INVESTIGATION: Banditry In Nigeria: How Security Agencies Aid Illegal Arms Supply (Part 2)
Smugglers Reveal How Customs, Other Security Agencies Aid Cross Border Illegalities
Idi-Iroko in Ogun State and Seme in Lagos State are believed to be the most notorious arms smuggling frontiers in Nigeria. Weapons are usually hidden in sacks of dried animal skin, yam flour and rice – the goods most often least inspected — and smuggled into the country in lorries and cars.
THE WHISTLER visited border communities in the two states and spoke with six career smugglers on how they compromise law enforcement agents to bring in contraband, including weapons. Even in the border communities of Idi-Iroko, Seme and Owode, the smuggling business is an underground trade where only members find each other.
My contact, a retired law enforcement officer in Abeokuta, linked me with old friends in Lagos and Idi-Iroko who arranged my meetings with the smugglers. The smugglers were made to believe this reporter was doing research for a PhD thesis and agreed to talk on condition that their names and photos would not be revealed. They spoke largely in Yoruba, but two of them who are university graduates spoke good English.
We Are Crossers, Not Smugglers
The smugglers call themselves “Crossers” because they help smugglers bring in contraband from Benin Republic into Badagry or Idiroko while the products are taken for final delivery by others. This is because they are familiar with the terrain and know the Customs and other security officers very well.
Explaining the nature and tricks of the occupation, Ade (not real name) who operates more along the Seme border disclosed that there are two types of smuggling he engaged in, although he said he had never smuggled weapons. One is what he called “Flying” through the approved border and the other is using unauthorized routes to cross into the country.
When a smuggler “flies” goods or vehicles, it means he will take the goods or vehicles through Seme or Idi-Iroko borders after paying necessary duties for some of the goods or vehicles, not all. He will pay duties usually for all of the goods or vehicles.
“If I want to move 100 cars through Seme border, I will contact our people at the Customs office and tell him how many cars I want to fly. I can pay duty for 50 cars and fly 50 cars through the border and no one will check the cars because they already know this is our business. There is a standard cost for flying goods or vehicles across the border. The money is shared by the officers,” he disclosed, adding that Customs’ officers usually advised them to fly goods so they can make money.
When the vehicles or goods are stopped at Customs check points in Nigeria, the driver would present the necessary papers and would be allowed to pass. But sometimes, officers from Customs federal operations, who know about the crime, could pose problems for them. “So, they are also booked ahead of the movement,” he said.
According to them, there also exist within the Customs border offices a ring that does fake duty papers for smugglers to cheat the government and make money for themselves. “They also fake payments of duties. They have a code for registering imported vehicles that could generate registration details of a previously registered vehicle with far less duty payment.
But when they are carrying “pure contraband or dangerous goods” such as drugs and weapons, they use unapproved routes. When they carry dutiable goods and do not want to pay duties at all, they also follow any of the dozens of illegal routes to cross from Benin to Nigeria.
Samuel (not real name), a 41 –year-old smuggler at Idi-Iroko said he had been in the business for 15 years and he’s well known by security personnel along the border. He confessed to have helped a friend smuggled in some ammunition in the past, but said he mostly smuggle rice, turkey and other banned food items.
“When we want to follow those unapproved routes, you have to first book. Booking means you will identify all Customs personnel that would be along the route up to the drop point in Nigeria and inform them. Usually we work through those we know, and they would settle the others.
“Once that is done, they (Customs officers) will tell you when to leave your loading base in Benin Republic and start moving into Nigeria. The reason is because they need to find out the Customs schedule of duties. But in most cases we travel at night when there would be very few officers at check points.
“The officer would tell us the route to follow and what time to take-off. Since the routes are illegal, you will not find customs officials on the way until you enter Idi-Iroko en-route Sango-Ota or Lagos. There are some illegal routes where you find Customs and other security officials who would allow you pass once you give them money, no matter what you carry because they will not check. Some would just ask you: ‘Hope you no carry bad thing,’ that’s all,” he explained.
A smuggler says he pays N6, 500(six thousand five hundred naira) to customs officials on each bag of rice he carries to avoid being stopped along the way up to his delivery point. He said he could carry up to 100 bags of rice or other products, depending on the vehicle he chose to use. He said some of his colleagues who smuggle weapons conceal them inside bags of rice and inside the body of the vehicle.
Another crosser confirmed that the well-established smugglers have formed unregistered associations to protect themselves and make their jobs easier. They chose leaders who liaise with Customs officials to facilitate their smuggling activities.
He said “In the association, everyone has a tag. If I’m crossing the border with contraband, I will drop my tag at each checkpoint to avoid stopping to give them money after booking. At the end of the week, you will go and meet the designated Customs official and calculate what your charges are based on the number of tags.
“There’s a reason why we use tag. If you say you will settle them along the road, there are times that senior officers may be passing and if they see you, your goods would be confiscated. To avoid that risk, we use tags. There are some of them too who are greedy or who want to do the job and they will insist on checking the vehicle. But those stubborn officers don’t last at the border; the others would ensure they are redeployed.”
But Customs also have informants among smugglers, which is why the smugglers would always be honest with their Customs fixers on the nature of the goods they want to “cross.”
Thomas (not real name) who admitted he had smuggled “some weapons” in the past, said “If you want to carry dangerous goods, you have to ensure no one saw you while loading otherwise the Customs would have the information before you get to them. That’s why you have to tell them what you’re carrying when booking them, otherwise if they get to know you deceived them its trouble for you.”
One of the smugglers interviewed at Idi-Iroko agreed (at a cost) to drive this reporter through unapproved smuggling routes to corroborate his disclosures.
‘Smuggling’ Through Unapproved Route – A Reporter’s Experience
Our car, a Toyota Camry (1999 model-pencil light) carried four 50 liters jerry cans filled with petrol –a hot commodity across the border in Benin Republic where a litre of the product sells for between N250-N300.
It was on a Monday in the first week of February when the border was still officially closed. We took a right turn beside a government school off the Owode-Idi-Iroko road into an untarred road. The driver told me it’s one of the several illegal routes for smugglers crossing into or out of Benin Republic. There were residential buildings along the road until after about 5 minutes’ drive. Then green farmland appears and shortly after we came across a “road block” of one bamboo plank with no one in sight.
Suddenly a man half dressed in civilian clothes appeared from a nearby hut. He recognized the driver and asked if he was carrying anything. He replied in the negative, and he lifted the bamboo for us to pass. The driver told me the guy was a Customs official doing illegal duty because the route was not approved. “They know smugglers follow the route so they stationed some of their men there so that they can collect money,” he revealed.
The driver advised me not to take pictures because “they will think you want to expose them on social media” and could confiscate my handset. We drove for another four minutes and came across another bamboo check point. This time there were two men. One appeared to be a Customs official because of the colour of his trousers. But he wore a white T-Shirt on top. The other looked rumpled in civilian clothing.
The two also recognized the driver after peeping into the car, and the one in Customs trousers asked him why he didn’t carry his usual luggage. He quickly told them he was just going to visit Cotonou with a friend. Without checking to find out if the car was carrying anything, they opened the road and let us pass, shouting a request at the driver to “bring something back.” We encountered one more roadblock manned by Nigerian officials before entering Bebe, a border town in Benin Republic where I counted at least 15 large open warehouses for petrol smuggled from Nigeria within two minutes’ drive into the community.
I asked the driver to park by the road side so I could take some pictures, and immediately three residents on motorcycle came to us asking if we brought petrol! We had to continue moving forward, but the driver advised we shouldn’t go too far into Benin Republic because of their customs officials who may question us.
We turned and took another route, a longer one, back into Idi-Iroko. We encountered four roadblocks mounted by security officials without uniform. As our car approached the third checkpoint, I positioned my phone to snap from inside the car. The officer saw me.
When we stopped he asked angrily why I was taking his pictures. “I saw you taking my photo; why would you take my photo? Delete it now,” he shouted. The driver tried to calm him and said I didn’t take his photo. He insisted I should open the photo file of my phone for him to be sure I didn’t snap him. I made effort to show him and he allowed us pass.
We entered Idi-Iroko to Owode road and passed 15 Customs checkpoints. But the reporter did not see any serious attempt to block smugglers along the highway. The “check” begins with the officer, wielding only a long stick, bending slightly into the vehicle to talk with the driver after which money exchanges hands and the vehicle moves on, even when overloaded with goods.
According to my driver, the vehicles pass easily because Customs officials had been “booked”(prepaid) before the vehicles were even loaded in Benin Republic.
Comptroller of Customs Speaks
The Comptroller of Customs in charge of Ogun 1 Area Command, Peter Chado Kolo, declined to be recorded when THE WHISTLER met him in his office. He said it was impossible to protect all the borders, revealing there were over 200 illegal routes into Ogun State from Benin Republic used by smugglers. He stressed that the NCS does not have the personnel to put on every route. He said those seen on illegal routes without uniform were not Customs officers.
He said Customs officers face dangers everyday as dare devil smugglers are always ready to attack them, sometimes with AK 47 rifles and other dangerous weapons. He disclosed that on October 12, 2020, an officer AIC Solomon Alagye was killed while another, Taiwo Odeyemi was still missing after smugglers attacked their patrol team.
“I am not saying that customs officers are saints or don’t commit crimes, but every case should be properly investigated,” he said, adding that he had not seized any arms in the last one year. “The last time arms were seized in this zone was in October last year when some policemen aided smuggling of arms around the border in Shaki, Oyo State,” he revealed.
He said there was a “remarkable increase in seizures” since he took over the command last year due to steps he had taken. He said he deployed intelligence in all operations in the state and embarked on “structural reorganization” of the command.
He had revealed in a press statement on February 3 that his command seized 461 vehicles used for smuggling between January-December 2020 while 44 were seized in January this year. Within the same period, 89 trailer loads of foreign rice were seized, among other items including foreign used cars, frozen poultry products and “dangerous drugs.”