“My businesses are suffering from what I know nothing about. I don’t smuggle petrol across the border. We only sell petrol to motorists and other users in Nigeria. I am too far from the border to be engaged in petrol bunkering, if you want to see those smuggling petrol to Benin Republic, go to Owode-Apa,” said the owner of a Forte Oil filling station in Gbaji, a village about 19 kilometres to Nigeria’s main western border with Benin and 21 kilometres to the lesser-known border at Owode-Apa.
The owner of the station, who refused to give his name, claimed another of his filling stations was affected by the embargo placed on the supply of petroleum products within 20 kilometres from land borders announced by the Nigerian government.
“We thought the policy would be lifted after a week. After a month and the government didn’t suspend the policy, I had no choice but to send all my workers home. I could no longer afford to pay them for doing nothing,” he added.
Last November the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hammed Ali, placed an embargo on the supply of petroleum products to filling stations with 20 kilometres of Nigeria’s land borders. According to Customs, the ban was necessary to stop the smuggling of the products across the borders to neighbouring countries. The embargo was an extension of the closure of all land borders announced in last August. The Nigerian government explained that closure of the border was to protect the economy and to stop cross-border security breaches.
A week-long investigation by PREMIUM TIMES across the country’s land borders in five of the country’s six geo-political zones (for safety reasons we did not cover insurgent-infested North East region of the country), revealed that the while the restriction on supply of petroleum products has been effective, it has exposed inhabitants of the communities within the embargo area to exploitation from security operatives, and hardship.
The cost of living in communities along the borders has shot up as goods and services are rendered at higher prices than before the implementation of the policy.
Our investigation also revealed that while the policy might have stopped the large-scale smuggling of petroleum products, small-scale cross border smuggling of petroleum and other products is still unabated in many of the border posts visited.
Inhabitants of communities within 20 kilometres of the two borders – Seme and Awode-Apa, now get their supply of petroleum products from filling stations in around the Badagry Roundabout. Commercial motorcycle riders, also known as Okada riders, are the preferred courier. Almost all the Okada riders in the areas have five-litre yellow plastic kegs tired to the back of the passenger seats of their motorbikes. The Okada riders also straddle backpacks concealing kegs filled with petroleum products to their chests. Others also resell fuel from the tank of their cars.
An Okada rider told PREMIUM TIMES that he can carry as much as 15 litres of petrol a trip, alongside two passengers, to communities within the restricted area where they are sold for as much as 60 per cent higher than the official pump price.
A keg of 30 litres petrol that is sold at filling stations outside the restricted area for N4,350 is resold for N6,900.00 at the Nigerian side of Owode-Apa border to small-scale smugglers. When smuggled to the Benin side of the border, which is less than 100 metres away, the same quantity is sold for N7,250.00.
Several women could be seen on the Nigerian side of the border haggling over the price of petrol with Okada riders.
PREMIUM TIMES also noticed that the Owode-Apa and Seme Borders were shadows of what they used to be. The hustle and bustle of the borders have petered away. The border areas looked like a town recovering from a natural disaster. The Owode-Apa border used to be a haven for rice smugglers with people loading trailer with rice from Benin into salon cars that are later smuggled into Badagry town and onward to other parts of Lagos and Ogun State. A PREMIUM TIMES reporter was at both sides of the border for several hours but did not see a single bag of rice on display.
At the Seme border, the porous crossings have been fenced off up to the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the shops and fast-food restaurants that are around the border were not open for business and roadside traders that used to flow into the road, causing traffic around the borders have disappeared.
However, Immigration officials were still making quick bucks from people trying to cross into Benin or into Nigeria without international passports.
“I make only N200.00 on every 30 litres keg I sell across the border. What is left is used to bribe customs and Immigration officials so we can go across the border,” one of the women haggling over the price of fuel with an Okada rider, said.
Along the 20 kilometre restricted areas, Customs, Immigration and police personnel are cashing in on the policy extorting as much as N100.00 for every 10 litres of fuel purchased at each checkpoint. There are at least 25 security checkpoints from Badagry roundabout to both Seme and Owode-Apa. PREMIUM TIMES saw police and Customs officials demanding and accepting bribes from petrol-laden Okada riders.
One Okada rider said security officials sometimes confiscate petrol from people who refused to bribe them.
Haven for Illegal Petrol Stations
In September, less than two months after the border closure, the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) said the country was saving 10 million litres of daily consumption of petrol. Similarly, in December, President Muhammadu Buhari said the country’s domestic fuel consumption had dropped by more than 30 per cent, following the closure of land borders.
While PREMIUM TIMES cannot confirm the government’s figures, our investigation at Owode-Apa revealed that the closure of land borders and the embargo on the supply of petroleum products to 20 kilometres within the land borders have stifled petrol bunkering to a large extent.
Between Owode-Apa and Lagos State Model College in Kankon, a distance of 3.5 kilometres, PREMIUM TIMES counted at least 62 filling stations. About half of the filling stations are without dispensing pumps. Someone not conversant with the tricks used by smugglers in the area may dismiss the stations as uncompleted. But, our fixer explained that creating the impression that the stations were uncompleted is a trick used by smugglers to fool government inspectors. He said before the closure of the border and the restriction on the supply of petroleum products, the stations without dispensing pumps were mainly used as reservoirs to store petrol before they are smuggled across the border.
The fixer said there were other filling stations at the end of narrow paths deep inside the bushes surrounding the border town. When a PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter accompanied him to see some of the hidden filling stations, we rode on the motorbike through narrow bush paths for about five minutes before coming across a collection of at least 15 filling stations within a distance of 200 metres.
Idiroko is a town in Ipokia local government of Ogun State, situated along the Nigeria-Benin border. It has been an official border crossing point since the 1960s, according to residents.
The situation in Idiroko is not entirely dissimilar to that of Owode-Apa and Seme borders, in Badagry.
From Owode in Ogun State, there is a long, tarred road linking Idiroko and other communities to the border post. The town itself is surrounded by villages including Oke Odan, Ilase, Ita Egbe, Ajilete amongst others.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the area, residents lamented the hardship caused by the government’s petrol supply policy.
This newspaper observed that in Idiroko community, all fuel stations were shut. Similarly, petroleum stations in small communities along the Owode-Idiroko Way were also under lock and key.
The 20km threshold stipulated by the government, however, terminates at Ajilete, a small community along the border route. On Saturday, PREMIUM TIMES’ found that petroleum stations in the community were congested, as people from Idiroko and environs trouped into them to buy fuel.
In Idiroko, petroleum is the new Gold
Since the new policy on petrol supply took effect, residents said petrol has become the new gold in Idiroko and environs. PREMIUM TIMES observed that from Owode, the road is occupied by numerous commercial taxi drivers and motorcycle riders conveying petroleum products to the border communities in small jerrycans and backpacks.
“Okada riders full their tanks in Owode-yewa and go discharge in Idiroko at agreed fees for their clients,” Ganiyu Layiwola, a cab driver explained. “All fuel stations in idiroko are shut down so that’s the biggest business now. It is their gold”
PREMIUM TIMES also gathered that fuel station owners whose businesses have been crippled in Idiroko have now moved into Ajilete, building new petrol stations to address increasing demand.
A survey by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that in Idiroko and environs, a litre of petrol sold for N250 while 30 litres went for as high as N6,500 or more, depending on the middleman involved. Similarly, in Idiroko and environs, every shop has a makeshift kiosk where petrol products in jerry cans and bottles are displayed.
From Ajilete to Ayetoro, through Ajegunle, this newspaper observed that there are numerous security checkpoints manned by the different security agencies.
Residents alleged that Customs and police officers now engage in smuggling and racketeering by forcefully seizing petrol products from commuters and selling at far higher prices in Idiroko. Although multiple commercial drivers confirmed to this newspaper that they have had their petroleum products seized from them in the past, PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify these claims.
“Last week, a woman tried to move 10 litres fro Ajilete to Idiroko but was caught by custom officers,” Baba Kowope, a commercial driver, told this reporter. “I had to pay N5,000 to retrieve my car. They seize petrol from people every day on this road.”
Fuel supply cut hit residents, businesses
In Idiroko, it was an orchestra of lamentations on Saturday as residents complained bitterly about the ripple effects of the supply cut on residents and businesses in the border communities.
Many residents complained that they experienced epileptic services from major communication service providers like MTN and Glo in the preceding days. This reporter affirmed on Saturday that the MTN network in Idiroko was non-existent, confirming residents’ claims.
A resident claimed the situation may not be unconnected to the non-availability of petroleum products needed for the service providers to power their equipment.
“Electricity supply has improved slightly after we protested but the lack of fuel still bites hard,” Jubril Hassan, a trader, said.
Mr Hassan said that Okada riders pay bribes to customs officers before they transport petrol to Idiroko and that has led to a sharp increase in the transport fares charged within the community.
“You cannot ride Okada for N50 in Idiroko again; anywhere you are going, you must pay N100 or N150 and above,” he explained.
For Agba, a vulcanizer, the rate of patronage for artisans and small business owners in the community has dropped since the supply cut.
“Before closure, mechanics and vulcanisers used to have good patronage but now, there is no more patronage,” he said.
Mama Jibike, another trader and business owner, said the policies have had the most effect on women who trade in the community. According to her, many of them have been thrown out of business and now engage in fuel transportation, thus endangering their lives.
“As you can see, women wrap it (bottled petrol) around their wrappers, using different tactics to move it to Idiroko. That very dangerous; anything can happen to them. Some people have got burnt in the process. It is very sad. But as you know, there are no jobs and petrol is where they make money now.”
Border closure bites
Before the border closure and the policy on regulated fuel supply to border communities, residents of Idiroko and environs largely engaged in sales of rice, turkey, shoes and other goods largely smuggled through the porous border from neighbouring Benin Republic.
But since the border closure policy took effect, many of the traders have been thrown out of business. PREMIUM TIMES observed that many of the shops in Idiroko area were under lock while others are largely abandoned.
Residents said commercial activities in the community has largely slowed since the border was closed.
“Our people no longer sell most of those goods we brought in from Benin because there is no easy access anyway,” said Tayo, a receptionist at the local community Mr Biggs outlet. “Commercial activities have slowed down. Most of those goods cannot be brought in again and many are not doing anything, really. We hear some people struggle to bring stuff in but I can’t confirm that. Other people I know have set up small businesses to feed their families while we pray that the government re-opens the border.”
Tayo explained that the harsh condition has now been made worse for small businesses as a result of the policy on fuel supply.
In Ogun State, there are two major border routes linking Nigeria to neighbouring Benin Republic: the border path in Imeko (and environs) and the Idiroko route.
In Imeko, community dwellers told PREMIUM TIMES that there have been gun battles between smugglers and customs officers but the border closure policy has largely been effective, with its ripple effects on the socio-economic survival of community dwellers.
Oyo/Kwara border Towns
Okerete is a border town in Saki West Local Government Area of Oyo State. The village shares boundary with Fesomu, another Yoruba community in Benin Republic.
Okerete to Saki, headquarters of Saki West Local Government, covers a distance of 99 kilometres and can only be easily accessed by motorcycles.
Saki, which is one of the five major towns in Oyo State, enjoys a good supply of fuel which is sold at the normal price of N145 per litre.
But after Saki, throughout the 99-kilometre distance to Okerete, there is no fuel station. Apparently, because the roads are not passable for cars apart from remodelled vehicles with their absorbers replaced with big springs, and their tyres replaced with those originally designed for SUV.
Even before the closure of the border, the people were buying petrol sold in bottles across counters for N250.00 per litre.
The villages are, however, suffering the consequences of the border closure in terms of a near collapse of business activities as smugglers, who used to converge there in numbers have deserted the communities.
According to the villagers, the border closure has also sent many farmers, especially those from Benin Republic and Togo, away from the villages.
One of the leaders of Okerete community, Jimoh Aremu, said economic hardship and insecurity has increased in the area since the border was closed.
“Even some of us who engage in legal trades across the border are not allowed to cross over. In fact, on the day the border closure was effected, many of our people who were coming from Kilibo, Tuyi and Afesomu in Benin Republic were just at the boundary there looking at their houses over here without being able to cross.
“Many others from neighbouring countries such as Togo and Benin Republic who had either crossed here to farm or trade, were also denied access to their villages for more than one week. But the challenge was that many of our people are married to their women there and vice versa. We had to appeal to authorities to, at least, allow us to visit our families across the border since we are not carrying any banned items such as rice, oil or frozen foods,” said Mr Aremu.
The situation is similar across other border communities of Bukuro, Budo Aiki, Kiyon, Gah Jimoh, among others, which are located in Baruten Local Government of Kwara State.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the communities, the people could not hide their frustration and anger at the closure of the border. They complained that their markets that used be a beehive of commercial activities have become scanty.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, one of the Immigration officers at the Okerete Border, Solomon Oyelude, expressed satisfaction with the cooperation of the people of the communities.
“As you can see, there is strict compliance of the order here and I can assure you that except for the kids whose schools are located around the border lines, we don’t even allow people near the boundary,” Mr Oyelude said.
Meanwhile, in spite of the strictness of the security operatives in and around the border towns, one or two motorcyclists still ferry rice across the border.
According to a commercial motorcyclists, who begged not to be named, three bags of rice are poured into another big sack, and cyclists always carry each from Okerete to Saki at N5,000 per bag.
“A cyclist will carry two of these bags for N10,000 per trip. But that comes at a huge cost. If discovered, your motorcycle would surely be impounded. That is the risk,” he said.
He added that the development accounted for why a bag of foreign rice which sells for about N27,000 in Ibadan and Lagos, goes for less than N15,000 in communities around Saki such as Ago-Are, Tede, Iseyin, among others.
Meanwhile, a few villages close to the border in Baruten Local Government Area of Kwara State have some fuel stations, which according to the communities’ residents, have not sold fuel for a single day.
According to sources, these fuel stations were built by fuel merchants who were said to have used the location to apply for fuel, which is diverted to other locations.
Cross River borders
Ajassor, in Etung local government area of Cross River state, is a border town between Nigeria and Cameroon.
More than seven filling stations in Ajassor have been shut down in compliance with the federal government directive.
The closure of filling stations in Ajassor, a town of about 5,000 population, has given birth to a dangerous venture among the people – every household now seems to have a ‘mini depot’ in front of their home, where they sell petrol illegally in small plastic containers.
This new crop of ‘marketers’ travel from Ajassor to Ikom to buy petrol at the cost of N145 per litre and then sell it at N200 per litre back home in Ajassor.
A young woman who superintended over sales of petrol in front of a house haggled with a PREMIUM TIMES reporter over the price per litre of the product.
“Make we give you N160 (per litre)?” the reporter said to her.
Apparently disappointed, she shrugged, shook her head, and was about to walk away.
“Last, how much?” the reporter asked.
“Daddy, dem no dey talk price of fuel, fuel na N200 per litre,” she responded, smiled shyly, and then turned her face away momentarily before the reporter agreed to buy at her price for a waiting motorcycle.
Her containers of fuel – about six of them – are atop a plank supported by a stack of empty plastic crates.
Among the new set of petrol sellers in Ajassor is Jeremiah, a physically challenged man who does his at the junction close to the highway leading to the border.
Mr Jeremiah said he was unaware of why all the filling stations in Ajassor were shut down. He said he was just three weeks old in the business.
When told that the government action was meant to stop the smuggling of fuel to Cameroon and that the government could come after him for selling fuel illegally by the roadside, he retorted “The federal government would take care of me nah, I am a disabled (person).
“Are they not supposed to take care of me? They are supposed to take care of disabled because I don’t have money, I don’t have anybody take care of me,” he said.
He said he was willing to abandon the sales of petrol to start a legitimate business – like a provision store – if the federal government could give him N300, 000 start-up fund.
Cocoa farming and related business is the mainstay of the local economy in Ajassor and is tied to the activities at the border.
And of course the border closure, just like the shutting down of filling stations, is hurting the economy and the social life in the town.
“Before the border closure, there were businesses, most times boys drive to Cameroon, carry passengers, carry cocoa,” Victor Mbu, the youth leader in Ajassor, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Commercial motorcyclists, popularly known as okada, have increased their fare within the town from N50 to N100 for a drop.
People travelling from Ikom to Ajassor pay as much as N1, 000 for a ride on okada.
“Since morning my car is parked in the house because I don’t have fuel,” the youth leader, Mr Mbu said.
“It is stressful for our people to travel to Ikom to buy fuel daily. People can no longer power their generators the way they would have wanted to.”
Ajassor is said to have been without power supply for more than seven years. Horrible darkness traditionally envelops the town at night falls.
At the primary health centre Ajassor, the only health facility in the town, the only source of electricity is a solar panel donated by a non-profit organisation, Pathfinder International, three years ago.
And the solar panel is able to power only four electric bulbs.
A nearby borehole was no longer functional, the health workers fetch water from a stream for their daily usage at the health centre.
Before the border closure, travellers and business people usually spent nights in the hotels in Ajassor. Hotels owners were expanding their hotels and making more money. But today, their fortunes have gone down.
“Since morning…. See how the environment is,” Mike Otigu, manager of Moses Hotel, Ajassor, said to a PREMIUM TIMES reporter, trying to explain how their business has been affected by the border closure.
Mr Otigu said the 34-room hotel had only three guests in the previous night.
There is a filling station adjacent to the hotel, it belongs to the hotel owner. But has been shut down, like others in the area.
“When the filling station was open, there used to be light in the hotel 24 hours since we were not buying fuel,” Mr Otigu said. “But now we start our generator by 3.30 p.m. and put it off by 8 a.m.”
He said the hotel cancelled its plan to recruit eight new workers because of its current financial challenges.