Peoples Daily (www.peoplesdailyng.com) Correspondent, Ayodele Samuel, who visited Idiroko border recently, reports that smuggling activities still flourish with new tactics employed.
Officials of the Nigerian Customs Service do not seem to be marching action with the words of the service's new Comptroller General, Col Hammed Ali, (rtd).
Ali, who was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in August this year, continues to talk tough against corrupt activities within the service, threatening fire and brimstone, but his men on Ota-Idiroko Highway do not seem to be on the same page with him.
Ali, while addressing his officers in Sokoto, warned that any Customs Officer caught involved in corrupt practice, would serve the maximum 10 years jail term prescribed by law.
"The minimum jail term for corrupt officers is five years, but I will make sure that any officer found to be corrupt gets the maximum jail term of 10 years.
"This is to serve as a deterrent to any officer who finds himself in the Customs to make money and not to earn money.
"I am not saying that there are no good, incorruptible officers in the service, but there are few bad eggs who are giving the service a bad name," Ali said.
Our interactions with some smugglers, however, showed that smuggling activities are not really trimming down despite those stern warnings from the new customs boss.
Officers manning several road blocks along Ota- Idiroko Highway leading to Nigeria's border with Benin Republic, were observed to engage in bribe taking, extortion and harassment of commuters.
From Atan to Idiroko, Custom Public Relations Department at Idiroko Border confirms that there are over 26 checkpoints manned by 'heavily' armed officers to curb smuggling activities.
"20 of the checkpoints are manned by officers from the Idiroko Command, Four are manned by operatives from the Federal Operating Unit in Ikeja, while the other two are manned by Special Anti-smuggling Task Force commonly called Abuja by Smugglers," Rashidat Jimoh of the Custom Idiroko Command
Public Relations Office said.
Our Correspondent gathered that at each checkpoint Custom officers hire touts, mainly highway traders to collect bribes on their behalf from smugglers.
At a Custom checkpoint close to Atan junction, our correspondent witnessed touts collecting money from commercial vehicle drivers conveying smugglers and their goods to allow passage.
"It depends on what you carry but we pay nothing less than N200 at each point," a middle-aged self-acclaimed female smuggler said. Customs officials wine and dine with smugglers, we know them and they can identify us," the middle aged woman told our correspondent.
"Yes, it is now very difficult but we still 'settle' to have our goods into the country," she said.
"I am a smuggler, it's my business for over eight years and I know my way on the route," she boasted to our correspondent in Yoruba.
Custom officers takes 'sex bribe'
Some Customs officers also allegedly take sex in lieu of cash as bribe. "It's either you settle with cash or they ask for sex, most female smugglers use their gender power in difficult times, if you put goods worth millions on the road you will stop at nothing to secure them," she added.
Funmilayo Ademide said many female smugglers give in to sexual advances of some Customs Officers to protect their goods and businesses.
Ademide described herself as an international clothier dealing in used clothes, saying, "I don't pay duty for my bales of used clothes but I'm a smuggler."
Idiroko Highway is busier at night, smugglers hide under the cover of darkness to move contraband goods in large quantities, carrying arms to resist arrests and seizures.
Customs officers also in turn, set up more road blocks but 80 percent of the smuggled goods still find their way into the Nigerian markets.
"At night we have more checkpoints because that's when the business thrives, more smugglers are on the road, this highway is always busy then because heavy goods will be on the road and the Customs will make more
money," an anonymous resident told our reporter.
According to him, some top Customs officials also control batches of smuggling rings who bring into the country all manners of contraband and cars without paying duties.
But Controller Federal Operations Unit, zone 'A' Ikeja, Comptroller Madugu Sani Jubrin, said he is deeply committed to eradicating smuggling along the nooks and crannies of areas under his watch.
The Unit recorded seizures of assorted prohibited goods valued at over fifty million naira (N50,000,000.00) recently.
Vowing not to rest on his oars, Madugu said, "the unit recorded four thousand, seven hundred and thirty three (4,733) different remarkable seizures, valued at forty five million, five hundred and eighty six thousand, nine hundred naira
(N45,586,900.00) between November 6th – 14th November, 2015."
Although Customs authorities reel out seizures of goods, for every goods confiscated, thousands have been allowed passage after bribe collection, our correspondent gathered.
"Goods seized by customs officials are because the owners could not meet their conditions of 'settlement'. When my goods were seized last month, I was asked to bring N100,000 which I could not raise before my goods were confiscated," Ademide said, adding that most of the goods end up in the custom officers' private warehouses or their wives' stores.
"When they want to invite you journalists they are always tough on us that week, or if a new officer just arrives or promoted they clampdown on us,"
According to her, inside sources warn ahead of such clampdowns, "we have groups and known each other, those who are closer to them will be informed about their operation, so they signal that the road is not clear for business and we keep off," Ademide, a graduate of Public Administration from a University in Ogun State explained.
Risky but too attractive
The major trade in Idiroko Area of Ipokia Local Government of Ogun State is smuggling, but more than 50 youths have been lost to the illicit trade in the last two years.
Community dwellers within the border points see smuggling as an enterprising business and are finding it difficult to refrain from the illegal trade despite constituting serious economic sabotage to the country.
A youth leader in Idiroko community, Segun Biola, said hundreds of smugglers also lost their lives to various road accidents along Idiroko Highway but it's not wading off new entrant into the illicit business.
Aside from deaths, smugglers also lost huge amounts of money and goods to confiscation, "that is the business risk," says Toyo Benta, who claim to have lost over 30bags of rice to Customs officials.
"In May 2015, over 30 bags were seized from me, I lost a lot of money because I tried bribing to get it out but I failed; I learnt it was taken to Ikeja," Benta said.
She added that smugglers also use black powers (Juju) in smuggling their goods, "I have a friend whose goods had never been seized, I am sure it's juju that is working for her."
An agent at the border, Ayeni Taofek, said hundreds of youths are daring the risks associated with smuggling due to increasing unemployment in the country.
He said sometimes, there are clashes between smugglers and Custom officers that claim lives.
"Those that smuggle through the bush are the dangerous ones because they carry guns and when they clash with customs they record casualties but for us here at the border we 'clear our way' with money," he hinted.
Taofek said he's making fortunes, noting that, "this is where I take my national cake, those in government are not ready to help us that is why we are here."
Semiu Olumide who also specializes in smuggling of cars blames his involvement on bad governance in the country.
Olumide said he dropped out of school after his parents could not afford his examination fees. For him, aside making brisk profit from smuggling activities, it's the only means of being engaged.
He said the increment in car tariff has also encourage smuggling activities. "Now that we pay high tariff on importing Tokunbo cars, dealers prefer to smuggle them in through the bush to make profit, although it's a 50-50 chance because you lose the vehicles once you are caught and some might just be killed in the process," he said.
Ayodele Samuel is a Lagos based Investigative journalist with special interest in human right activities, he can be contact via firstname.lastname@example.org and @ayodelesamuel9