Signs that Kenny Daphine was not happy were etched on his face penultimate Wednesday. He looked sullen, occasionally clapping and sighing. As he stared in to space near his stall at the Igolor Market in Benin Republic where he sells frozen food, it was obvious that he was deeply troubled.
He would later open up on the reasons for his forlorn look: “Sir, things are just too tough for us here now. Since the unexpected closure of Nigeria’s land border at Idiroko, those of us who are traders in this market have been thrown into economic woes.
“Before the border closure, I would have sold no fewer than seven cartons of frozen chicken or turkey by now, but that is no longer the case. You would not believe that I have not sold anything today, and it is 1pm already, because people no longer come here from various parts of Nigeria to buy.”
Daphine’s colleague, Louis Kidjo, described as monumental the loss he has recorded since the border closure began about three months ago.
He said: “When the border was initially partially closed on August 20, we thought that it was just a temporary measure by the Nigerian government, so we kept selling at the rate we had been selling until the full closure began around October and movement of goods across the border frontier was totally stopped. Since then, my life has become increasingly miserable because customers are no longer coming from Nigeria to buy from us. This is the only job I have done in the last 15 years and I don’t know what else to do.’’
Indeed, commercial activities at Igolor, a community in Benin Republic which shares border with Idiroko, a Nigerian community in Ipokia Local Government Area, Ogun State, commercial activities have been at lowest ebb since the border was shut.
The once bubbly community was a shadow of itself when our correspondent visited, as only a few passengers were seen walking toward the Benin border post in Igolor.
Igolor market is the hub of foreign rice traders and transit point for smugglers who bring the commodity into Nigeria through countless illegal routes. In the past, it was common to see truckloads of rice at the market being discharged by young men. But that was not the case when our correspondent visited. In fact, there were no trucks loaded with bags of rice in sight.
Like Dafphone and Kidjo, other traders at the market have seen huge decline in patronage following the border closure. Several shops at the market were seen filled with commodities, but no customers were seen shopping there.
Another trader, Alice Houghbe, said: “Oga (Master), the situation is worse here-o. We are just hopeless because customers from Nigeria no longer come here. For someone like me, I am now highly indebted to a thrift group where I collected a loan to boost my trade.”
Okada operators relocate to Nigeria
Some operators of commercial motorcycle popularly called okada, who spoke with our correspondent, said many of their colleagues had relocated to Ota, the industrial town in Ogun State, because of low patronage in Igolor.
One of them, who identified himself simply as Segbowe, said: “Many of our members have fled to Ota and its environs in Ogun State, when they could no longer cope with the turn of events. Even some of us who are still here are just waiting to see whether things would improve before joining the others who are now working in Nigeria.
“I came here around 5 am and you would not believe that I have just returned from my first trip around 12.40pm. Before now, I would have made about six or seven trips. Things are really tough for us here. We are begging the Nigerian authorities to relax the border closure policy.’’
Another okada operator, Michel Lucien, said: “Life has become a nightmare. Passengers are difficult to come by these days because of the border closure in Nigeria. Like others, I make little or nothing every day, even though I burn a lot of fuel looking for passengers. I have spent all the money I saved to look after my family.’’
Tales of woe at Cotonou markets
Like Igolor, business has been on the flipside at the car, rice and textile markets in Cotonou. The clampdown on smuggling activities has wrought heavily on patronage at the markets, so much so that traders were heard ruing their fate.
Asian dealers in used cars, mostly Lebanese and Indians at several car stands in Cotonou, shared similar tales.
One of them named Fawaz said: “We are frustrated by the border closure policy of the Nigerian government. It is killing our business and we have lost a lot of money because we have been selling our cars for less than the value of the amount spent on importing them.
“Imported cars from Europe before the border closure ran into tens of thousands on the average, but that has also drastically reduced because we have lost huge patronage from your people who smuggle them through various (illegal) routes into the Nigerian territory.
“A car that formerly sold for CFR 10 million now sells for CFR 7 million, resulting in loss for car dealers.’’
Things are also no longer at ease at the rice and textiles market in Missebo and Dantokpa, where foreigners, especially Lebanese and Chinese traders, lamented the reverses in their business fortune as goods long stored in their shops had not been sold. Most stores were filled with foreign rice sold at N9,000 per bag while buyers at the market were very scanty when The Nation visited the market and only a handful locals were seen buying items from traders.
A Chinese textiles trader, Juan, said: “The effect of the border closure has been devastating. Many of us imported our goods a few weeks before the border was shut. We had restocked our stores expecting huge patronage from Nigerian shoppers by the Yuletide.
“We rely heavily on Nigerian shoppers who usually patronise us here. They make multi-million dollar purchases. The average customer from Nigeria could buy textile materials worth CFR10 million, but that is no longer the case. I struggle to make sales worth CFR 150,000 now.’’
It was the same scenario at the second-hand clothes section of the market, as traders bemoaned their fate.
A Nigerian trader at the section, Nnamdi Agu, expressed his frustration, saying: “It is a hopeless situation. We heard that Benin President’s quarrel with President Muhammadu Buhari was the reason the border was shut. Since then, I hardly make two transactions in one month, unlike before when I recorded countless sales in a day.
“People no longer come here from Nigeria to buy second-hand clothes or items. I urge the two countries to bury their hatchets and reopen the border so that we can earn our legitimate livelihood.’’
How petrol smugglers beat security checks
Despite the border closure, petrol vendors in Banigbe and Kitigbo communities on Port Novo Road in Benin Republic still operate, albeit, low patronage.
At the two communities, petrol was displayed in bottles and jerry cans in their wooden stalls on the once busy road but without customers in sight. A 30-litre jerry can of petrol goes for N8,000.
Meanwhile, as at Thursday, a litre of petrol was being sold for N600 around the Idiroko border areas in Ipokia Local Government, leading to hike in fares by transporters. The hike in pump price was due to a directive issued on November 6 by the Nigeria Customs Service suspending the supply of petroleum products to filling stations located within a radius of 20 kilometres to all land borders.
Although smuggling of the product in big jerry cans has been frustrated by the border closure, smugglers have now devised a method of getting the product to vendors in Benin Republic with help from okada riders who usually ferry pedestrians across the border.
The okada riders would collect fuel from smugglers, fill their motorbikes’ tanks with it and discharge the product to vendors in the neighbouring country.
“We usually agree on a fee to deliver petrol to vendors in Banigbe and Kitigbo. We are doing that because we no longer have many passengers around here unlike before since the border was shut. Once we successfully deliver the product, the person that gave us the product for delivery would pay us.”
Bebe, a border point in Benin Republic which serves as meeting point for petrol and rice smugglers was a shadow of itself. The community had been deserted by suspected smugglers and couriers when our reporter visited the area. Only indigenes who were returning from their farms were seen as the country’s gendarmes relaxed at a checkpoint.
Several trucks loaded with goods from neighbouring countries were seen stranded at Benin’s border with Nigeria, with many of owners of the goods lamenting that their goods were perishing.
According to sources, a number of people were recently caught by Nigerian customs men for concealing foreign rice in regalia and girdle used in tying babies to their back.
Less extortion, more work for gendarmes
Findings in Cotonou, Port Novo, Igolor, Banigbe and other parts of Benin Republic visited by our reporters revealed that the Benin gendarmes (police) had turned Nigerian youths into their cash cow.
A Cotonou indigene, Mitchel Hotoyan, said the gendarmes were in the habit of harassing Nigerian youths by way of illegal arrests to extort money from them.
He said: “The gendarmes have been in the habit of unlawful arrest of Nigerian youths travelling through the land borders, most times on false allegations of the victims being internet fraudsters. They would detain their victims for hours and release them after collecting all the money they could find on them.
“But now, Nigerian youths, especially those of Igbo extraction, who engage in trading activities and travel down here to buy their goods, especially second-hand clothes, have since stopped. Hence, gendarmes have no one to arrest and have become busy with patrolling the communities more than ever before as you can see them doing now.”
It will be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari on August 20 ordered the partial closure of Nigeria’s land border with Benin Republic in what he described as a bold step to curb smuggling of goods, trans-border crimes and influx of criminals into the country as well as boosting the agricultural sector.
Benin Republic in 2014 reduced its tariffs on rice imports from 35 to 7 per cent, while Cameroon erased its 10 per cent tariffs on the commodity.
Although, the border closure had shot up the price of rice and frozen foods among other commodities in Nigeria, the Controller General of Customs (CGC), Hammed Ali (rtd), said the policy had forced importers to patronise Lagos ports, with corresponding increase in income generated from tariffs on imported goods.
He said the closure of Nigeria’s land borders with neighbouring countries has improved revenue generation.
Addressing a joint National Assembly committee on finance working on the 2020-2022 medium-term expenditure framework and fiscal strategy paper on October 2, 2019, Ali disclosed that an unprecedented N9.2 billion was generated in one day in September, unlike before.
He said: “What we have discovered is that most of those cargoes that used to go to Benin (Republic), shipped to Benin, and then discharged and smuggled into Nigeria, now that we have closed the border, they are forced to bring their goods to either Apapa or Tin Can Island, and we have to collect duty on them.
“If that would continue for us it is a welcome situation. As a matter of fact, to answer your question, our revenue has not reduced; it is increasing as a result of closing the border.”
He added that an average of about N4.7 billion to N5.8 billion revenue was being generated on a daily basis, more than the agency used to generate before the closure.
The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, has also said the closure of the land borders was necessary to eradicate smuggling, insurgency, banditry and kidnapping.
Speaking at the first Convocation Lecture of Edo University, Iyamho, Auchi, recently, Emefiele said: “I can tell you that if our borders remain closed for two years, the issue of Boko Haram, kidnapping, banditry and Yahoo-Yahoo will stop.
He explained that CBN will support any policy that would enable Nigeria to produce what her people would consume instead of allowing the country to be used as a dumping ground for smuggled goods.
“Instead of some neighbouring countries to develop policies to grow their own economies, they rather engage in things that undermine the Nigerian economy,’’ he added.
The spokesman of the Joint Border Security Drill also known as operation ‘Swift Response’ and the Public Relations Officer of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Joseph Attah, disclosed on Wednesday that goods worth N2.9 billion had been intercepted since the closure of land borders commenced.
Attah said that 47,000 bags of foreign rice and 467 fairly used vehicles, 10,553 jerry cans of petrol and 1,012 drums also containing petrol were seized from smugglers.
He added that no fewer than 296 illegal migrants were arrested at various borders in the country.