the vehicle is in fast motion. I don’t think that the people who are involved in this kind of business care about their lives.”
There have been complaints over the volatility of the border, which has many entry and exit points, thereby making it difficult to police. There are also allegations that the communities within the border points see smuggling as an enterprising business and are finding it difficult to refrain from the illegal trade.
Idiroko is located in Ipokia Local Government Area of Ogun State. The town is surrounded by many other towns and villages, including Oke Odan, Imekon Afon, Ihunbo, Ilase, Ita Egbe and Ajilete, among others. Many residents of the area confessed that cross-border trade was lucrative and was the major business the residents engaged in.
A concerned Nigerian, a landlord in one of the communities close to the border, said: “It will take only a serious government to stop these illegal activities on the Idiroko border. People do business running into hundreds of millions every day at the border here. But in fairness, there are some legitimate transactions going on here as well.
“Some Nigerians also smuggle petroleum products across the border in jerry cans. They do it so smartly that it will not look suspicious. You will see them with ten-litre jerry cans purchasing fuel repeatedly from petrol stations close to the border. Many people are into this. They can’t be suspected by the Customs officials because they use small jerry-cans to buy the product as if it is for their personal use. They can visit the filling stations as many as ten times with small containers instead of buying once or twice with big jerry-cans. A lot of things are going on here that it will take a long time to eradicate the illegal business.
“When people say that our borders are porous, they are not exaggerating. Though I understand that the security officials are coming up with different strategies to curtail the situation, the smugglers are always a step ahead. You always see the Customs chasing after the criminals and arresting some of them, but it appears that their effort is not enough,” the landlord, who pleaded not to be identified, said.
It was gathered that the border points between Benin and Nigeria are not clearly defined, making it difficult to distinguish between the Nigerian border and that of Benin. A resident said that some houses are half way into Nigeria and half way into Benin.
On intelligence gathering, the Nigerian Immigration has also lamented that its men find it difficult to differentiate some Nigerians from the Beninese because the people mix freely and trade with one another. It is said that most people from Benin around the border speak Yoruba fluently, making it difficult sometimes to identify who is who.
Trading in jewellery is another lucrative business that security agents at the border are yet to uncover. It was learnt that individuals involved in this line of business are mainly women. They purchase the items and conceal them in handbags and different parts of their body to beat security checks.
The Ogun State Customs Command, while giving insight into the efforts of its officials to curb smuggling at the border, boasted that it has seized several frozen products, rice and second-hand clothes, among other smuggled goods. It vowed to continue the fight despite the fact that it has lost some officers in the line of duty. It also said that it was deploying many tactical measures to secure the border from criminals, especially those who would attempt to use Nigerian borders to smuggle arms and ammunition and other unwholesome goods.
The Ogun State Area Command of the NCS has said that it intercepted 7,030 bags of smuggled foreign rice, and 38 used vehicles, popularly known as Tokunbo, among other seizures within the month of May 2019.
The controller of the command, Michael Agbara, while disclosing this at the Idiroko border office, said that the seizure of over 7,000 50-kilogramme bags of rice was the highest monthly seizure so far in 2019 by his operatives. Other seizures were 411 kegs of premium motor spirit (petrol), 372 kegs of vegetable oil, and one sack of used clothes. Others were 1,835 pairs of new shoes, 264 pairs of used shoes, motorcycles and bags of sugar.
There are many items that have been banned from being imported into Nigeria. The ban on the items was put in place by the federal government in 2016, as part of efforts to control import.