In August 2019, the Nigerian Government led by President Muhammadu Buhari declared a partial land border closure in order to halt the importation of food among other goods. The smuggling of rice – Nigeria’s staple food – remains business as usual despite the restriction order by the president. GABRIEL OGUNJOBI went undercover between March 12 and 17 to expose the schemes of smugglers operating across the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic.
We had access to dietitians and personal trainers, yoga sessions and intravenous vitamin therapy; pharmacogenetic testing determined which medications worked best with our DNA. When it was time to leave, I had become so comfortable that I walked the grounds barefoot, making laps around the Serenity Trail, feeding apples to the horses by the stables where we met for equine therapy, on Wednesdays.
It was midday on March 12, Monday, popularly nicknamed ‘J-Boy’, a swift, street-smart motorcyclist flapped his cow-skinned, portable bag at the front of his motorcycle, ready to fire on.
J-Boy was not just a good rider, but also a great accomplice with the Kogi-born Mohammed Muktar, who is adept in the business of smuggling foreign rice from Benin Republic to Nigeria.
It should ordinarily be a difficult task to dare travel out of the country with no valid proof of identity but it is more herculean to smuggle bags of foreign rice under the nose of men of the Nigeria Police Force, the Nigerian Army, the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) – especially at this time when the borders are shut. But none of these security agents could stop Mohammed, a notorious smuggler, and his accomplices.
So, when Mohammed gave J-Boy a nod to ride on, the latter took the cue at once. “No qualms,” he said, bravely and gravely.
On his Bajaj motorcycle, he carried Mohammed and the reporter – and zoomed off, travelling the terrible roads that connect Towe de l’arrondissement (meaning ‘town’) in Benin Republic, from Nigeria – starting from Igan Alade road – Yewa North, Ogun State.
An undercover expedition into the world of smugglers
As we sped off on the crude terrain, I quickly expressed my anxiety about the dangerous journey we had just commenced. But my co-travellers, who knew how the system works told me to calm down, assuring me of safety and success in the journey.
However, the smugglers had no idea that I was a journalist working under cover. I had earlier presented myself to Mohammed as a newbie, who would love to invest in the smuggling of foreign rice from Benin Republic to Nigeria. However, before putting my money on the line, I told him I needed to experience how smugglers outsmart Nigeria’s security agents. I needed to gauge the risk involved in the business into which I was venturing.
Before finally crossing the Nigerian border to Benin Republic, we travelled through Igan Alade, one of the communities on the borderline of Ogun State and Towe, a neighbouring town at the French-speaking Republic of Benin – bypassing a police station at Igan Alade, an NSCDC Divisional Headquarters at Tata community, a Nigeria Customs Area Command at the Ijoun community, and at least seven checkpoints manned by different security agents.
Throughout my round trip to observe the smuggling expedition, I noticed that none of the officers at any of these checkpoints – usually barricaded with bamboo across two sides of the roads – was particularly interested in stopping any smuggling activity.
Instead, the officers greeted us with flashes of smiles and sometimes, hand-waves.
To clear foreign rice out of Benin Republic only costs N200, Rice retailer claims
As at 4:15 p.m., when we arrived at Towe, Coronavirus, the most ravaging pandemic of the century, was just beginning to take a toll on rice prices in Benin Republic.
Before then, a dollar was exchanged for N360/366 at Bureau De Change market, but it suddenly rose to between N405 and N420 that morning. The naira crash immediately influenced the price of foreign rice. Twenty-four hours ago, a bag of rice was sold at N9,000 at any retailer’s outlet in Benin. It was already N10,200 on the morning of March 12.
“Your currency has no market value in our country yet you have too many greedy officers on the road,” said Mme (Ms.) Ramantou Akiyemi, a rice retailer, to spite Nigeria’s currency value.
“When you are going back, our officers will clear you with just N200 – and that’s all! – no matter the
numbers of bags of rice you carry on a bike. But, on your land, the taxes are overbearing.”
In a sudden plot-twist, Mohammed came up with a masterplan as this time around he was able to buy just about five bags.
Smugglers’ mafia tactics
“It isn’t worth it to waste any money on the road since it is just five bags I am now buying. Let’s make a booking today and come back to carry them,” Mohammed said, gradually unfolding how he intended to evade all securities without paying a dime.
He would later reveal that his usual scale of rice smuggling ranges from five to ten bikes, noting that each bike would carry around 10 to 15 bags at once – depending on how strong the rider is to control the wheel. Paying bribes on the road doesn’t bug him, but, for just five bags, there is a smarter way to cut the cost.
In the world of smugglers, four codified words are employed for communication – ‘settlement’, ‘booking’, ‘lead’ and ‘informant’. They typify how conveniently smugglers operate day in and out – before and after the federal government invoked a restrictive policy on borders.
‘Settlement’ is the bribe of N1,000 at every checkpoint minus the police’s. This is so because the policemen at Igan Alade junction are ‘booked’ before any trip. Customs officers and soldiers will only collect bribe when they catch traders with illegal goods. With the police, the rule is different. Smugglers must disclose their mission ahead of their journey. That’s why theirs is called ‘booking’.
Apart from the bribe-taking security agents, it is usually a lucky day for the likes of J-Boy who risk their lives to smuggle rice. So, their charge is not open for negotiation: it’s a flat rate of N2,500 per bag to anywhere in Igan Alade.
Talk of the backbone machinery in smuggling, you think of the ‘Lead’. Through a hell-hole smuggling, the Lead runs ahead – like two miles – on his bike, looking unsuspecting but vigilant to a fault. He makes the settlements that will be required at each of the checkpoints. Also intermittently, he calls the actual carrier to keep track of their adventure or warn once he sights anyone parading suspiciously. The smugglers know their gangs and can easily spot one who does not belong to the clique. That enemy the Lead is looking out for is called ‘informant’.
The fear of informants…
As fearless as Mohammed appeared in countenance, he admitted that informants were his nightmare in the business.
He cursed them anytime he mentioned them. They just parade bushes on the border, and make a call to the Customs patrol squad the moment a smuggler is sighted, he told the reporter.
‘They may see you mapping plans and just keep trailing you without raising suspicion. They are the unfortunate people in this work. They don’t want us to prosper and for that they will never prosper too. I fear them,” he quipped, dropping a missile of rebuke for his anonymous foes.
It can be a bad day for the informants because sometimes they risk being hacked down, as I heard from J-Boy in one of my interactions with the smugglers.
“Sometimes, if we notice the same unfamiliar person keeps us on a bike, we can challenge him. On some tough days, we use charm and cutlass on them.”
From that point onward, I made up my mind never to be mistaken for an informant. Such misfortune will certainly jeopardise my assignment, or endanger my life.
How smugglers boycott security agents from Benin Republic to Igan Alade
- N1,000 bribe to smuggle in five bags of foreign rice
At dusk of Friday, March 13, in Igan Alade, the reporter retired to Mohammed’s makeshift home. Interestingly, the shelter was less than a mile from the police station around the old post office in the border community.
After finalising arrangements with a police officer usually identified as Officer Sunday (also from Kogi, like Mohammed), we agreed that Saturday would be the day to witness how to evade all security agents manning the porous borders with five bags of rice.
Mohammed made a bid for a new team of smugglers’ bike riders – J-Boy was no longer in the team. What made their resume more convincing was beyond just being brothers; they spoke French and they were vastly acquainted with all short-cuts.
That was Mohammed’s masterplan from day one.
The only activity this second time in Towe, which is rice mounting on a bike, was as swift as it can be.
The two brothers rode fearlessly into the thick bushes, darting into all possible corners. A few times, we were trapped in the mud and at another time, it was the hurdles of crossing a bridge anchored by planks that broke the sweats for us. In total, our perilous crisscrossing lasted almost three hours within Igbo nla village known as Ile Komi.
Afterwards, we arrived in Idi Ori in Tata, a residential settlement in between Igan Alade and Ijoun communities.
The fetish fortification of rice smugglers
Palpable fear enveloped me after bursting into Baba Seun’s hut at Idi Ori from Ile Komi bushes. That was Mohammed’s hideout and storehouse upon return from every Benin trip. Interestingly, the storehouse is just at the backyard of NSCDC Ketu Headquarters – a stone’s throw away.
Baba Seun, a herbalist, had no comely face to behold and so was his dreadful vicinity. By one side of his house was hung skull of a dog and on the ground was clotted-blood, with a littering bird’s feathers.
Next to this was an isolated hut, his power-room for consultations. I was not allowed in. I only peeped to see plain-white garments, small pods suspended to the roof, calabash flattened to the wall and the kinds of costumes I only see in Yoruba movies. It was a frightful sight.
After the long trip on Saturday, I briefly opted out of the field. With the five bags of rice in the hideout, Mohammed could not venture on another expedition.
By Tuesday, March 17, Baba Seun had fortified the region where he kept the smuggled rice before our return.
“You should have told me earlier before coming here. They are not yet ready for carriage. Anyone who steps into that place or speaks a word while carrying will slump and die,” he said.
A double-check on my confidence level flashed zero at this point. His enchantment on the surrounding was intended for enemies in case they burst in on them. They would die!
Now that we were there, it would take the herbalist around one hour to remove the spells.
Near the hidden bags of rice was a pot of herbs, with puffing smoke beneath. As long as the smoke remains alive there, no one dared talk, except to carry the rice to the open and pack for transport.
After the exercise, I was soon prepared for the final-leg of my covert operation. Next expedition would be from Idi Ori to Igbogila, another community ahead and then to Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State.
But, there was just one unavoidable huddle to beat, and that is the police security checkpoint.
The checkpoint was at the market front of Igan Alade and by the very left was a bush-path leading to Igbogila.
With the quick call ‘go! go!’ like a parade commandant, we followed the cue of Officer Sunday to forge ahead. This time, Mohammed had hopped down from the bike and was already by the side of the police officer, enclosing one thousand naira to his left hand. With the five bags of rice, we were now off to Igbogila
N1,000 was all it costs!
At around 4:30 p.m on Tuesday, March 17, I alongside two rice transporters, were already on the way from Igan Alade to Igbogila – two Ogun communities tucked in-between the border of Nigeria and Benin Republic. Thanks to Officer Sunday of the Police station branch at Igan Alade.
The reporter was no longer apprehensive of any difficulty on the way. After all, N1,000 was all it took to buy the protection of a corrupt Nigerian Police officer who allowed us to drive past border communities with smuggled rice worth N51,000.
At Igbogila, Kazeem Olakolade, a rice transporter in his 50s had been recommended to us. Popular for his shrewdness, he hoards smuggled rice in his house.
His mantra read like these:
“There are places I do not cross to carry ‘Oja’ (the local parlance for foreign rice) no matter the money you offer to pay me – like Igan Alade, Ijoun. That’s the region for some boys’ business and I can’t trespass. But, from here to Abeokuta, they know me.”
“And, for your information, I don’t tell customers about my itinerary. You can’t follow me too. When I get to Abeokuta, I will be the one to call you. Just get my money ready,” he declared.
A few minutes after 6pm on Tuesday, we are at his place with the five bags of rice. The reporter would no longer be able to track how it gets to the final destination. Olakolade’s charge for the transportation from Igbogila to Abeokuta is N3,000 per bag which means he will make a total of N15,000 from the trip.
Mohammed was reluctant to pay that much but he made an effort to justify it.
‘It’s that much because I also settle too many operatives on the road. In this business, one cannot afford to be frugal otherwise you are doomed.’
So far, one or two things are now established: that high-level smuggling still thrives in Ogun State through borders and also that the efforts of some serious-minded Customs officers are sabotaged by a few greedy lots. The reporter can only testify to that of the Police (Officer Sunday in particular) which he witnessed.
Incidentally, on Saturday, May 14, the Customs operatives of the National Border drill intercepted some smugglers at Imasayi town in Yewa North Local Government during an anti-smuggling operation.
A Customs officer eventually died during the operation that turned violent between officers and smugglers and the neighboring towns experienced a few days of unrest over the bloody clash.
The spokesman for the Ogun State Command of NCS, Abdullahi Maiwada told this reporter that investigation has been initiated after one of the suspects was arrested.
Against all odds, foreign rice landed in Abeokuta
Because of the recent crisis, one did not expect Olakolade to successfully transport the ‘exhibit’ from Igbogila, less than five kilometers away from Imasayi, down to Abeokuta in spite of a recent bloody clash on that route.
But at around 12:30 pm on Thursday, March 19, he called us to say five bags of foreign rice are now in Abeokuta.
Between Igbogila and Ita-Oshin at Abeokuta, there are at least five checkpoints usually manned by officers of the Nigerian Customs, Importers Association of Nigeria (IMAN), Army and Police, but he does not pay a dime by himself.
His mode of operation is similar to that of other smugglers I had interacted with during the course of this undercover assignment.
His Lead, according to the foreign rice transporter, drove ahead to settle all security men at the checkpoints and monitored his distance through intermittent phone calls.
‘This is why I insisted that you shouldn’t call me during the trip to help my own concentration on the road’, he said.
“Border complexity, limited resources are our biggest problems” – Customs PRO
Despite federal government’s lockdown imposed on the nation’ capital, Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states, Abdullahi Maiwada, the Public Relations Officer for the Ogun State Command of NCS, in an interview with the reporter, stated that about 2,000 bags of 50kg rice were confiscated from cross-border smugglers in Ogun State alone in April.
He, however, admitted to the challenges of border porosity, partly blaming it on limited resources.
‘Despite working in the most complex terrain in terms of the geography and porosity of the border, we are among the best NCS Commands in the country. We can not bring a total end to smuggling but our responsibility is to suppress the activities’, the NCS’ spokesman said.
‘Aside from the seven approved routes of movement of goods and persons in Ogun state, there are over a 100 unapproved routes these smugglers navigate to carry out their illicit business.
‘We just have to manage our limited resources to achieve the desired aim’, he added.
Maiwada briefly established that there are internal mechanisms to discipline erring operatives caught conniving with smugglers while smugglers apprehended with accomplices are left to the judiciary to prosecute.
This, sometimes, does not happen as the latest arrest made is a chief smuggler within Ogun borders who has a past record of arrest by NCS Ogun Command, Maiwada revealed.
Unequivocally, Maiwada’s assertions confirmed two clogs in the wheels for Ogun State Command of NCS. The first is that ‘Ile Komi’ where Mohammed’s team had taken me through from Benin Republic and Igbokofi town in Yewa North LGA may continue to be strongholds of smuggling except security operatives are deployed to man the routes.
Another is that, until NCS is legally empowered to prosecute any accomplice in smuggling, including security operatives and the local residents in border communities, smuggling would continue to thrive.
I made a few friends there, but we soon dispersed, some to Baltimore, others to New Jersey, one to wake up in the morning to find that his girlfriend had died beside him in the night, high on heroin, having aspirated her vomit. The rest of us—those without jobs, school, or families calling us home—moved into sober homes in South Florida.
South Florida—the densely populated area comprising Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties—has four hundred and seventy-eight licensed facilities for drug treatment. There are more treatment centers than public elementary schools. It’s difficult to live here for long without hearing someone’s sad story: the Lyft driver who loved cocaine and still does, but from a distance now; the anesthesiologist who studied at Johns Hopkins and shot up fentanyl before it was popular.
For the next few months, I moved between recovery and relapse, cycling through the Twelve Steps, then going off in search of drugs. I would walk out of group therapy in a huff and then, days later, check into another detox for whatever length of time insurance would cover. After inpatient rehab, I’d move to sober housing and enroll in an outpatient program at a nearby clinic. As long as I was insured, I didn’t have to touch money. There’s a name for this peripatetic life style: clinicians, clients, and local officials call it the Florida Shuffle.
I spent the month of May in Delray Beach, in an antebellum-style mansion with Spanish moss hanging from the trees in the front yard, spiral staircases indoors, and large white vitrified tiles in the dining room. This was a partial-hospitalization program, where people are sent after they detox from a relapse. We recited the Serenity Prayer before we ate, pleased by the way we felt ourselves rising to the occasion. Many of us were not yet twenty-five, but we had lived in a disorderly way, and because of that we felt ancient, as if we had survived something, which we had. It was only honorable that we should try to live well.
In June, I found myself living, for the second time, in an old residential motel in Boca Raton, which had been converted into apartments for drug addicts and alcoholics passing between rehab and polite society. The apartments were on a street called West Camino Real; nearby, houses sell for about a million dollars and even the grocery store offers valet parking. My building was tiny, spare, and utilitarian. Each day, we were required to attend four hours of group therapy; each week, we had our urine tested for drugs. Both of these services were billable to insurance.
In our spare time, in the desolating heat, we would sit at a picnic table in the parking lot to chain-smoke and drink Red Bull and play spades or poker. I smoked forty cigarettes a day—Marlboro Red 100s, the long ones. Struggling to bury how lonely we were, and how afraid, we traded war stories, recalling the drugs we had done and loved, and the times they took us down—each of us striving to top his neighbors’ wretchedness, to prove himself exceptional in his ability to ruin himself totally. It was easy to get lost, to lose track, to lose time between the weeks and days and palm-tree afternoons. News of relapses, of overdoses and deaths, was always breaking, and so the emergencies that one day held us rapt were soon supplanted by new ones.