Help us beg the government to open the borders; many of us have gone bankrupt.

September 21, 2019
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LEKAN OLABULO and TOLA ADENUBI spoke with rice traders just as they unearthed new smuggling strategies to beat the law, in the face of the closure of the nation’s borders. 

The Sango Park Market and Ogba Fadina in the Sango Ota area of Ogun State are arguably two of the leading centres for smuggled rice, groundnut oil and other goods not just in the state but in the whole of Nigeria. Days after the Federal Government announced the closure of the borders, heavily armed security operatives, including soldiers, Customs men and men of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) invaded Sango and still seized about three truckloads of rice and groundnut oil.

When Saturday Tribune visited the two centres, there was no denying the fact that the closure of the border had greatly affected their business but it was gathered that the traders had devised new means of meeting their needs, hoping that the Federal Government would open the borders soon. Activities are now at a lull at the two centres which used to bubble with illegal trading involving persons from different parts of the country.

Investigation by Saturday Tribune revealed that apart from smuggled rice being taken through the interior compartments of vehicles plying Sango to Idiroko, the traders have devised another strategy of re-bagging local rice with foreign rice sacks to make the product appear foreign.

A trader who identified herself simply as Alhaja told Saturday Tribune: “Help us beg the government to open the borders. Many of us have gone bankrupt. We cannot feed our families again. Many of us obtained loan but we cannot pay back now because goods are not coming in.” She added: “We used to send our goods to all parts of Nigeria through commercial vehicles. Almost every day, we sent rice to our customers but now we don’t have enough. Many of us are afraid to buy the local rice in large quantity. People are complaining about the quality.”

One of the loaders at the market who pleaded for anonymity while speaking with Saturday Tribune said, “We, the loaders, are the ones that are affected most. Some of the traders still get small quantities from commercial drivers who hide rice in the inner parts of their vehicles.” Prodded further, the loader said, “We have not worked at all since they closed the border. We used to work every day but now we have not worked since the government closed the border.” He added: “What those drivers do is that during every trip, they buy a bag of rice, open it and share it into different inner compartments of their vehicle. No Customs or security personnel will ever think that they can hide rice in such places.”

The loader also confided in Saturday Tribune that “another thing the women do is that they buy the local rice and re-bag it with foreign rice sack. With that, they can still make between N2,000 and N3,500. They sell the local rice at N16,000 but when they re-bag it with foreign rice sack, they sell it between N18,000 and #19,500.” He was, however, quick to point out that “some people already know that they re-bag local rice as foreign and it is not as lucrative as how it used to be when the government had not closed the border.”

Budget, security our major priority ― Senate President

Smuggling still on

It seems nothing will deter rice smuggling in Lagos, not even the three-year jail term for a bag of contraband rice promised those involved in it by the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd), penultimate Thursday.

As the border closure crossed a record one month, investigation by Saturday Tribune has revealed continuous and booming business for those into rice smuggling and even the Customs leadership confessed its shock over the new strategy being deployed by the smugglers to remain in business, at least within Lagos.

Following Saturday Tribune’s findings, the Service said it never envisaged the situational information provided by this medium and didn’t have any kind of intelligence on the illegal but ingenious way the smugglers have found around the unlawful trading. Customs then promised a probe and counter-strategy to stop the booming business.

Sango, a border town between Lagos and Ogun States, has been discovered by Saturday Tribune to be the latest hot spot for smuggling activities, particularly rice, since the border closure went into effect.  The Sango markets accommodating the illegal rice depots, according to findings, aren’t really new to the business, serving as warehouses, clearing spots and connecting centres for smuggled rice through the hitherto porous borders before the distribution of the commodity all over Lagos and other parts of the South-West and beyond when the borders weren’t officially locked.

Now with the border restriction policy said to be greatly affecting the usual influx of banned items into the country, smuggled bags of rice left in different warehouses are now being supplied to markets in Lagos State without the knowledge of the NCS.

August 20th declaration

On the 20th of August, the NCS, on the instruction of President Muhammadu Buhari, issued a statement announcing the imposition of restrictions along particular sections of the nation’s border post. The operation code-named Ex-Swift Response is a joint security exercise being coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) in four geopolitical zones, namely, South-South, South-West, North-Central and North-West. According to the Federal Government, the exercise is expected to promote interagency cooperation and increase preparedness to address trans-border security challenges such as terrorism, banditry, smuggling and proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The exercise will also involve the movement of personnel, vehicles and equipment within the affected parts of the country, the statement added.

While the official reasons for the restriction were mainly security, the closure is, in reality, affecting more of goods usually moved from neighbouring countries, particularly Benin Republic which shares proximity with Lagos State – although cross-border trade is hardly done with any respect for extant laws and regulations.

Apart from the legally-recognised Nigeria-Benin border, there are illegal and expectedly porous borders littering different geopolitical zones around the country which, according to sources, are always deliberately left unmanned by Customs personnel because of alleged deals with smugglers. At the Lagos end, smugglers of used cars, imported rice, second-hand clothes and shoes and used electronic gadgets are said to be regular customers to the Customs personnel manning their routes of operation.

Saturday Tribune learnt that when those who have ‘settled’ among the smugglers are about moving, the Customs officers on duty will disappear only to reappear when the batch has disappeared into thin air. It was also gathered that those who ‘settle’ regularly usually move in a convoy without a problem except if someone among them is either owing an outstanding balance or want to default completely.

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Skillful smuggling?

Due to the fact that the laws establishing the NCS allows it to pounce on banned or prohibited items right inside city centres, many of the rice smuggling activities now go unnoticed by the Customs due to an improvised means of distribution embarked upon by these daredevil smugglers.

It is no longer uncommon to see street urchins loading bags of rice onto commercial vehicles transiting Lagos and Ogun states. The practice of using commercial buses as a decoy thrives in the Sango area of Ogun State.

When Saturday Tribune visited the Sango garage during the week, it was observed that after the commercial vehicles, popularly referred to as Mass Transit buses, get filled with passengers heading towards Oshodi in the early hours of the day, street urchins acting on instructions from their superior colleagues start loading bags of smuggled rice onto the buses. The bags of rice are neatly laid on the floor of the buses, mostly under the seats, forcing many of the already seated passengers to place their legs on the bags. This is usually done with the understanding of the bus driver.

During the loading process, which lasts for minutes, depending on the volume of rice being loaded into the commercial buses, passengers are continually asked to raise their legs since the bags of rice will be sitting right under the seats of the passengers. After loading the bus with the quantity of rice to be supplied, the bus departs for Lagos and oftentimes offloads its content at the popular Oshodi market at Bolade Bus Stop. At the bus stop, the buyer or agent, who is also inside the bus as a passenger, alights and calls one or two street urchins to assist in offloading the bags of rice. While the offloading exercise goes on, passengers remain glued to their seats on the bus as it is yet to get to its final destination, which is Oshodi under-bridge. This routine exercise has persisted between Sango garage in Ogun State and Bolade Bus Stop in Oshodi unnoticed by Customs authorities.

Speaking to Saturday Tribune about having his legs on a bag of rice during an almost two hours trip from Sango to Oshodi, a passenger who identified himself as Segun Idris stated that the smugglers had to dig deep to find a way to distribute their goods.

Idris said, “Although I didn’t find it funny placing my legs on a bag of rice all through the trip to Oshodi, the way and manner Customs operatives seize these goods makes you to understand the plight of the rice smugglers. That the goods have already come into the country is enough reason to let go, but the Customs won’t allow that. These goods that are worth millions of naira are the sweats of some people but the Customs will just come and take them away, rendering many people bankrupt and broke. So, anytime I am on the bus and they (street urchins) start loading bags of rice underneath the seats, I don’t complain because these people just have to survive. If the government does not want these goods in the country, why allow them into the country in the first place?”

When reminded that the Customs has the power to impound banned items right inside the town or markets, he said that was the reason behind the cooperation between the rice smugglers and the commercial bus drivers. “I don’t blame the rice smugglers, the economy is harsh and they need to survive. That is why they are using the commercial buses. Except I tell you that my legs are resting on bags of rice on a commercial bus, it is almost impossible for any Customs officer or security operative standing on the road to detect that,” a sympathetic Idris explained.

Customs shocked

When contacted on the development, the spokesman of the Federal Operations Unit, Zone A of the NCS which oversees Lagos and Ogun states, Jerry Attah, expressed shock that such things were happening.

Imported rice.

“I am not aware that rice smugglers now connive with commercial bus drivers to move banned products within the Lagos metropolis. How on earth are we to know that commercial buses moving on the streets of Lagos, fully loaded with passengers, have bags of rice on their floors? Except we get intelligence information, it will be very difficult for us to start stopping every commercial bus on Lagos roads to check for banned items. Since it happens in the morning, you know, many of the passengers onboard such buses are on their way to work, so doing a stop-and-search for every bus that we see on the road in Lagos won’t work. However, I will pass this (Saturday Tribune’s discovery) across to the relevant units in my office to see how we can go about it,” Attah said.

Ali blows hot

The NCS leadership, however, said a three-year jail term awaits anybody arrested for smuggling a bag of rice into the country. The Comptroller General, Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd), made this known while addressing border communities of Nigeria/Niger at Maigatari Local Government Area of Jigawa State.

He said the act of smuggling of contraband food items into the country was playing a key role in destroying the county’s economy and Nigeria must work hard to curtail the problem.

“The Federal Government is making efforts to improve agriculture, especially rice farming, but the foreign rice being imported to the country massively through illegal borders is sabotaging government policies. Most of these rice are being imported by you on motorcycles through illegal borders. No compromise, anybody found culpable will be prosecuted accordingly and the minimum punishment for smuggling a single bag of rice is three years jail term,” he stated.

He also begged the border communities for cooperation through useful information on smuggling and smugglers, while urging security operatives to be vigilant and forge peaceful relationships with border communities.

Customs is culpable –Resident

When Saturday Tribune visited a resident around the Sango area, just across the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, he blamed the Customs for the manner smuggled bags of rice were being impounded within the city centre.

“In early 2017 when men of the NCS stormed the Sango garage, even the police were not aware of their visit. There is an Area Police Command in Sango, yet the Customs didn’t deem it fit to inform them. The raid was sudden and many people were caught napping during the exercise. I guess it is due to this that the rice owners have decided to move the product discreetly within Lagos.  You know that if the Customs knows they are supplying the product through the help of commercial bus drivers, the Customs would have clamped down on the bus drivers. So, to avoid such a scenario, the movement and supply of smuggled bags of rice have been very discreet. Laying them on the floors of commercial buses wouldn’t raise any eyebrow,” said the resident who wouldn’t want his name in print for safety reasons.

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