-By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
Nearly over two months into the full closure of Nigeria-Idiroko-Seme borders by the Federal Government, legitimate businessmen/women, as well as international travellers plying that roads are still angry at being shut out without notice. However, there are indications the suffering of the indigenes of border communities, international travellers, bureau de change operators, cross-border traders and transporters would be prolonged, long and traumatic going by BusinessHallmark’s investigations.
The “Border or land drill” as the exercise is called when this reporter visited Idiroko borders, has brought untold hardship to indigenes of the border communities in Ipokia Local Government of Ogun State, whose economy and livelihood revolves around inter-border trade with the neighbouring Benin republic, a chunk of which is illegal trade known as smuggling in what are now banned items such as rice and vegetable oil.
While the drill continues, the much-talked about local rice produced by the country is nowhere to be found. Even at Idi iroko , where bags of rice were usually ubiquitous before, the usual tons of it have disappeared, and where found at all, the prices are very high, while price of a carton of turkey has jumped from N10, 500 to between N14, 500 and N16, 000 at the border communities
President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday August 20, 2019, ordered a joint border security exercise aimed at securing the country’s land and maritime borders. The partial closure is due to the massive smuggling activities taking place along porous borders with foodstuffs and automobiles smuggled into the country at will.
Code-named, “Exercise Swift Response,” the exercise is jointly conducted by the Nigeria Custom Services, Nigerian Immigration Service, the Nigerian Police, and the Nigerian Army. The Office of the National Security Adviser coordinates it. Smuggling, which is a major industry draining the country of billions of naira daily, and which has defied several strategies in the past, appeared to have reasonably jolted authorities.
At the Idiroko border, BusinessHallmark checks revealed that the security agencies ensured strict compliance to government directives. But while sanity appears to reign at the main border post, business still thrived at some bush paths and sundry illegal entry points, where unscrupulous security operatives, working hand-in-glove with youths, facilitate illegal passages for a fee of illegal migrants and traders.
“Come brother, are you going to French (French is a popular name for Benin Republic in border communities). There is a bush path here. We will take you across. Don’t fear,” a teenager told BusinessHallmark reporter. Upon further investigation, the teenager said youths of the border communities now make small money from smuggling people especially traders in and out of border post in connivance with greedy security agents.
But when BusinessHallmark insisted on making the dash on its own, without the aid of anyone, the teenager retorted: “You can’t go, sir. They (security operatives) are there. They will not allow you to pass. Just bring N200.00 and I will take you to them and even take you across to French.”
Asked what his relationship with the security operatives was, he simply said, “they are our brothers.”While fronts for security officers like the teenager continued their business unhindered, trapped cross-border are traders who continue to groan, begging for considerations. Travellers without valid documents are equally on tenterhooks, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol on free movement appears to be threatened.
A man in his fifties who appeared dour and forlorn-looking on being approached told this reporter in broken English with heavy Hausa accent, that his truck carrying tons of rice has been trapped at the Benin side for two months despite the fact that he paid duty on it. “Walai, I made mistake, I for followed Birin Kebbi, all this wahala no dey there.”
A security source at the Idiroko border informed this newspaper that only last week on Thursday alone, about 15 foreigners tried entering Nigeria without valid papers, while about 50 Nigerians attempted to leave the country through bush paths also without valid documents.
The source further explained that the illegal migrants were turned back and cautioned that further attempts would be met with dire consequences as provided by law.
“Our operatives are combing the bushes as part of this operation because we suspect the possibility of such movements. As we speak, our men are on the flanks checking the movement of people and goods. We shall continue with the checks for as long as the operation lasts. Let me add that checking illegal migrants is a routine duty here. The difference now is the combined efforts by various security agencies,” the source said.
Many indigenes of the border communities spoken to lamented their ordeals as a result of the closure. Samuel Oroiki, a chief in a small Ipokia settlement told this reporter that many families can no longer send their children to school because of paucity of funds.
“As you can see, this closure has brought hardship on us . For generations, we have relied on trade with Benin, ours is to bring in goods and sell to people who come from far and near at cheap prices. We make money. Some of us understand French, even because of closeness to Benin, we are inter-married; then suddenly this policy came to disrupt everything.” He said most youths do not farm as they rely on trade business they have mastered to sustain their families.
A youth who identified himself as Musiliu said he regretted voting for Buhari.
“You can’t believe it, an Okada man has snatched my wife because I can no longer feed her. This man who rides Okada collects money from security because they use his bike to comb footpaths in the night. We are idle, though some of us still make small money from smuggling people and goods in and out despite the prohibition.”
Findings revealed that a sizable illegal trans-border dealings was still ongoing and facilitated by local youths, even as security agencies are turning back travellers without valid documents on the route, which is one of most notorious smuggling route in the country. But generally speaking, the joint operation has taken serious economic toll on communities in the area, while some residents still applauded the measure, saying it was in the best interest of the country.
Mrs. Rose Adelakun, a cross-border trader, who shuttles between Nigeria and Benin through Seme and Idiroko borders, told this newspaper that security at these border posts has become extraordinarily strict. Adelakun alleged that despite the closure, some “stubborn” drivers who ply the routes still managed to have their way.
“There are some illegal routes that some drivers are still using to transport goods and passengers into the country. The only thing is that the new fare is now much higher than before.”
She lamented that the partial border closure has contributed negatively to the socio-economic imbalance of the area, saying residents who make a living facilitating the movement of goods and services between Nigeria and Benin Republic are lamenting seriously.
For Mrs. Janet Adesi, a trader, said “rice has become an essential commodity in the market. My suppliers called me yesterday (Tuesday) and informed that there is no rice because of the restriction of movement at the border. Everything is so tough now, I have no grains to sell, and my shop is empty. The Federal Government should help us.
“Where is the Nigerian rice that the government is saying is everywhere? It is so scarce and costly when seen. We hope that the government will encourage farmers to cultivate more rice so as not to throw the entire country into famine,” she said.
Mrs. Sherifah Amzat, who trades in frozen food said: “Turkey is not allowed to come into the country and the traders are hoarding the existing, thereby hiking the price. I just bought one pack today for N14, 500 and I will resell taking into account, the cost price.”
While the closure subsists, residents of some border communities including, Ilaro, Idiroko, Oke Odan, Ipokia, Owode, Mawun, Alari, Koko, Badagry, Ajilete, Ago, Ighonyedo and Ifo now have their economies in shambles. Core businesses in these communities are smuggling, transportation and farming. They insist that the joint action by security operatives, which has put smuggling activities in check could trigger increase in crime rate.
The ONSA, which is coordinating the exercise, is already recording large numbers of seizures and arrests from the four zones comprising the North-West, North Central, South West, and South-South geopolitical zones.“As at 26th August 2019, 33 illegal migrants have been arrested while seizures include 3, 560-50kg bags of parboiled foreign rice; 59 bags of NPK fertilizer; 15 vehicles; 12 drums filled with PMS; four engine boats; 65 drums of groundnut oil; four truck; 75 gallons of PMS; 29 motorcycles; 68 gallons of vegetable oil and 70 jerry cans of PMS, among other items.
According to the NCS spokesperson in media briefing on the matter recently, while an exercise of this nature is likely to create some inconveniences to members of the public, the overriding interest is to protect the country against transnational security concerns such as smuggling, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, irregular migration, terrorism, armed banditry, amongst a host of other concerns.
“This is consistent with the constitutional responsibility of any well-meaning government. We therefore, continue to seek the support of all and sundry, to ensure that the desired objectives of Exercise SWIFT RESPONSE are achieved, in order to promote a secured, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria,” Attah said.
A security expert, Mr. Michael Ekpo told this newspaper: “Our borders are so porous to the extent that illegal arms come in especially through the creeks. If you look at most of the communal crises that break out here and there, sophisticated weapons are used. And I ask, how do they come into the country? ”We have so much arms in circulation in the state, and this predates the partial ban. Such arms are brought in through these loose entry points. The government should do better than what it’s doing now if it is serious about curbing transnational security concerns such as smuggling, proliferation of small arms and light weapons.”
He stressed that putting a partial ban in place was not the solution because banned items including arms are everywhere and “there is need to increase maritime patrols on the high sea and in the creeks if we want to drastically check smuggling.”