By Bayo Bernard
At the time Nigerian and Republic of Benin diplomats met in Cotounou on October 1, 2018 to mark Nigeria’s 58 Independence, a number of very daring women smugglers were also busy plotting how to smuggle banned foreign rice into the country.
To them, the diplomats may be concerned with how to facilitate bilateral relations between the two countries, on their part, they will busy themselves on how to improve strategies to outwit security agents working along that route to prevent smuggling of foreign parboiled rice into the country.
These rice hustlers, as they are known have succeeded in smuggling thousands bags of foreign parboiled rice through Seme into Nigeria.
According to investigations, no fewer than 2000 bags of foreign rice are snuggled into the country through this method alone daily.
The women are not operating as a formal cartel, but because they meet each other on the route on the daily basis, their affinity has become so strong, so much so that it’s not unusual to find them in the bus sharing tips on how to beat law enforcement agents trying to stop them from doing the illegal trade.
When the magazine ran into some of them last week, on the way to Seme, their boisterous discussion did not betray the fact that they have become experts on evading uniform men who are always ready to apprehend.
From all indications, nothing placed on their paths by the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, will be strong enough to deter them.
They are prepared to enlist all known methods to outwit men and officers of customs positioned along the Lagos/ Badadry expressway from being apprehended.
They seem to be succeeding and the reason is not far-fetched, they are doing the business as if their lives depended on it.
There are tens of customs officers from Seme Area Command stationed along the road, apart from officers from the Federal Operations Unit, FOU and the recently formed Comptroller General of Customs, Strike Force, to keep the smuggles at bay.
The officers appear not smart as these women.
The Rice Millers Importers and Distributors Association of Nigeria (RIMIDAN) had disclosed recently that about two million tons of parboiled rice is smuggled into Nigeria annually.
Investigations indicate that more than 40 percent of that figure pass through the Seme border, the international border between Nigeria and French speaking Benin Republic.
A large portion of this is ferried by the young and middle aged women, who are hardly noticed.
How do they manage to get the rice through the highly ‘policed’ Seme border, Badagry expressway and eventually into the Nigerian market?
Their method is very simple and ingenious to say the least. The women simply buy one bag of rice in Cotonou with as low as N8000 to N9000, which they then divide into two or more places.
They then arrange with transporters who help them conceal the ‘contraband’ in the vehicle at agreed terms, en route Lagos.
One bag of rice may be insignificant to the undiscerning mind, but some traders told the magazine that this method is very effective, and does not attract the risk, for instance, of a truck load of rice, which can easily draw the attention of Customs and other law enforcement agents along the route.
Everything being equal, as much as N3000 profit margin can be realized on a bag of rice by the time it landed in the Nigerian market.
“If I can successfully bring in three to four bags daily without being caught, I think it’s okay for me,” one trader told the magazine.
The women told the magazine that, rice smuggling has become a way of life for them, and that they devised the method to counter government anti-smuggling methods.
They however admitted that the method is not water tight ‘on a bad day you can run into the customs and your goods will be seized,” one lady smuggler told the magazine.
According to a trader who simply identified herself as Kafayat, she has been smuggling rice for years. She explained that the method has been working for her, though there were times she ran into trouble with customs.
On the daily basis, she manages to ‘bring’ in three to four bags of rice” if God helped me and I’m not caught” she said.
Another smuggler, simply identified as Ngozi said she has been doing the business for some years. “There are times when they seized my goods but most times, I have escaped,” she stated.
She explained that she travels to Cotonou with her younger sisters “when I buy two bags of rice, we divide them into four parts. I will carry two portions, while my sister also does the same. We will enter different vehicles. When we get back to Lagos, we now join them together and sell to customers,” Ngozi said.
According to analysts, this method must have been overlooked by the authorities, as very insignificant in the quantum of rice smuggled into
Since the women are many, experts insist that this channel alone has been used to ferry thousands of bags of rice into the country on a yearly basis.
“if one person succeed in bringing three bags to the market daily, multiply that by 20 days, without the weekends, that’s 60 bags per trader. Besides, weekend is even the best time for smugglers. Now imagine how many bags this translates to in a year,” Uche Emmanuel, a business analyst familiar with border trade told the magazine.
Who then should take the blame? Experts insist that the problem should not be blamed on complacency on the part of men and officers of the NCS alone.
The Customs Area Controller, Seme Command, Comptroller Muhammed Uba Garba, on assumption of office, three months ago affirmed the readiness of men and officers of the command to tighten the noose on smuggling around the area.
To achieve this, Comptroller Garba has spent the last few weeks consulting with major stakeholders in the area, including traditional rulers on how to end rice smuggling and other contrabands.
The controller recently told the magazine that he will succeed where his predecessors have failed. Some analysts insist that he has a robust anti-smuggling record.
But the smugglers have remained unfazed. What this means is that Garba and his men will have to do more to contain the smugglers.
Same with FOU officers and CG strike force posted to that route to mount guard against smugglers.
Some officers told the magazine that they are unaware of the damage been done by these ‘petty’ women smugglers.
According to one officer, there is an understanding among officers on duty to allow ‘passage’ as long as ‘it’s not more than half bag of rice, but the owner must pay as low as N500 or N1000 at the check point.”
The officer said since these smugglers are mostly women, they allow them to go on “compassionate” ground.
“We all know what’s happening in the country, and for a woman to go through that risk: officers are sometimes disarmed whenever they are caught and they start begging,” one officer said.
The Nigerian government has placed a ban on rice importation through land borders. The President Muhammadu Buhari government has since directed the Nigerian Customs Service to enforce the policy on all land borders across the country.