Smuggling boom at Seme border 18 months after reopening

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18 months after the federal government announced the reopening of the Seme border after 14 months of closure, smuggling is flourishing again there, Saturday PUNCH has learned.

When the federal government announced the closure of the Seme border in August 2019, the smuggling of goods and weapons was to be curbed.

A tour of the border by our correspondent showed that trading activity in the community stagnated while smuggling continued to boom.

The once-busy J4 and J5 motor parks in the border community, where commuters board vehicles to various parts of Lagos state, have long been demolished with little or no space left for vehicles.

A motorcyclist, Mr Orji Ike, who specializes in ferrying passengers across the border, said: “The smuggling business is now booming unlike before. During the border closure it moved very slowly as people were careful not to get caught. Now people freely go to Cotonou to buy second-hand clothes and come in and nobody bothers anyone.

“Even if you want to buy Cannabis sativa, I’ll take you over and when you’re done, give me a call. I will come and pick you up and no one will bother you, but that will incur additional charges.”

A trucker, who gave his name only to Babafryo, confirmed the motorcyclist, adding that smuggling of all types of contraband was booming at the border.

He said: “There is no kind of goods that we cannot transfer or bring here; in the worst case we go through the water side. Many people, particularly those crossing with contraband, walk through the water to avoid interference, although there is little or no interference on the normal route.

“If you come in with large amounts of contraband, we have the kind of cars we use to bring in such goods and the time so that nobody disturbs the cars. Although business is still very sluggish now compared to before the closure, we are very confident that it will pick up again. In case you have something that you would like us to help you get either to Seme or to Nigeria please let us know. this is what we do.”

A resident of the area, Blessing Adejo, lamented that the closure and eventual reopening saw a massive drop in activity at the border, although he blamed the Monday sit-at-homes of members of Biafra’s indigenous people in the Southeast as reason The border was dry when our correspondent visited the community on Monday.

“The truth is that since the border was closed and reopened, activity here has been very slow; You can see how we are without work. People don’t travel; I think another reason the border is so dry today is the Monday sit-at-home in the Southeast,” Adejo said.

When asked why he blamed sitting at home as the reason for the low level of activity at the border, he said: “We all know that the Igbo travel a lot; they use this limit more. So since the sit-at-home started, most of the Southeast can’t come on Mondays, but other days are better.”

A food vendor, Ijeoma Onye, said activity in the area has been paralyzed due to the closure and eventual reopening of the border.

Adejo also said many people have relocated from the area, adding: “Some of the people doing business in the area have traveled due to low patronage. The area is nothing like it was before the borders closed. However, we hope that business will pick up again soon.”

The chair of the Seme chapter of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, Lasisi Fanu, said it was now more expensive to get goods across the border than through the seaports.

He said members of the association spent at least N1.8m clearing a 40ft container and N1.3m clearing a 20ft container, adding that the government was encouraging informal trade stopped, which drastically affected their business.

Fanu stated: “Nothing has changed since the border reopened; The border reopened in 2020 and nothing has changed drastically. The clearing procedure in Cotonou remains unchanged; it was N1.8m for 40ft and N1.3m for 20ft containers.

“We used to use trucks to load goods directly from Cotonou, so you can combine more than one container in one truck and move it as one, as it was an informal trade at the time. But before they reopen the border, they said informal trade must stop, and it has stopped. They said that the goods must be transported to Nigeria in the original form packed in containers and they must be received by Nigerian Customs Service before you can think of opening the container.”

He also said most trucks carrying goods heading to Cotonou fell under the Economic Community of West African States’ trade liberalization programme.

Fanu added: “So we are now working in Nigeria with the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report. Although we previously worked with the PAAR we paid in bulk as an informal trade but now you open PAAR with the container number and pay the same amount and still pay in Lagos and Port Harcourt.

“So this extra amount that we pay in Cotonou is something exceptional as it doesn’t apply to people importing via Lagos. For example, if you spend N2.5m as a landing cost from Cotonou, Lagos will pay N1.5m due to the additional cost of handling at the port of Cotonou.”

Fanu said life in the border community has been difficult since reopening because the government has failed to show its presence in the community.

He advised the government to set up 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 border reopened. If the Nigerian government can provide some services at the border post like caravan sites, they will generate revenue for the government. But the government doesn’t want that; How do you think the people living in the border community will survive? You must engage in one or the other illegal trade.

“So life here is very tough because the government has failed to show their presence in the community. We asked for facilities but they refused. Seme Border happens to be the only branch in this area, as are Idiroko and Owode. Since the reopening, nothing has been given to the border community.”

Ekene Onyeebuchi, chair of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders’ Seme border, said: “Not much is changing at the border; we don’t have enough work here at the moment because the business has stopped coming. Imported goods are very scarce here; Every now and then you see a container or two. Business was booming before the closure, but now it is more expensive to clear goods here because the Benin Republic government added some fees to our fees.

“They now charge a high transit fee; We spend 1.4 million CFA in Cotonou, which is almost the same as the naira, and you have to transport it by truck to the border where you spend almost 500,000 CFA. And they have a container deposit of about CFA 3 million. So those are some of the challenges and the government will deduct a certain percentage as a tax.”

On the subject of smuggling, Husseni Abdullahi, the command’s PR officer at Customs, said: “There is no country in the world where there is no smuggling, countries are only fighting to reduce it to the bare minimum.

“There is no country in the world where smuggling has been stopped completely; We’re just trying to suppress smuggling to the bare minimum and to the best of our ability. I know officers and men in my command are doing their best to ensure we suppress smuggling to the bare minimum.”

He said the most commonly smuggled products through the route are petroleum products and so far the command has seized over 300,000 liters

Abdullahi stated: “And to tell you the fact that we do, the usual smuggling activity in this area is smuggling of petroleum products and as far as I’m concerned the command is doing wonderfully well in that aspect. I can tell you that from January to date we have seized over 800,000 gallons of petroleum products from officers.

“We’re still at it, even speaking to you, we still have seizures of petroleum products. We have measures to suppress smuggling in this axis, apart from the Customs Inspector’s patrol team, we have other patrol teams; We have the anti-bunker unit involved.

“And thank God we are successful in that regard. You will never see second-hand clothes in our area because we don’t allow it; We have two government approved checkpoints.”

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