Smuggling booms at Seme border 18 months after reopening - PUNCH
BY Anozie Egole
Eighteen months after the Federal Government announced the reopening of the Seme border following a 14-month closure, smuggling is once more thriving there, Saturday PUNCH has learnt.
When the Federal Government announced the closure of the Seme border in August 2019, the intention was to curb the smuggling of goods and weapons.
A tour of the border by our correspondent showed that there was a lull in commercial activities in the community, while smuggling continued to boom.
The once busy J4 and J5 motor parks located at the border community, where commuters board vehicles to different parts of Lagos State, have long been demolished with little or no space left for vehicles again.
A motorcyclist, Mr Orji Ike, who specialises in conveying passengers across the border, said, “The business of smuggling is booming now unlike before. During the border closure, it was moving very slowly as people were being careful not to be caught. Now, people freely go to Cotonou to buy second-hand clothing and come in and nobody disturbs anybody.
“Even if you want to buy cannabis sativa, I will take you across and when you are done, call me I will come and pick you and nobody will disturb you, but that one comes with extra charges”
Corroborating the motorcyclist, a trucker, who gave his name simply as Babafryo, added that smuggling of all types of contraband was booming at the border.
He said, “There is no type of goods that we can’t carry across or bring in here; at worst, we go through the waterside. Many people, especially those crossing with contraband, go through the waterside to avoid disturbance even though there is little or no disturbance on the normal route.
“If you are coming in with large quantities of contraband, we have the type of cars we use to bring such goods in and the time so that nobody will disturb the cars. Though business is still very dull now compared to before the closure, we are very hopeful it will pick up. In case you have any thing that you want us to help you take across to either Seme or to bring to Nigeria, let us know; that is what we do.”
A resident of the area, Blessing Adejo, lamented that there had been a massive drop in activities at the border following the closure and eventual reopening, even as he blamed the Monday sit-at-home by members of the Indigenous People of Biafra in the South-East as the reason the border was dry when our correspondent visited the community on Monday.
“The truth is that since the closure and reopening of the border, activities have been very slow here; you can see how we are just standing with no work. People are not travelling; I believe another reason why the border is so dry today is because of the Monday sit-at-home in the South-East,” Adejo stated.
When queried on why he blamed the sit-at-home as the reason why activities at the border remained low, he said, “We all know that the Igbo travel a lot; they make use of this border more. So, since the sit-at-home started, most of them coming from the South-East cannot come on Mondays, but other days are better.”
A food vendor, Ijeoma Onye, said activities in the area had been paralysed due to the closure and eventual reopening of the border.
Adejo also said a lot of people had relocated out of the area adding, “Some of the people who are doing business in the area have travelled due to low patronage. The area is no longer the way it used to be before the border closure. We are, however, hopeful that business will soon pick up again.”
The Seme chapter Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, Lasisi Fanu, said it was now more expensive to bring in goods through the border than through the seaports.
He said members of the association spent a minimum of N1.8m to clear a 40-foot container and N1.3m to clear a 20-foot container, adding that the government had stopped informal trade, which was affecting their businesses drastically.
Fanu stated, “There has not been any change since they reopened the border; the border was reopened in 2020 and nothing drastically has changed. The clearing procedure in Cotonou still remains the same; it has been N1.8m for 40-foot and N1.3m for 20-foot containers.
“Before now, we used trucks to load goods from Cotonou directly, so you can combine more than one container in a truck and move it as one, because it was an informal trade then. But before they reopen the border, they said the informal trade must stop and it has stopped. They said the goods must move into Nigeria in the original form, which is containerised, and it must be received by the Nigeria Customs Service before you can think of opening the container.”
He also said that most of the trucks with goods going to Cotonou were under the Economic Community of West African Trade Liberalisation Scheme.Fanu added, “So with that in Nigeria now, we work with the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report. Though we worked with the PAAR before, we paid in bulk as informal trade, but now, you open PAAR with the container number and you pay the same amount and still pay in Lagos and Port Harcourt.
“So, that extra amount we pay in Cotonou stands to be something extraordinary, because it is not applicable for people that import through Lagos. If, for instance, you spend N2.5m as the landing cost from Cotonou, Lagos will spend N1.5m because of the extra cost of clearing in the Cotonou port.”
Fanu said life in the border community had been tough since the reopening because the government had failed to show its presence in the community.
He advised the government to establish a truck park at the border, adding that the facility would generate revenue for the government.
Fanu added, “Life has been tough here since the reopening of the border. If the government of Nigeria can provide some services at the border post like trailer parks, they will be generating revenue for the government. But the government doesn’t want to do that; how do you think people living in the border community will survive? They will have to involve themselves in one illegal trade or the other.
“So, life here is very tough because the government has failed to show its presence in the community. We have been asking to be given facilities, but they have refused. Seme border happens to be the only industry in this area, likewise Idiroko and Owode. Since the reopening, nothing has been given to the border community.”
Also speaking, the Seme border Chairman of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Ekene Onyeebuchi, said, “There is not much change at the border; presently we don’t have enough work here as business no longer come. Imported goods are very scanty here; once in a while you will see one or two containers. Before the closure, business was booming, but now, to clear goods here is more expensive because the government of Benin Republic has added some charges to what we pay.
“They now take a high transit charge; we spend CFA1.4m in Cotonou, which is almost the same thing with the naira and you need to carry it by truck to the border where you will spend almost CFA500,000. And they have a container deposit of about CFA3m. So, these are some of the challenges and the government will take some percentage out as tax.”
Speaking on the issue of smuggling, the Customs Public Relations Officer in charge of the command, Husseni Abdullahi, said, “There is no country in the world where there is no smuggling, the countries only fight to reduce it to the barest minimum.
“There is no country in the world where smuggling has been stopped completely; we only try to suppress smuggling to the barest minimum and to the best of our ability. I know that officers and men of my command are doing their best to ensure that we suppress smuggling to the barest minimum.”
He said the commonest products smuggled through the route were petroleum products and so far, the command had seized over 300,000 litres
Abdullahi stated, “And to tell you the fact that we are doing that, the common smuggling activity in this terrain is smuggling of petroleum products and as far as I am concerned, the command is doing wonderfully well on that aspect. I can tell you that between January and now, we have over 327,000 litres of petroleum products seized by the officers.
“We are still on that even as I am talking to you, we still have seizures of petroleum products. We have measures to suppress smuggling in this axis aside from the Customs Area Controller patrol team, we have other patrol teams; we have the anti-bunkering unit that has to do with that one.
“And to God be the glory, we are achieving success in that regard. You will never see second-hand clothing in our domain because we don’t allow that; we have two approved checkpoints by the government.”