Seme, a border town between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, has remained notorious as a haven where smugglers are at ease with Customs officials
| By Anayo Ezugwu | Mar. 24, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
IT IS not out of place for a first time visitor to assume that the Seme, the border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin is more of an international market place than a boundary. The human and vehicular traffic is quite a spectacle to behold. At Seme, traders hawk their goods along the road, while money changers are busy with their calculators, trying to convince migrants and passengers in transit on the prevailing exchange rate of the Naira to CFA franc and vice versa. Here, commercial drivers bargain with potential passengers on fares to either convey their goods to their destinations without arousing the suspicion of the customs officers or to get them across the border without harassment from the immigration officers.
The notoriety of Seme as a haven for smuggling and corruption is not an overstatement. From the early hours of the morning to midnight, the border town is always busy. There is no clear boundary to demarcate the Nigeria end from the Republic of Benin. The posts are not well marked out and maintained, and no national flag was in sight to indicate the end of one country’s boundary and the beginning of the other. People move in and out of the border with ease, especially those on foot, making it difficult to identify a migrant, a tourist or a trader. The presence of immigration officers is the only hindrance from crossing the border but their method of inspection is quite suspect, as mostly students studying in tertiary institutions in the Republic of Benin or people perceived as well-to-do by the immigration officers are stopped for inspection.
Going by the volume of contraband goods coming into Nigeria through this border town, there is no doubt whatsoever that the country’s border with the Republic of Benin is very porous. The smugglers easily bring in goods like clothing materials, foot wears, vegetable oil, rice, turkey, and cars, into the country the through border. Their movements are not restricted or hampered either by day or by night. They move in convoys to the Nigerian border line and file out at night into Nigeria when ‘bookings’ have been concluded. The smugglers operate like serpents, very wise and wild, they pay for passage, protection and even information. In other words, they are very organised and coordinated with the connivance of some Customs officers.
This Customs-smugglers synergy is so much alive that whenever Customs patrol teams or monitoring squads run into the smugglers’ convoys, they only ask for and collect what they call “OD”, that is, money for officers-on-duty, because some ‘ogas’ somewhere might have been settled and pronto, a call to that oga would only give the ‘allow’ order to any of such patrol or monitoring teams, and the journey continues.
So, the cartels operate without angst or much ado because they have designed sophisticated techniques to beat the system. Another intriguing aspect of the smuggling operations is the collaboration by some of the Customs officials to deceive the government and the public. These arrangements are done specifically with those bringing in vehicles, rice, frozen foods and vegetable oil.
For instance, those bringing in frozen foods, such as turkey, are made to drop a cartoon per vehicle at a designated check-point after ‘bookings’ are completed. So, if 5,000 vehicles are cleared in a particular operation or movement, there would have been 5,000 cartoons of turkey on the ground. The Customs men would quickly arrange for one or two rickety vehicles not worth more than N150, 000 and reload the items into it, to be taken to the Comptroller’s office with the tag, ‘seizure’.
At the Comptroller’s office, this is greeted with some gun shots. This method has become a recurrent ritual. In the double-standard game, Customs would allow ‘bookings’ from large consignments of rice of about 500,000 bags which normally pass through the Yekeme Gbaji waters in large local boats and berth at Ojo waters, behind Alaba international market. These large consignments would pass through the Customs needle eye but at dawn, a smaller boat with less than 5,000 bags would be arrested and greeted with gunshots just to create the impression that Customs officials are combating smuggling.
Realnews investigation at Seme has revealed that the major or big time smugglers are regarded as sacred cows by the Customs and for this reason, they have unrestricted passage for their contraband goods into and out of Nigeria while the small time and individual smugglers are used as shields for protection. Investigations also revealed that the smuggling business is thriving, and that both the smugglers and Customs officials are living largely on the illicit trade. But Ernest Olota, public relations officer, Seme Command, denied the allegation, saying “the command is on top of the situation at all times, despite the seeming challenges.”
Meanwhile, the Chemical and Non-Metallic Products Employers Federation, CANMPEF, has condemned the smuggling activities going on at Seme border and asked the federal government to shut the border in order to check the menace. According to the body, the federal government must take the drastic action of shutting the borders temporarily in order to save indigenous manufacturing firms from imminent collapse and also prevent millions of Nigerians from being rendered jobless.
Devakumar Edwin, president, CANMPEF, said if the federal government was desirous of putting an end to smuggling through the many unofficial routes linking Nigeria with Benin Republic, it must summon up the courage to shut the borders, even if it be for a temporary period. He recalled that a similar action taken by former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, yielded fruits as the Beninoise government took immediate action to check the menace of smuggling and trans-border armed robberies.
Edwin said high level smuggling was frustrating the efforts of President Goodluck Jonathan and Olusegun Aganga, minister of industry, trade and investment, to revive the industrial and agricultural sectors of the Nigerian economy. “CANMPEF has members across different sectors, including textile, tiles, shoes and bags, pharmaceutics, soap, toothpaste, cement, sugar, industrial gases etc and we have been expanding and making investments in new areas despite the challenges of lack of power supply, infrastructure deficit and high financial charges, among others. But the biggest challenge we have is state-sponsored smuggling, especially from Benin Republic, which has almost totally destroyed our businesses. Most of our members are shutting down and our membership has shrunk from 145 some years back to 92 presently,” he said.
According to Edwin, about 2.3 million tonnes of parboiled rice are being smuggled into the country from Benin annually with the attendant loss of revenue to the government and disincentive to local rice farmers and processors. Apart from smuggling, Edwin said the federation was also worried by the anti-Nigerian posture of the Beninoise authorities by imposing heavy taxes on goods being transported by road to other countries like Togo and Ghana in clear disregard for the Economic Community of West African States’ Treaty on free movement of people and goods.
The implications of this, according to him, are that Nigeria-made goods are too expensive and uncompetitive in the ECOWAS market, whereas Benin has no manufacturing base of its own. “If the problems are not addressed on time, Edwin said, over 270,000 direct jobs would be lost in the chemical and non-metallic products’ sector alone.”