With N1000 bribe, I “smuggled” foreign rice from Benin Republic to Nigeria despite govt’s restrictions

In August 2019, the Nigerian Government led by President Muhammadu Buhari declared a partial land border closure in order to halt the importation of food among other goods. The smuggling of rice – Nigeria’s staple food – remains business as usual despite the restriction order by the president. GABRIEL OGUNJOBI went undercover between March 12 and 17 to expose the schemes of smugglers operating across the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic.

It was midday on March 12, Monday, popularly nicknamed ‘J-Boy’, a swift, street-smart motorcyclist flapped his cow-skinned, portable bag at the front of his motorcycle, ready to fire on.
J-Boy was not just a good rider, but also a great accomplice with the Kogi-born Mohammed  Muktar, who is adept in the business of smuggling foreign rice from Benin Republic to Nigeria.
It should ordinarily be a difficult task to dare travel out of the country with no valid proof of identity but it is more herculean to smuggle bags of foreign rice under the nose of men of the Nigeria Police Force, the Nigerian Army, the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) – especially at this time when the borders are shut.  But none of these security agents could stop Mohammed, a notorious smuggler, and his accomplices.
So, when Mohammed gave J-Boy a nod to ride on, the latter took the cue at once. “No qualms,” he said, bravely and gravely.
On his Bajaj motorcycle, he carried Mohammed and the reporter – and zoomed off, travelling the terrible roads that connect Towe de l’arrondissement (meaning ‘town’) in Benin Republic, from Nigeria – starting from Igan Alade road – Yewa North, Ogun State.
An undercover expedition into the world of smugglers
As we sped off on the crude terrain, I quickly expressed my anxiety about the dangerous journey we had just commenced. But my co-travellers, who knew how the system works told me to calm down, assuring me of safety and success in the journey.
However, the smugglers had no idea that I was a journalist working under cover. I had earlier presented myself to Mohammed as a newbie, who would love to invest in the smuggling of foreign rice from Benin Republic to Nigeria. However, before putting my money on the line, I told him I needed to experience how smugglers outsmart Nigeria’s security agents. I needed to gauge the risk involved in the business into which I was venturing.
Before finally crossing the Nigerian border to Benin Republic, we travelled through Igan Alade, one of the communities on the borderline of Ogun State and Towe, a neighbouring town at the French-speaking Republic of Benin – bypassing a police station at Igan Alade, an NSCDC Divisional Headquarters at Tata community, a Nigeria Customs Area Command at the Ijoun community, and at least seven checkpoints manned by different security agents.
Throughout my round trip to observe the smuggling expedition, I noticed that none of the officers at any of these checkpoints – usually barricaded with bamboo across two sides of the roads – was particularly interested in stopping any smuggling activity.
Instead, the officers greeted us with flashes of smiles and sometimes, hand-waves.
To clear foreign rice out of Benin Republic only costs N200, Rice retailer claims
As at 4:15 p.m., when we arrived at Towe, Coronavirus, the most ravaging pandemic of the century, was just beginning to take a toll on rice prices in Benin Republic.
Before then, a dollar was exchanged for N360/366 at Bureau De Change market, but it suddenly rose to between N405 and N420 that morning. The naira crash immediately influenced the price of foreign rice. Twenty-four hours ago, a bag of rice was sold at N9,000 at any retailer’s outlet in Benin. It was already N10,200 on the morning of March 12.
“Your currency has no market value in our country yet you have too many greedy officers on the road,” said Mme (Ms.) Ramantou Akiyemi, a rice retailer, to spite Nigeria’s currency value.
“When you are going back, our officers will clear you with just N200 – and that’s all! – no matter the 
numbers of bags of rice you carry on a bike. But, on your land, the taxes are overbearing.”
In a sudden plot-twist, Mohammed came up with a masterplan as this time around he was able to buy just about five bags.
Smugglers’ mafia tactics
“It isn’t worth it to waste any money on the road since it is just five bags I am now buying. Let’s make a booking today and come back to carry them,” Mohammed said, gradually unfolding how he intended to evade all securities without paying a dime.
He would later reveal that his usual scale of rice smuggling ranges from five to ten bikes, noting that each bike would carry around 10 to 15 bags at once – depending on how strong the rider is to control the wheel. Paying bribes on the road doesn’t bug him, but, for just five bags, there is a smarter way to cut the cost.
In the world of smugglers, four codified words are employed for communication – ‘settlement’, ‘booking’, ‘lead’ and ‘informant’. They typify how conveniently smugglers operate day in and out – before and after the federal government invoked a restrictive policy on borders.
Settlement’ is the bribe of N1,000 at every checkpoint minus the police’s. This is so because  the policemen at Igan Alade junction are ‘booked’ before any trip. Customs officers and soldiers will only collect bribe when they catch traders with illegal goods. With the police, the rule is different. Smugglers must disclose their mission ahead of their journey. That’s why theirs is called ‘booking’.

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