The Federal Government is losing huge revenues to the activities of smugglers who evade payment of specified duties on imported goods through the various porous borders between Nigeria and its neighbours. Vanessa Obioha was at Seme Border last week and glimpsed the activities of smugglers in the area
It is not out of place for a first time visitor to assume that the Seme border, the border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin is more of a market place than a boundary.
The human and vehicular traffic is quite a spectacle to behold. Traders hawking their goods along the road, money changers busy with their calculators, convincing migrants and passengers on transit on the exchange rates of the Naira to CFA franc and vice versa, commercial drivers bargaining 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 this haven of corruption cannot be exaggerated.
From the early hours of the morning to midnight, the border town is always busy.
More so, there is no clear boundary to distinguish the Nigeria end from the Francophone country, Republic of Benin. The posts are not well marked out and maintained, and no national flags on sight to indicate the end of one country’s boundary and the beginning of the other. People move in and out of the border at 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.
At the Seme border point last week, this writer asked why the partial treatment, an immigration officer who pleaded anonymity, said, “Some of them are just from neighbouring villages who came to buy goods worth just N1,500, how can you harass them if that is the only money they have on them?
“We stop the students to ask for their identifications. But these elderly ones, they are mostly illiterates, how can they afford passports?”
He added that the poor economic status, age and language barrier also contributed to this ineffective way of carrying out their duties. However, he pointed out that the border was too porous, making their job difficult.
“How many of them can we stop? You see how everyone is walking freely. The border is too porous. The government should try to rehabilitate this border so we could carry out our task efficiently”
Due to the growing trans-border trade that exists between these two countries, the cultural affinity has deepened to the point that it is an arduous task trying to distinguish a Nigerian from a Beninoise. You can find citizens of either of the two countries on each other’s border, speaking the languages fluently. The border town serves as a gateway to Togo and Ghana, which Nigerians ply daily to trade. The volume of Nigerians who ply that route to other neighbouring West African countries along the coastline to trade is overwhelming. These traders are not just limited to the neighbouring settlements but they also come from other parts of the country. The goods they trade in range from consumables to durable items. This new route has gained some popularity over the years especially since major transport companies such as ABC Transport, Chisco, etc, started plying that route, making it easier for the traders to convey their goods across the country,
avoiding the harassment of immigration and customs officers. Nigerians travel from all parts of the country to Ghana, Togo and Cotonou, capital of Republic of Benin, where it is assumed that goods are relatively cheap. Goods mostly traded in these zones include clothing materials, footwear, vegetable oil, rice, turkey, and cars.
Though some of these items are designated as contrabands, the traders as well as transporters have discovered alternative routes and tactics to smuggle these goods into the country, right under the nose of the different uniformed immigration and customs personnel present at the border. With a little greasing of the palms, the goods are cleared. The use of this border as a port of bringing in these goods is simply because of the high rates of duty charges from other Nigerian ports. In addition, the porous nature of this border makes it easier to smuggle these goods into the country. Bad roads are also a matter of concern to traders and manufacturers who use this route, especially on the Nigeria side. The Lagos/Badagry expressway is in a state of disrepair and in dire need of reconstruction.
Good Place for Business
For the local transporters who are a mix of Nigerians and Beninoise, the border town is a good place for business. Motorcycles are usually the most preferred form of transportation to cross the border for market women, especially those without international passports. The fee is usually N200 to cross over to the Republic of Benin side but on return, the fee varies depending on the goods being brought in. According to a Beninoise motorcycle rider, the daily take is not less than N10,000. In fact, he said, “Motorcycle riders make more money than cab riders. This is because we are not disturbed by customs, but immigration officers do give us troubles. We have a union here that takes care of that though. At times, we pay N3,000 or N4,000 to them to allow us to pass. Usually, by this time of the day (early evening), we don’t really face much hassles, but at night, they give us headaches and this is because that’s when some of these smugglers carry out their acts.” According to him, Nigerians travel to Lome and Ghana to buy mostly shoes, bags and clothes but buy rice, fruits, vegetable oil and turkey in Cotonou and Seme, while the Beninoise come to Nigeria to buy electronic appliances.
Nigerian, Benin Republic Customs Men
The difference in the customs men of the two countries is that custom officers at the Republic of Benin are more lenient than their Nigerian counterparts.
“My country’s custom officers can release your goods later if seized but on the Nigeria side, once it’s seized, it’s seized. Sometimes they burn these goods.”
Commercial bus/cab drivers who provide the vehicle for smuggling devise new ways to get these banned goods into the country especially food and textile items. Rice, turkey and vegetable oil are some of the most smuggled items by these drivers. The tactic for smuggling these goods varies depending on the items bought. Some are hidden under the passenger’s seat, some are skillfully hidden in the boot of the bus, some in the spare tyre compartment in the bus. Other ways they do it is to befriend uniformed personnel to accompany them on the trip to provide some immunity against any stoppage or search. A uniformed personnel is entitled to carry at least two bags of rice according to a police officer who simply identified himself as Alhaji.
“I can carry two bags of rice, very visible to the custom officers because I’m entitled to that.”
The reporter had engaged him in a conversation under guise of obtaining information from him. He said: “We have a union at Seme. Some of us import cars and other stuffs but customs men are making life too difficult for us.”
His son owns and drives a commercial bus. He assured the reporter that if interested in going to Cotonou or Seme to buy goods, he would assist her in smuggling the goods to Nigeria. But he is not the only one who does this for the traders. Other commercial bus drivers also engage in this act to make extra money for themselves.
The traders on their side are always on the edge of their seats whenever the bus approaches a checkpoint. There are more than five checkpoints from Seme to Agbara in Ogun State, manned by Custom officers and other security agents.
Expectedly, an agent stops the bus or taxi for inspection. The driver and conductor usually feign innocence and sometimes outsmart the custom agents. But if caught, the owner of the goods is usually asked to settle the custom officers but not all are involved in this act of corruption. More than often, the goods are seized.
At the Custom office area, one can see a long stretch of cars, waiting to be cleared, while clearing agents run from one office to another to pay duty charges and make other payments. The ineffective scanning system and under-declaration are some of the obstacles importers and clearing agents face at Seme Border.
Car dealers in Nigeria prefer to use the Seme Port to import cars due to the porous nature of this border. A source claims that his cost came down by about N500,000 from using the Seme Border to clear his cars compared to using the port in Kaduna.
Low Banking Transactions
Contrary to the belief that banks situated in border town will thrive on profitable business transactions due to the high rate of commercial activities there, the Branch Service Manager of First Bank of Nigeria, Seme, Mathew Aremu, says otherwise. According to him, the profitability rate of the bank in terms of business transaction at the border town is relatively low. He attributed this to the kind of business carried out in the area. He said: “There is not much business here, even the volume of importation here cannot be compared to that of Apapa Port or Tincan Island Port; the number of cargoes and shipments from those ports are nothing compared to land borders.”
Asides that, other obstacles being faced by the bank include language barrier and contending with local money changers who at times would want to use the banking halls for their operations.