Techniques we used to beat Customs: Story of a former car smuggler. The ban on vehicle importation through the land borders has upped the smuggling ante. That many youths living in border towns like Badagry and Idiroko have taken to smuggling as a way out of poverty is not in dispute. For these youths, mostly uneducated, the proximity of their towns to the nation’s international borders is a blessing in disguise.
Nigeria is said to have about 1,400 illegal routes available to smugglers whereas there are only 100 legal routes. This is the finding made by Dr Abubakar Jimoh, the Director of Special Duties of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). He spoke with Saturday Tribune while discussing the porosity of the Nigerian borders and its many risks.
According to him, “I made this discovery of the grave porosity of our borders during my PhD research on the subject. Most of these illegal routes are distant border areas created by the smugglers themselves and from where all sorts of things can be brought into this country”.
He contended that having such an enormous free terrain for smuggling was an indication that a lot of illegal transactions were going on through the country’s borders. “You can imagine how much activities of this sort are carried out in a day and also the enormity of the task trying to apprehend them.
“Assume we can fully secure the legal routes using our Customs officers, can we as effectively secure these 1,400 non-Federal Government established routes?” he queried.
Therefore, the success rate of these young men-turned-smugglers is evident in the fact that many of them have become rich enough to recruit into the trade, younger men, who reside around this border town. That is why it is not surprising that many hotels located in these border towns and adjoining cities are owned by either repentant or active smugglers.
For the big smugglers, that is, those who have earned the opportunity to employ younger men into smuggling, bringing in numerous fleets of vehicles in one fell swoop is their stock in trade. According to a repentant smuggler, who identified himself as Tajudeen Alao, these wealthy smugglers can bring in 20 to 30 vehicles in one single operation.
Alao, who spoke with Saturday Tribune, explained that, “When I was into smuggling, I worked with a boss who brought in 20 to 30 vehicles in one operation. He is dead now. Before an operation, he would call all of us to a meeting in a hotel where we strategized on our routes and how we were going to navigate.
“The meeting was facilitated by his personal assistant who had all our numbers. He was the one who called everybody one after the other. In some cases, some people were dropped due to unruly behaviour or drunkenness.
“For those that were dropped, new people were brought in. Our job was to drive one vehicle each in a convoy numbering sometimes up to 30 cars. That is why many of us were always called up. One person per car in a convoy, that was how we moved at breath-taking speed.
“The routes were properly delineated, sometimes going through bush paths in areas where there were uncooperative Customs officials. The big boss was very well connected, so in some areas where Customs were cooperative, we moved at neck-breaking speed on the road.
“On such roads, all checkpoints would have been dislodged. None of our vehicles would be stopped. Sometimes, you won’t even see any Customs official in sight except their dismantled checkpoints.
“The rule is to drive at top speed professionally. Some of my colleagues took little alcohol to spike their system. But the rule did not allow anybody getting drunk. For those that broke the rules, they won’t get another opportunity next time.
“After a successful trip, each driver got about N50,000 or more depending on the state at which the vehicle you drove was. It was mostly a part-time job because it did not come all the time back then.”
When asked if the big bosses don’t get scared of being exposed by former recruits who no longer work with and for them, he explained that many swore to an oath before getting the job opportunity.
‘Before you get into the team that will bring in vehicles, you must swear to an oath that you will not betray your boss. It is compulsory for a would-be-smuggler to swear to an oath because going with the team means knowing the routes that team takes or uses for smuggling. Joining the team also means meeting with the big boss and seeing him face to face.
“It also means knowing where he holds his meetings and everything that pertains to his operation. So you will be compelled to swear to an oath or you won’t come into the team. The oath taking takes place even before you are allowed to meet with the rest of the team at their usual meeting point.
“From the point you show interest in the job, you will be told that you will have to swear. If you decline, then you won’t be in the team. For me, the economic gain was more compelling, that was why I had to swear. But thank God my boss is late now, if not, I won’t be telling you all this”, he added.
“While everybody does oath taking, not everybody does fetish fortification. I did not do it and cannot remember anybody being compelled to do it. Those that did it were few of our leaders who carry firearms.
“They said fetish fortification helps in case there is an exchange of gun fire between then and uncooperative Customs officers while coming with the vehicles.
“Throughout the very short time I practised smuggling, there was no time we had exchange of gunfire with Customs officials. My boss was that connected and even before we got to where those Customs checkpoints are, it would have been dislodged.
“But some of our leaders just felt it was necessary to carry firearms. That was why they also had to do fetish fortification. This fortification varies. Sometimes, some of them carry live tortoise on their necks while others have their skins pierced in different places,” Alao said.
When asked what killed his former boss, he explained that he died from “spiritual thunderbolt” after sleeping with the wife of one of his former lieutenants.
Alao said: “We heard that oga died after sleeping with a lady who happened to be the wife of one of his former lieutenants. I had even stopped smuggling then.
“I had to stop smuggling when a friend who was in another team died after an exchange of gunfire between Customs officers and their team somewhere in Idiroko, Ogun State. My friend’s death was a shocker to me because he was into fetish fortification.
“I was not expecting him to get mauled down in a gale of bullets because he was highly fortified. My friend had piercing or what they call incisions all over his body. But if he could die from bullets wounds, then I knew I was not safe because I did not get into their fetish stuff due to my faith (Muslim).”
It has, however, been projected that an effective ban of car importation through the land borders would curb an estimated annual loss of N213.5 billion through the activities of smugglers.
This figure, according to a series of projections presented earlier this week by the Nigeria Automotive Manufacturers Association (NAMA), would be realised from duty payment through the seaports.
Citing a report published by the National Automotive Design and Development Council (NADDC), the Executive Director of NAMA, Remi Olaofe, said the ban was the most effective way to control smuggling at land borders.
“Import duties payable have all the while been going to the purses of our neighbours. Meanwhile, we as a nation are struggling to make ends meet.
“With the drive towards the full implementation of the National Auto Policy, the place of accurate data cannot be overemphasised. Investors need to be well aware of the size of the market in making investment decisions. The level of damage to our economy, both from fiscal and monetary policies’ perspective, is overwhelming when we come to the realisation that the data we plan with are greatly distorted by the unreported imports going through our land borders.
“This explains why investors, foreign and local, are constantly at a loss when they compare observed market potential with what is officially reported,” Olaofe said.
He said contrary to the fears that the ban would lead to job losses, there was sufficient proof that thousands of jobs would, in fact, be created as a result.
“The Federal Government, through the closure of our land borders to vehicle importation, has not placed any ban on the importation of vehicles. Its intervention is to avert the painful activities of smugglers of vehicles through our land borders and loss of revenue to our neighbouring countries and legitimate stakeholders in the auto industry.
“We also consider it paramount to enlighten everyone that inbuilt in the new Auto Policy are Distributors’ Schemes, Auto Finance Schemes and an organised Second Hand Market for the locally-used vehicles. We envisage a creation of over 4,000 direct jobs and much higher figure for indirect jobs coming with the policy.
“One is at a loss as to why Nigerians would prefer to bring in their vehicles through the neighbouring countries, knowing well that these vehicles are mostly from America and Europe by sea,” he said.
Olaofe said, however, that there is a scheme in place, pioneered by the National Automotive Design Council (NADDC) and the Nigerian Customs, to prevent evasion of duty payments particularly by smugglers.
“This scheme, when operational, will complement the closure of land borders to vehicle importers and would eventually assist Nigerian Customs in realising duties accruable to government in full.
“We are equally aware that the Nigerian Customs Service is gearing up to ensure the increased traffic that will be passing through the sea ports are efficiently handled so as to reduce delays and avoidable costs at port of entry,” he said.