Nigeria’s Southwest borders with Benin, Togo, beam with smuggling of petroleum product

Nigeria's Southwest borders with Benin, Togo, beam with smuggling of petroleum product

Yinka Oladele

It is an illicit business, and the law and government of Nigeria frown at , but for some unpatriotic Nigerians, the lure and profit of it are a powerful pull strong enough to force them to embark on it.

The business, smuggling of petroleum product- is in full throttles across all our borders in general, and particularly, Nigeria’s borders with Benin republic and Togo in Southwestern part of the country, as EnergyDay’s extensive investigations have shown, in spite of claims to the contrary by relevant agencies such as the Nigeria Customs .

“It is not new, it is the practice all over the world for smuggling thrives in an atmosphere of lax law, corrupt law enforcement, compromised politicians and through ineptitude of Justice system and Political leadership”, says Anjorin Adesanya, professor of Sociology at Kogi State University.

Investigations have shown that even when there are shortages of premium motor spirit, otherwise known as petrol in the country, leading up to queues in fuel stations, part of the narrative for the shortages may be located in the thriving smuggling of the product across our borders with Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Togo.

Findings by this medium revealed an eyesore of poorly policed, porous Nigerian borders, which by conservative estimate span over 17,000 kilometres.
In the wide swathes of dense jungles and shrubs of the borders with these largely French- speaking countries, are tens of hundreds smuggling routes, some known to Customs officers, others newly invented, used by smuggling gangs from Kishi in Oyo State to Ipokia in Ogun State

The vastness and topography of the extensive landscape makes it easier for this illicit petrol trade to flourish for so long despite some commendable measures by security operatives.

Last week, EnergyDay visited the Idiroko border communities to get a first hand account of how smugglers ply their illicit trade in the area in view of reports of increased security around the borders.

Idiroko, without having the benefits of being a border community, would have been a sleepy, serene, and pristine community where life could be lived close to nature.

But the accident of geography which bestowed upon it the outpost town to Benin republic has made it a bustling settlement located in Ipokia local government of Ogun State.

It has been an official border crossing point since at least the 1960s, and has grown from being a village to become a town. Most residents of this community are multilingual, being able to speak English and French- because of their mixed heritage due to cross-cultural exchanges.

The illegal cross-border trade is conducted by an assortment of vested interests from ordinary settlers to the indigenes and other Nigerians.

These smuggling syndicates normally use advantage of local colour in connivance with local populations to create alternative routes within the border.

Among the goods smuggled are petrol, poultry, tyres, motor parts, drugs, cars and electronics. According to findings by this medium, there exist at least six illegal entry points in the area.

EnergyDay located 21 checkpoints of security officials between Owode and the Idiroko border, including the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), Nigerian Army and Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO).

It has been widely alleged that these multiple roadblocks violated the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol on free trade and movement within the Nigeria–Benin transport corridor, but without them, the level of smuggling will be horrendous.

EnergyDay witnessed that at every checkpoint and roadblock on the Idiroko route, security operatives demanded as of right, between N200 to N1,000 each as an entitlement from the driver, with claims that the drivers should know their obligation to them.

However, this medium observed that NIS officials at the Idiroko border environments are only obsessed with settlements, that is collecting money from commuters without doing diligent checks .

Immigration officers stopped the commercial vehicle boarded by EnergyDay reporter at Aiyetoro, asking each passenger funny questions such as one’s place of birth, state of origin, and reason for going to Idiroko.

We were all cleared to continue the journey after proper identification.
As we were about to speed out, an NIS official was seen squeezing into his pocket N1000 he collected from four young boys also heading to Idiroko.

The boys were initially asked to part with N4,000 before the hard bargaining anti-climaxed in N1,000 after they provided valid identity cards such as driver’s licenses and international passports.

While NCS has the onus of curbing smuggling and other sharp practices in the area, our investigation showed that NCS are losing the battle or fanning the flames of smuggling in the region.

At several Customs checkpoints, the questions by the officers were – wetin you carry (referring to smuggled items)? You carry rice or petrol? Wetin dey your bonnet and boot?

These questions were usually answered with frank answers like – “na just tin tomatoes”, “oga nothing dey, check for yourself”, but those with smuggled items stretched out N500 or N1000 at the checkpoints before being subjected to questioning. The difference in settlement is based on the smuggled item conveyed and price already charged by the drivers.

The driver of the vehicle boarded by this reporter confided in EnergyDay that smuggling petrol or rice and other products through the Idiroko border is much easier than the Seme Border, if one settles Customs earlier and uses the right vehicles.

It was observed that motorcyclists have a vital role to play in the smuggling of petroleum product in smaller quantities through the bush routes starting from midnight.

Some traders were also seen buying over 50 litres of premium motor spirit (PMS) from filling stations in the Nigeria border area for the Benin market at two times the price in Nigeria. The fuel was measured in large polytene bags and rapped with clothing by the traders.

One weird development seen by EnergyDay is the high rate of unregistered vehicles popularly known as “fayawo” going by Nigerian Police and VIO without interruption. Some of them are said to be conveying petroleum product. After thorough investigation by EnergyDay, it was discovered that this category has “settled” Customs officers and other security operatives.

This medium learnt that these security operatives work in concert in conniving with smugglers.

Police stationed in the area would gladly collect their N200 per vehicle toll from these drivers and they speedily signal NIS and Customs when the drivers refuse to pay, and they easily spot non-indigenes or perceive there are smuggled items in the vehicles.

Idiroko can be described as a place where smuggling thrives whilst there is also a booming security business that could be labeled joint – border security boom.

The Idiroko-Sango-Ota and Ado-Odo-Atan roads are notorious for smugglers’ activities because they are the major roads they ply while bringing their smuggled items from Cotonou, Benin Republic’s main commercial nerve-centre, into Nigeria.

An effort by EnergyDay to speak to the Idiroko Area Controller, Comptroller Peter Kolo , proved abortive as he was said to be out of town, and no officer was willing to comment on smuggling business.

It was learnt that officers often involved in bribery on the border axis normally adorn vests that hide their nametags.

They most times wear polos or khaki tops that would not show their name tags, and those with name tags often do not participate, allowing the unidentifiable officers to do the illegal extortion. Those that wear polo are mostly called major cowboys.
These security operatives are eagle-eyed and hostile to the media.

Last month, it was learnt, a journalist and publisher of Media Hotline Platform, Theophilus Oyekanmi was a victim of assault by officers of Customs Service at the Idiroko border area, as he was trying to take pictures.
He was beaten to a pulp because he tried to snap some smuggled vehicles at Atan.

The actual amount of litres of petrol consumed within the country has for long been a subject of raging controversy, but the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), has repeatedly said that Nigeria has 50 to 55 million litres of petrol as daily consumption.

“The question is if we agree with the NNPC’s figure, it is clear not all of this amount is consumed within the country ,as a large chunk of this goes to neighbouring countries illegally through smugglers”, says professor Adebisi Mokikan, a petroleum engineer.

A counter statistics that put a lie to the figure previously bandied by NNPC came in September 2019 when Nigeria closed its borders with neighbouring countries.

During this period of closure the NNPC record revealed that daily consumption of petrol dropped to about 30million litres from nearly 60million previously.

But an investigation by EnergyDay, revealed that even during the borders closure, floaters used to ferry smuggled fuel in vehicles across the waterway in border areas of Ogun State, way up to as early as first week of December 2020 when the borders were still shut. The continued smuggling of petroleum product during the borders closure showed that government’s action did not affect petroleum smuggling which has continued unabated.

In the national stock record of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) 38.2 million was reported as the average daily petrol demand.

At Idiroko borders, a minor cowboy who spoke with this reporter secretly for fear of being seen by his colleagues told EnergyDay that ” We are aware of continued smuggling of petrol, but what can we do? These smugglers do not come through this gate, they have bush routes, heavily armed and they go together in group, we need more men to join the patrol.

Our investigations have shown that most of the residents of border Communities such as Ipokia know the bush routes mostly plied by smugglers.

Some of the residents who spoke with this medium on conditions of anonymity said they prefer to buy their basic essentials from Benin communities because they are cheaper.

On allegations of aiding and abetting smuggling levelled against some traditional institutions in borders communities, a chief in Ipokia who does not want his name in print told EnergyDay that ” As far as I’m concerned, smuggling is not only illegal but a drain on the economy, there’s no way we can support illegality. Many a time, smugglers have attacked us on the belief that we help authorities against them.

Speaking recently, the Zonal coordinator, Zone A, Nigeria Customs Service, Modupe Aremu, said that the service will soon deploy drones for effective patrol in checking smuggling activities in the border area.

According to her, border management surveillance will be done electronically through the use of drones to ensure that there will be area overview of what is happening.

“Also, e-customs’ N300 billion contract that is end-to-end automation that is about to kick-off is about Information and Communication Technology connectivity; when it comes on board, we are going to have electronic signature, drones patrolling the border,” she said.

When EnergyDay visited Kishi, a town in Kishi Local Government Area of Oyo State, the community beamed with telltales of smuggling.
It was discovered that the town is one of many, including Saki, used as smuggling entry point, as almost all the rural and satellite towns of the western part of Benin Republic, up to Cotonou, its commercial nerve centre, depend on Nigerian oil in an illegal chain of smuggling.

 

Residents told EnergyDay that smuggling is the only ” profitable”business that sustain many people, including women in the town.

A resident who simply identified himself as Tola informed this medium that he often smuggles petroleum product and other goods to Cotonou , admitting that petroleum black marketers always have a field day along the various unmarked routes.

“The fuel that all the vehicles depend on from Benin Republic is supplied by towns in Nigeria along the borders, and this has been an age-long trade,” he said.

Around the border communities in Ogun State, petrol smuggling remains a problem. This is despite the increase in pump price of petrol in Nigeria and the tougher restrictions the smugglers face due to the increased patrol by security agencies and customs.

Illegal export of petrol through the land and water borders into Benin and Togo has provided means of livelihood for thousands of young men in the border areas, it was observed.

The smuggling business often begins around 12 am in the night, as EnergyDay investigations have revealed.

The smuggled petroleum products are conveyed in 25 litre jerry-cans, which can take a maximum of 27 litres of petrol loaded on trailers and Toyota Starlet cars, or ferried by boats, usually at night, with the connivance of some corrupt security personnel.
Some smugglers who confided in EnergyDay last week stated that the business, though dangerous, was profitable, and worth the risk.

A smuggler who his colleagues identified with the moniker ” Big hammer” said he plied his trade through the Kishi route. “I buy petrol in Kishi at N170 or N175 per litre and sell in Benin at N338 .” How do we do this? We pay for transportation and settle Customs and other security personnel at the border.”

However, another resident who spoke on condition of anonymity told EnergyDay that in spite of efforts of the security agents many smugglers still know how best to maneuvere their way to export the commodity into Benin republic and Togo.

“As the security operatives are trying their best to apprehend the smugglers, so also the smugglers are trying their best to devise means of avoiding arrest. And let me honest with you, some of the security agents and custom are also corrupt. Now that security is tight along the borders, what happens is that the custom people that help us are called ” Major cowboys, but they too have civilian agents, whom we call ” Minor cowboys.

“They interface with us and tell us the POS and the account we should pay into, I mean the settlement money to ensure free passage along the bush routes.These corrupt elements among the law enforcement tell us the movements of the security agents with their informants,” he said

He added that in the border towns within Benin and Togo a litre of petrol is sold at N250, making a four-litre container to cost N1,000.

In Oyo State, this time, towards the Benin Republic and Togo axis, there are several towns that connect smugglers and their goods to the neighbouring Benin and Togo..

Nigerian authorities have come out with various measures to counter the smuggling of petroleum product,but the activities of collaborators within law enforcement, and lack of equipment and technology to monitor the expansive swathes of borders have made success to be illusive.

EnergyDay recall that in November 2019, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) came up with a directive that prohibited petroleum products from being supplied to fuel stations within 20 kilometres of the borders.

Before this development, the NNPC had raised the alarm about the increasing number of filling stations in border towns, saying they were funnels for fuel smuggling to neighbouring countries.

Investigations have shown that without Nigerian petrol product, s Nigeria’s neighbouring countries of Togo, Benin, Cameroon and Niger will find it difficult to survive, but much of what they get is through illegal smuggling.

Data obtained for a five-year period from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a United States independent global statistics and analysis site, revealed that Cameroon, with 25.886 million people as at 2020, had consistently produced crude oil between 2016 and 2020 but no record of petrol or natural gas.

It had 92million barrels per day of crude oil in 2016. This declined to 76mbpd in 2017, down to 69mbpd in 2018, and 70mbpd in 2019 and further dropping to 67mbpd in 2020.
Refine Processing
Its refinery processing gain was 0.5mbpd (about 500,000bpd) annually during the period, the US EIA recorded revealed.
The data released on March 31, 2021 further revealed that Benin Republic did not refine petroleum products but has about 0.092mbpd consumption annually as of 2018. Its population by 2019 was 11.819m people.

These gaps in petrol production and import, according to EnergyDay’s investigations leave much space to fill, and thus, smugglers thrive by shifting petrol from Nigeria to these countries.

In a recent report by Deutsche Welle (DW), a German public state-owned international broadcaster, smugglers are having a field day selling Nigerian fuel at cheaper rates than the conventional petrol stations in Togo, Benin and Cameroon.
The Deutsche Welle (DW) reports that although the exact volume of smuggled Nigerian petrol to Togo is not known, but in Cameroon local media reports put the ‘black market’ illegal trade at $5million (about N1.905 billion) every year.

According to the NNPC data, petrol smuggling became more pronounced in 2017 when the expected daily petrol demand shot from 35 million per day consumption pattern to over 55 million.
Activities thrive despite restriction of supply in border areas
In November 2019, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) announced a directive that restricted petroleum products from being supplied to fuel stations within 20 kilometres of the borders.

Recall that prior to that, the NNPC had raised the alarm about the increasing number of filling stations in border towns, saying they were funnels for fuel smuggling to neighbouring countries.

In Saki and Kishi border communities, EnergyDay gathered that smugglers buy fuel in 25 and 50 litre jerry-cans to transport to Benin Republic.
A source familiar with the routes said there were 23 illegal routes across the Benin Republic and Nigeria border in Saki alone.

A resident of Kishi named Jamiu, a petty smuggler said “We have 23 illegal routes in Saki alone. We know those who specialise in fuel bunkering. That is their job. They work with the filling station operators,” he said
According to the source, the number of filling stations in Saki and Kishi outnumber those in the entire state, but they are not usually selling fuel to residents.

“You cannot get even a litter from them. Whenever they bring fuel for them, they load it at night and move,” he alleged.
On how they sell to other countries, he said smugglers got the product in jerry-cans from these communities to Benin Republic within two to four hours, depending on the destination. Retailers in Benin then sell in plastic bottles, which is about a litre.

“A plastic bottle of fuel, which is about a litre, goes for 880CFA in Benin. When converted, 880CFA is about N250. Some of those doing the business are richer than the entire Saki land. Many of them sleep in the afternoon and work at night,” he said.

Ademola Ayorinde, a mechanic in Kishi, stated that most smugglers are into various businesses.

“They will load the fuel in 25 litre jerry-cans from this town in Golf cars and take them to neighbouring towns in Benin Republic.
“They will buy poultry products and other consumables with their proceeds and come to retail them at the Kishi market and even in Ilorin in Kwara State, which is less than one hour drive,” he stated.

Before smuggling can be reduced, there is a need to tackle the issue of corruption within the Customs and other law enforcement involved in securing our borders.

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