How I smuggled three bags of rice through Seme border to Lagos
When BusinessDay assigned me with the task of ferrying rice across the land borders from Seme, in Benin Republic, into Lagos, to mimic the activities of the smugglers who are beating the Nigeria Customs Service daily, to bring rice into the country despite the official ban on the commodity, I looked forward to it with much excitement.
I wanted to test the effectiveness of this policy. I started asking questions immediately, to get the investigation going.
Friends with whom I shared the thought warned me against the venture. One said, ‘hey, this is a very dangerous path you are about to tread. I will advise you to steer clear of such investigations and face other more mundane, harmless matters. Smuggling is dangerous and smugglers are even more so, if you dare rock the boat.’
Another said ‘you make me laugh; the manner in which these networks of smugglers would catch up with you and waste you would surprise you. You won’t know what hit you.’
These friendly pieces of advice did two things for me. First, they strengthened my resolve to go on with the project. Secondly, they put me on maximum alert. I became hyper paranoid and resolved to come back from Cotonou in one piece, even if it meant aborting the investigation midstream. I needed to make some quick calls.
Some phone calls
I called a few acquaintances who had told me in the past that they knew someone, who knows someone, who smuggles commodities through the Seme border.
The calls began. I made approximately 26 calls each lasting an average of 20 minutes to locate people who could help out with my project. It got really exciting when someone told me I should go to Ilaro in Ogun state. There I would meet the ringleader of a smuggling cartel. I thought this was the lead I needed. I got this on Sunday, September 17.
On Monday, I set out for Ilaro but soon hit a cul-de-sac because it turned out the ringleader I was chasing after was not in town. This meant I had spent the first day of my investigation chasing after the wind and I had four days left.
A typical phone call
I decided to transcribe this particular phone call because it captures my frantic effort to get to the root of rice smuggling and how most of those I spoke with were interested in car smuggling.
Me: guy how far?
Acquaintance: I dey o, we thank God. How your side na?
Me: we thank God o.
Acquaintance: this one wey you remember me today.
Me: how I go do na. Abeg, you go need help me with something. Do you know of anyone that can help me smuggle rice from Cotonou.
Acquaitance: me na cars I sabi. And na very simple process. After buying the car you get the chassis number and other necessary details. When you have these, give them to me, I will send it to the person I need to send it to in Customs service, he gives me the price of the whole thing, based on the year of the car, then we start work.
When you buy the car, the first thing is to get the Cotonou papers, also known as Beninoit, it is called laisez passé. Get this clear. Before the vehicle can pass through the normal Seme land border the papers must be done.
This is a clean business. This is what I am into now. I have a Mercedes C300 in Cotonou, I can send the photos to you through WhatsApp. The last time I went, I brought Prado 2012/13 and a C Class 2010. It took us about three weeks to clear, because we did not start the process early enough. Otherwise, it takes two weeks to clear. The papers take four to five days to process. Once this is done, you drive your car comfortably across the border.
Let me tell you something. Somebody might say they can do the papers for you at a cheaper rate, say if the paper is N1.2 million, they might say give them N800, 000. You might get the papers, but it might not be captured in Customs database. The toughest guys to evade are the Customs officials after Badagry. They have laptops connected to the central database and when they catch you, your car is impounded.
The contact I have at the customs is top secret. I am only mentioning it to you because we are close and you are interested in the business. It is highly reliable. My assurance to you is 100 percent, we can do business. The most important thing is clearing the cars not shipping them. There are many un-cleared cars sitting in Cotonou seaport as we speak.
Alas, I was not interested in car smuggling, even though it sounded like much fun my budget could not carry it.
Meanwhile, someone in our newsroom had promised to introduce me to a Nigerian friend of his who studies in Cotonou. This sounded like a good idea, but I wondered how this was going to help me break into a network of professional smugglers. A student might occasionally, especially during holidays, smuggle in a bag or two of rice but this was not going to bring me in touch with the true smuggling racketeers.
Trip to Badagry
I was getting really worried at this point. Time was ticking away and I seemed to be making little progress. Someone referred me to friend of his in Mowu, after Agbara, saying that might be the breakthrough I need. I was despairing and getting discouraged but resolved this project must yield positive result.
I met the person I was supposed to see at a gas station around 7am and we headed for Badagry to meet some of his friends in an expensive hotel. There, they said to initiate me I must first buy them drinks, pepper soup, isi-ewu and pay for them to use the services of commercial consorts at the hotel. This cost a whopping N30,000 and I still did not know anything about how they smuggle rice through Seme land border and it was 9pm already. I decided I was not going to sleep with them at the hotel, afraid my security was at stake.
I left for FESTAC hoping to find a fairly priced guest house to rest myself. I was losing hope.
During the time spent at the luxury hotel in Badagry, I struck up conversation with a member of the smuggling cartel. He looked a lot more welcoming than the rest.
I told him a friend of mine has a consignment of rice sitting in Thailand but would not ship it until he is sure I can successfully bring it into Nigeria when it arrives in Cotonou. His eyes lit up and we exchanged mobile phone numbers.
The following morning, I called him and he asked me to meet him in Badagry, from where we left for Cotonou. When we arrived he invited three of his friends, a lady (who turned out to be his girlfriend) and two other people (men).
We lodged in a hotel with beachfront in Cotonou. I did not enjoy the beautiful scenery because I was concerned about both my fiscal and physical security. We stayed at this hotel for two nights and the bills were on, me since I presented myself as a confident businessperson.
I was told not to worry because they wanted to introduce me to a ‘very big madam’, Funmilayo (not full name) who controls a big clearing and forwarding business in Cotonou. I was also told she is of Nigerian descent and controls a powerful smuggling racket as well. I waited. The bills were quite a burden at N10, 400 per night for two nights and for three people. The meals cost an average of N1,500 per plate. Cotonou is indeed a port city, expensive.
They took time to groom me, through series of lectures ranging from how to spot potential business threats, such as hostile law enforcement agents, to how to maximise profit once my rice arrives in Lagos.
They told me about the three big warehouses in Cotonou, where goods are held temporarily before the onward journey to various destinations, Nigeria in particular. There is the Cherika in Akpakpa, one kilometre from Cotonou, which has the capacity to hold 25 40-foot containers, of 50kg units of imported rice. A 40-foot container takes between 1,000 and 1,400 of 50kg bags of rice. The other two warehouses are Defezi warehouse, close the Cotonou Port and Cica warehouse in the Missebo area of Cotonou. The former can hold forty 40-foot container loads (40, 000 units of 50kg bags) of rice. The latter can take 20, 000 units of 50kg bags of rice.
Finally, I was presented to the Funmi, an amiable looking ‘Madam’. She quickly assessed me and from the look on her face; she must have been satisfied with what she saw and immediately started making the necessary calls meant to fill her in, on the latest developments at the port.
As soon as she was done with her calls, we were back to business. Given that my proposition was to import a container load of rice from Thailand through Cotonou to Lagos, she said the process was going to be as follows.
The container load of rice must be duly registered with Cotonou as the port of destination and the name of the one who is to receive it. Once the container of rice arrives in Cotonou, the rest is easy to handle.
It is a straightforward process. Customs and Excise duties are paid. Then, because it is meant to be smuggled into Nigeria, I was going to pay N1,700 per bag. Our projection was for 520 units of 50kg bags, this is what is usually contained in a 20-foot container.
“That amount N1,700 per bag will be used to settle police, customs and to pay for space at one of the warehouses. This does not include the lorry fare from Cotonou to Seme. Once the lorry gets to Seme border, I will take over” said the new acquaintance I had made in Badagry.
The ‘big madam’ told me she has been doing this business for more years thn she can remember.
‘I want to go back to Lagos with some bags of rice.’
At this point I realised my funds were rapidly depleting and I could not sponsor another night of conspicuous consumption.
I told my guide I needed to smuggle some bags of rice into Nigeria the following day. We quickly went to Seme and paid for three bags of rice. But since it was just evening, around 4 pm, I was told we could not move the bags of rice out immediately. Unfortunately, I was too cautious to take photographs for fear of giving myself away as a spy.
I paid N10,700 for each unit of the 50kg bag of Caprice and an additional N2, 000 per bag, to settle Customs officials and others along the route. Now, because the bags of rice were loaded in the dark, I did not see what was being put into the vehicles. When we got to Lagos, I was presented with three bags of African Princess brand of rice instead of the Caprice I paid for.
Upon my return to Lagos, I asked a neighbour who deals in food items how much a bag of caprice was sold in the market and she said between N14, 000 and N15, 000. However, when the enforcement of the ban was stiff, the same volume of Caprice was sold for as much as N18, 000.
We left Seme at 2.00am in a convoy of about 10 other old cars modified to carry rice. The back seats were clearly not meant for human passengers because they were hollowed into shapes that could hold as many as 12 bags of 50kg, when piled-up from floor to the ceiling of the car.
The boot of the cars protruded underneath by about one metre and the rear shock absorbers were adjusted such that the height of the car rose by an additional one metre, to make up for the additional depth of the boots. These modified boots could take between 15 and 20 units of 50kg bags of rice. Our convoy was carrying a consignment of over 600 units of 50kg bags of rice.
The journey was stressful because although my guide negotiated for me to get a front passenger seat in one of the cars in the convoy, I sat on a bag of rice. The motion was slow because the vehicles were clearly overloaded and had lost their original capacity.
It was dark and I cannot say I understood the geographic coordinates of our journey. However, each time we encountered law enforcement agents, there was a little delay to clear with whichever law enforcement agency it was we encountered. We were always soon on our way once again. I thought the N2, 000 per bag was doing its job.
We arrived Agbara 4:35am but the bags of rice were offloaded around 5:30am at Alagboron, two kilometres away from Iyanoba. I took my three bags of rice and went home. They are currently sitting in the BusinessDay garage, evidence of my smuggling exploit.
This experience taught me quite a lot. Rice is not as easy to smuggle through the land borders as it might sound, if you do not have access to a well organised cartel. I saw bags of rice seized by customs officials and women who were molested for carrying as little as 25kg of rice.
I saw market women attempting to smuggle rice in the most creative ways. They empty the bags of rice into plastic bags and some carry them in their wrappers strapped like babies to their backs.
It was an eye opening experience.
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