While the federal government may be commended for bringing down the rate of cross border activities through its border closure in the last one year, the average businessman and communities in the affected border towns are continually praying for the lifting of the closure due to its attendant hardship on socio-economic activities at the border settlements, report, MUYIWA LUCAS, ADAMU SULEIMAN, YINKA ADENIRAN and AUGUSTINE OKEZIE, after a tour of the country’s four border posts affected by the closure
NOTHING could have been more devastating to Kenneth Agwu, a middle-aged Nigerian trader who plied his trade between Nigeria and Benin republic. For Agwu, the event of August 20, 2019, has remained a game-changer for his business and continued survival.
Agwu, who traded in second-hand clothing materials, was on his way from his business trip to Cotonou, Benin Republic, only to be refused entry into Nigeria at the Seme Border. Reason: the Nigerian border with the Benin Republic and three others out of the country’s six geo-political zones had just been closed to trade movement.
The closure, which was announced under the codename: Ex-Swift Response, was announced by the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, a retired army colonel. The move was part of efforts to tackle smuggling and associated corruption, including spurring the domestic agricultural industry and combating the fight against crime and insurgency.
Counting the gains
For Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed, the closed border has drastically reduced incidents of cattle rustling, kidnapping, armed banditry and other forms of insecurity in the Northwest.
“The drill has drastically curtailed the inflow of arms and ammunition. Bandits and terrorists are finding it hard to procure arms and ammunition, hence we have recorded a reduction in cases of cattle rustling, kidnapping and armed banditry, which were predominant in the Northwest,” he said, while leading a Federal Government delegation on a visit to Sector Four (Northwest) of the Border Drill, last December.
That is not all. He also disclosed that the smuggling of petroleum products, which had also been prominent through the borders in the Northwest, had been curtailed due to the closure of filling stations along the border.
The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has also said the closed borders have been a blessing to the Service and the country at large. For instance, within two months of commencement of the exercise, the Joint Border Operation Drill, Sector 3, said it has recorded gains by improving security and economy of the country in less than two months of the inauguration. Sector three of the task force covers Benue, Kogi, Kwara and Niger states of Northcentral.
The customs also claimed huge success from the border closure, announcing daily revenue of N7 billion revenue from a previous N4.5 billion daily revenue.
The President of National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Mr. Lucky Amiwero, thinks that while the border closure is against international treaties and protocols Nigeria entered into willingly, the action has proved to be the most potent approach to tackling the several years of massive smuggling of goods from Nigeria’s neighbouring countries into Nigeria and smuggling of Nigerian fuel to those countries.
Low business activities
Visits by The Nation to the various border communities affected by the closure reveal that the communities are now a mere shadow of their former selves. Across the four border towns closed, commercial activities are at its lowest ebb- a sharp contrast from what obtained a year ago. Small and middle-level businesses and owners are still feeling the heat caused by the closure.
For instance, activities at the popular Illela border, which separates Nigeria and the neighbouring Niger Republic in the eastern axis of Sokoto State, have not been the same since the closure of borders a year ago. The effect is felt more with those dealing in local ‘household’ items. At the Illela International Market, commercial activities have become a shadow of its former self. The peak period of the market, which used to be on Sundays when traders from both the Niger Republic and Sokoto State converge for business activities, is no longer the same- a direct effect of the border closure.
Jibia Traders who ply Katsina –Jibia road for their businesses lament the huge extortion of money from them, which they claim at times run as high as N25,000 per vehicle, by men of Nigerian Customs service stationed at the various checking points on the Jibia-Katsina road.
The Leader of the traders Association and former President of the National Association of Katsina State Students, Comrade Nasiru Almustapha Danye Jibia, while answering questions on the impact of the border closure on their economic lives, said the harassment of the Nigerian Customs Service personnel operating along Katsina- Jibia road have shut up the cost of operating business in the area. He said businessmen and women in the town are facing hurdles after hurdles from the Customs officers stationed on the road.
He said: “Any businessman taking his goods to Jibia from Katsina would tell you that he has to part with a huge sum of money because the Customs officers would unnecessarily ask for a bribe before they allow you to pass with the goods.
“We don’t know if there has been any new law that bans doing business in our town because it’s a border town but even if there is a law, the people should have been informed.”
While strict compliance appears to reign at the main border posts, businesses still thrive at some bush paths and sundry illegal entry points, where unscrupulous security operatives work hand-in-hand with smugglers to bring in contraband goods into the country.
Although official border posts are shutdown, nothing seems to have stopped as movements of goods and services through illegal routes created by smugglers in collaboration with some security operatives have continued to thrive.
For instance, when The Nation visited the Katsina State border with the Niger Republic, smuggling activities are still going on though through illegal routes every day. An Immigration official told The Nation that there are over 1000 illegal routes in the state, with more created each day. Goods worth millions of naira are smuggled into and outside Katsina State daily.
There are four recognised border posts with the Niger Republic – Magama in Jibia, Kongolom in Maiadua, Babban Mutum in Baure and Dankama in Kaita local government areas of the state. Of the four, however, the busiest and crime-prone is the Magama – Jibia. Commuters and smugglers use several sandy roads passing through rocks and farmlands to ferry people and contraband items across the border.
A visit to Kongolom and Magama Jibia borders by one of our correspondent showed that though the borders have been barricaded, with officials turning back vehicles and motorcycles, at the border in Magama Jibia, people and vehicles were moving unhindered to access the neighbouring Faru and Dan Isa towns in the Niger Republic. 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 common routes for smuggling activities. At Kongolom, Maiadua Local Government Area, most smugglers of rice use local routes from Maimaje, Botsotsuwa, Tsatsumburum and Yekuwa settlement, all in the Niger Republic use motorcyclists for passage.
For now, with commercial activities grounded in these towns, survival has become challenging for the inhabitants. The Nation gathered that some members of the border communities are now being enlisted as informants and agents by smugglers to facilitate their illegal businesses, especially of rice.
“Things are becoming extremely difficult for impoverished Nigerians to feed. We need robust policies that can practically change the narrative to better local production of rice while the government softens alternative measure to ensure availability of the commodity,” a trader in the Seme town, Ramota Oseni, said.
A resident of Illela, who simply identified himself as Mallam Sheu, told this reporter that to survive the hardship arising from the situation, “we are forced to be involved in the smuggling business which pays more; though, it has reduced but not stopped. When the borders were not closed, things were going on smoothly without hitches. I have children and two wives that I have to feed. I can’t sit without sourcing for what to eat. It is not easy”.
In the border towns of Katsina State, the youths are also smiling to the bank daily from their illicit trading activities. Big-time smugglers and businessmen often 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.
Security personnel, including soldiers, policemen, Customs and immigration officials, according to residents, continue to smile home with money after their operations at the 13 checkpoints from Jibia to Katsina metropolis.
A motorcyclist involved in smuggling activities said those of them engaged in the business understand the risks and dangers, though their only problem is when the security operatives refused to cooperate with them at the checkpoints.
He said: “Unless one refused to pay the bribe for each category of items or when it is time for the officials to sacrifice you as a scapegoat, they will arrest you in the name of smuggling.”
A source in Seme border town told The Nation that “some of the security personnel are compromised due to their familiarity with some of the smugglers. We know some of them who can easily be compromised and we bribe them to sail through. Though, we have paid agents too who inform us of the presence of security personnel on certain routes.”
Similarly, residents of Oyo border town, Saki, said the border closure has presented a huge opportunity for security operatives to line their pockets at the expense of the country’s desire to either encourage local production of rice and other commodities, as well as having bumper revenue.
In recent times, a series of clashes had erupted between suspected rice smugglers and security operatives who were accused of engaging in double-dealing with smugglers. According to sources, rather than close the border in line with government directives, the security operatives collect money from the rice dealers and allow them to bring the commodity into town, which accounts for why imported rice is still abundant in the market.
In the last couple of weeks, at least three people have died and property destroyed on account of violent clashes and reprisal attack between residents of Saki and members of the Joint Task Force attached to the region. In the most recent fracas in the area, at least two residents and one customs officer lost their lives on account of supposed border safety activities.
“The whole community is in a sombre mood as we speak. Yes, on a good day, imported rice is contraband but notwithstanding there are no serious jobs for the teeming youths in the whole region. That is the business that many people survive on. I have my first and second degree but nothing to use it for in this region. Almost all the people engaging in smuggling in Saki area are all graduates and the least of them have their NCE certificate but there is no alternative in the whole region, most of them felt that is the only business for survival,’ a source said.
NCS Oyo/Osun Command’s Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mr Abiola Abdullahi-Lagos, said the command was not aware that its officers were receiving a bribe to aid smuggling.
He said “As far as we are concerned, the management is not a party to that, we do not have hand in that and we are not even in the know of such. Oyo/Osun Area Command is an enforcement area and we are trying our best to see that we enforce the law to the letter.”
He said the operatives and men of the Command remain committed to their duties of securing the borders from illegal activities.
Officials at the Sokoto Area Command of the service, which comprised Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara states, declined to comment on the issue.
The Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Customs Service, Katsina Command, Isah
Danbaba, refused to respond to The Nation’s enquiries, saying only the PRO, Customs Headquarters, Abuja could speak on the issues.
But, despite the closure, Nigerians are worried that contraband goods still litter the country’s local markets. Besides, the humongous seizures being declared regularly by the Customs call for concern. Similarly, a Nigerien reportedly carrying a sack got trapped in a flooded canal which almost drowned him along the border coast in Gada local government area of Sokoto state. After he was rescued, the residents discovered that the sack he was carrying contained three arms, leading to an irate mob snuffing life out of the man whom they suspect to be a runner for bandits.
Can it, therefore, be said that the security reasons cited for the border closure have been achieved? The recent query by President Muhammadu Buhari to security chiefs on how terrorists in the North East get a supply of arms and ammunitions despite the closure of the nation’s borders with neighboring countries remains a sore point in the closure.