A faint sliver of moon hung in the morning sky as I set out on the risky voyage in early May. I was aware of the risks of arrest by security operatives or even death for flouting the lockdown and border closure in place to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. But as a reporter, I wanted to see how the restriction of movement has affected travel by sea between Nigeria and its West African coastal neighbours.
Across the globe, countries are in a race against time to curb the spread of the deadly virus and to rescue what they can of lives and the economy from its wreckage. Nigeria recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 28. By the middle of May, the number of confirmed cases had exceeded 5,000 despite the country’s low testing capacity. To contain the contagion, the country since late March banned public gathering of more than 10 persons and travel across its land borders, and by air or sea.
At the time Nigeria shut its international airports and land borders to human traffic on March 23, it had only 36 cases and one death from the disease.
By the time President Muhammadu Buhari ordered total lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States on March 30, there were 140 confirmed cases and two deaths. PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation, however, revealed that migrants have been defying the lockdown and border closure and moving between Nigeria and West African neighbour, Benin Republic, by sea. They do so with the support of corrupt security personnel who extort travellers and turn blind eyes.
To move across Lagos in spite of the lockdown of the city, all it takes is to wake up early and carry enough cash to bribe corrupt security agents. My first two attempts for the journey were abortive. In April, a boat operator agreed to give me a seat but changed his mind at the last minutes. I later found out how to make the journey to Benin Republic, and left my Ajah residence at 6 a.m. to CMS where we took off.
Soon, the sun was shining brightly and the water looked beautiful. At the bank of the river, people picked their boats for the trip. With N20,000, one can rent a boat. For those who can afford the fare, the boat first takes them to Liverpool in Apapa where they join another to Gbaji, Badagry.
This is, however, not the case for the poor for whom the journey is always longer. I joined this class and it took us three different boats to get to Benin Republic.
After paying my fare of N500, I joined a 20-passengers wooden canoe from CMS to Sagbokoji in Amuwo Odofin Local Government Area. We spent one hour on the sea in the vehicle without life jackets or any safety support. I asked why passengers were not provided life jackets. The boatman, who simply identified himself as Kareem, responded brusquely: “You dey expect life jacket with N500?” I expected the other passengers to join me in the protest, instead they all laughed and assured me there would not be any problem.
It was still morning and the sea was quiet and the waves appeared to be at rest. We soon arrived at Sagbokoji. From Sagbokoji, the boatman who took us to Liverpool in Apapa collected N1,000 for a journey of just 15 minutes. Unlike my earlier experience, the new boat had an engine and the passengers were given life jackets.
As we approached Liverpool, Shederach, the boat conductor from Sagbokoji asked us to pay our fares.
At the jetty, I wondered if the people were aware that Liverpool is part of Lagos, the epicentre of coronavirus infection in Nigeria. Passengers were seen in their numbers, without obeying the social distance rule, ready to journey to Ikorodu, Ojo, Ebute-Metta and other parts of Lagos. There, buying and selling were going on as usual.
The Lagos Infection Diseases Regulations 2020 (the Regulations) prescribes a jail term of one month or N100,000 fine or both for persons found guilty of flouting the social distance or lockdown order.
“Where there is a violation of a close down or stay at home order, security agencies shall have power to arrest without warrant and may detain any person who violates the close down or stay at home order for at least forty-eight (48) hours. Where the arrested person is found guilty, the person is liable to a fine of one Hundred Thousand Nara fine (N100,000.00) or one (1) month imprisonment or three (3) months Community service,” the law reads in part.
I joined “God Bless” boat to kickstart the journey that lasted another three hours with 16 passengers on board. We were charged N2,000 each. Of the 16 passengers, at least five persons who spoke with me were going to Benin Republic. One of them, Iya Anu, was going on the journey with her daughter. She told me she moves between the two countries weekly, despite the movement restriction and border closure.
Anu, a girl of about six years, was the only one among the passengers not given a life jacket. The boatman, Alaba, told me there was no life jacket for kids.
Life on the sea
After Alaba paid all the necessary dues expected of him at the Jetty, he came on board. “Don’t be scared, this is not a canoe but a flying boat,” he told me. He started the engine and then ordered a rearrangement of the passengers to maintain balance. The vibration increased and the speed began. Fifteen minutes after the journey started, the sky became cloudy, wind blowing, and the sea grey and white, with long breaking waves. To others in the boat, it was normal as they were enjoying the wild scenery. I was worried for Anu – the six year old girl in the boat without a life jacket but she was enthusiastic and was even touching the water.
Soon, one of the two engines powering the boat stopped working and the speed fell. The boatman, without any hint of anxiety, merely declared to us that the journey might last longer than expected because he had to manage the only engine to our destination.
All the passengers started calling to God for mercy as the wind grew stronger. We eventually got to our destination, Gbaji, 30 minutes later than the expected time. The passengers came down, all of them applauding Alaba the boatman for the job well done.
N1,500 fee to cross the border
After alighting at Gbaji in Badagry, the next assignment was to get to Owode and sneak into Seme in Benin Republic. For everyone travelling through this road, a motorcycle ride to Owode is the ritual, I learnt. Many of the bike riders rushed towards me asking: “Where you dey go?” Many of the riders were Benin Republic citizens and barely speak English.
Soon, one with a better understanding of English, Friday, arrived. I asked him how to cross the border to Benin Republic without being apprehended.
“You will disguise like someone who is not new in the business. They may stop you if they like but since the outbreak of coronavirus, you can hardly find them at the border. But don’t do like JJC ooo,” he advised me. The motorcyclist said he would first take a sachet of dry gin. We then began the journey to Owode/Seme. I felt comfortable on the solid motorcycle even though the rider often disregarded speed limits.
From Gbaji in Badagry to the border, I counted at least 28 checkpoints with police, custom, army and immigration officers. They all appeared to be only interested in taking bribe. None stopped us to ask where we were going. Aside from the security operatives at checkpoints, there were also different patrol vehicles of the police, custom, military and immigration but all they did was acknowledge greetings from my motorcycle driver who they were apparently familiar with.
N200 fee to sneak into Benin Republic
“No dull yourself ooo, you fit follow people wey dey rush enter. If you are lucky, they won’t stop you,” my motorcyclist advised as he dropped me. I sighted Iya Anu again. After a brief conversation, she offered to assist me. She was carrying two empty 25-litre kegs from Lagos and she handed one to me.
“Do you have anything illicit in your wallet?” she asked.
I said no.
“Bring your wallet for me to keep.” She said it required just N200 to cross and not even in all cases. “Don’t talk when we get there, I will respond to their questions,” she said.
I was not sure whether to take her advice as I had been warned from Nigeria to be wary of persons who offer to help. Sometimes, they hand over travellers to custom officials, I had been told. But since we left Lagos together, I decided Iya Anu could not betray me.
As we approached some men sitting in front of the Nigeria Custom office, she reminded me of the rule. “Don’t talk”.
Lo, we were stopped by these men playing draught. “Where are you coming from? one of them asked.
“Are you saying you don’t know me? I’m going home with my brother,” Iya Anu responded. She brought out N200 and asked me to do the same. After paying N400, we both passed. “Those ones in mufti are custom officers,” Iya Anu told me after we had left them.
To my surprise, I had just crossed the border with N200 despite the coronavirus lockdown and border closure!
Welcome to Benin Republic
In Benin Republic, Iya Anu continued as my fixer. Immediately we crossed the border, we saw men and women changing Nigerian naira to West African Franc and we did the exchange. As of the time, Benin Republic had 90 active cases and two deaths from coronavirus. But unlike Nigeria, the country did not order a lockdown of activities, it only made the use of face masks mandatory to curb the spread of the disease.
I observed that there was no social distancing in all the places I visited. Cars had four passengers at the back seat and two in front from Seme border to Ajase Topa. I also visited some clubs and relaxation centres at Wevian. Communication was difficult for me as most people around do not speak English or Yoruba.
Back to Nigeria with smuggled rice, salt
I woke up very early the next morning to return to Nigeria. This time, a motorcyclist offered to take me out of the country and again, we crossed the border without scrutiny. I again counted the checkpoints from Owode to Ghaji jetty – they were 28.
On the bank of the river were different kinds of loads wrapped in different polythene bags. Most were smuggled rice and salt. Unlike the journey in the opposite direction that I took in three different boats, I got a boat that offered to reach CMS in Lagos from Ghaji. Rice and other smuggled products were kept under the seats with passengers sitting on top. I was told that smuggling is common with people who travel by sea between countries.
“Everyone knows every boat in this axis smuggled rice and other things,” a woman said when asked if the smuggled items could get us passengers in trouble. I later found she owned most of the smuggled items.
The emerging trend of sea smuggling has not gone unnoticed by the authorities. Recently, a combined team of the Nigeria Immigration and Navy operatives arrested 12 persons attempting to cross over to Cameroon from Nigeria by sea in a boat through Ibaka in Akwa Ibom State.
Despite such efforts, findings revealed that travelling from one country to another is still ongoing on sea
even with support of security operatives, as Nigeria continues to record daily increase in coronavirus cases.
Corrupt Custom, Naval and police officers on sea
My return trip to Nigeria was more stressful on the sea due to various interception by security operatives which include naval, Customs and Marine Police officers. Surprisingly, none of the officers wore name plates on their uniforms. Our boat was intercepted three times by naval officers, Marine police officers four times and Customs officers once. They all let us go after collecting bribes totalling N22,000.
Sections 98, 98A and 98B of the Criminal Code Schedule to the Criminal Code Act prohibit bribery involving public officers and section 494 prohibits corrupt acceptance of gifts by agents. Section 98 covers the demand side of the offence involving a public official. Section 98A covers the supply side where any person offers a bribe to a public official. Section 98B covers any person soliciting or demanding a bribe on account of any action of public officers.
On one occasion, three military men blocked the boat and threatened to shoot the boatman if he failed to stop. In the middle of the sea, they questioned why he failed to stop but the boatman, Ezekiel, claimed he did not see them
“What are you carrying?”, One of the naval officers asked as he jumped into our boat, touching all the goods under the seat. He raised his head afterwards, telling his boss that “Oga, na contraband.” “Let him pay N20,000 and go,” the “oga” barked back. Upon hearing this, the boatman started pleading. Soon, the owners of the smuggled goods joined in begging. After a short drama, the naval officers collected N5,000 and set the boat free.
I was not surprised to again witness Marine police officers acting in the same manner with their colleagues on land. They were not harsh. They never raised their voices at the boatman at the different points where we encountered them. They asked passengers if the journey had not been stressful. Police officers’ way of taking bribe never changes: “Wetin you bring for us?” They did not bother to check the goods in the boat. In fact, at no instance did the boatman try running from them. He went to them to offer them their ‘right’ as the officers and the boatman exchanged pleasantries on the sea.
The most difficult were custom officials who delayed our boat for almost 30 minutes on the sea. Three different sets of Custom officers blocked the boat metres from the jetty at CMS. One of the officers ordered Ezekiel, the boatman, to hand over his key to him and join his boss in their own boat for negotiation. The negotiation took long and several pleading. Like it was carried out in the past by other operatives, the officers collected bribe to free the boat but that did not happen until they asked all passengers to stand with their hands up. They did a thorough search and it was at that point they found one of the recording gadgets on me.
“Who are you?” a custom officer who was already in our boat asked upon seeing the gadget. “I’m a student of Obafemi Awolowo University, and I am on a project from school. It is to be submitted when school resumes”, my heart was beating faster than expected – wondering if the long journey and risk would end in tears. Suddenly, they noticed another speed boat from afar – another business for the team. They immediately hurried off our boat without returning one of my gadgets. We finally arrived Lagos and everybody left for their respective destinations.
When contacted about our findings, the spokesperson of the Nigerian Navy, Suleiman Dahun, asked our correspondent to send multi-media evidence of the corrupt activities to him on WhatsApp.
After our correspondent did this, Mr Dahun promised to look into the matter.
Frank Mba, the spokesperson of the police, did not respond to calls put across to him on the matter. This newspaper sent a text message to his known telephone number but was not acknowledged.
This newspaper encountered same with the spokesperson of the Custom service, Joseph Attah.
In addition, PREMIUM TIMES sent emails containing our findings to the official electronic mail addresses of the security outfits, but got no responses.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Upon his return from the journey, our reporter went on self-isolation as mandated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).