By Esther Onyegbula
How safe is that half bag or a full bag of rice you just bought at the market? How sure are you that the rice is not among the ones smuggled by unscrupulous traders from Cotonou in the Republic of Benin through Seme and transported inside the car bonnet or under the car seat or in other hidden parts of the vehicle, and thus fit for consumption?
Customs officers impounding smuggled rice.
These and more posers are waiting for honest answers as well as an urgent intervention if Nigeria is to be taken seriously about her fight against smuggling through her porous borders and ensuring the health of her citizens.
Sunday Vanguard investigation reveals that drivers, traders, etc engage in these unhealthy modes of smuggling rice to avoid being arrested at the numerous Customs checkpoints located at Agbara, Elijah, Aradagun, Mowo and Iyafin roundabout before Seme.
Between the Seme border and Iyana-Iba on Lagos-Badagry Expressway, there are several bays where bags of rice smuggled from the Republic of Benin into Nigeria are re-bagged by local
‘Firewalls’ as smugglers are called in local parlance.
Some of the bays are located at Igbo-Elerin Bus Stop, Iyana-Era, Alaba Rago and under the bridge opposite Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED).
At these bays, it is common to find ‘Firewalls’ and their accomplices unload small bags of rice from the bonnets, under the seats and other hidden parts of cars. You rarely find the bags of rice inside the booths normally designed to carry goods.
The bags of rice are then repackaged into big bags as they were original, sealed and resold to unsuspecting buyers.
Abudu Sule, a driver who transports goods for dealers who engage in this trade, says, “We usually put rice inside bonnets and under the car seat because of the fear of Customs’ officials at checkpoints. If we carry the products normally inside the booth or inside the car, Customs’ officials will seize them. I am not a doctor to know if it makes the rice unhealthy for consumption. I am paid to transport the goods and that is what I do by all means possible. And ensuring that the goods aren’t seized is why I am paid”.
A mother of four, Kehinde Lawal, who also goes to Seme to buy rice for sale, also explains how difficult it is to bring in the product into Nigeria. She says, “The road is very tough now, we find it difficult to carry a single bag of rice from Seme to Alaba where we usually sell them. Women like me who buy one or two bags of rice or a gallon of groundnut oil face a lot of difficulties transporting it because of the activities of Customs officials on the road. “But those smugglers, popularly called ‘Firewall’, who, we believe, have given Customs’ officials bribe are the ones that have free passage. That is why we have to devise means to get the rice to its final destination.”
On her part, another woman, popularly called Iya Ibeji, said, before now, when Customs’ officials seized their products, they would beg and the officials will collect a little money from them and give them their goods back.
She, however, said, “These days, once they (Customs’ officials) seize the goods, it is over as no amount of begging will make them release the goods back to you especially the Customs at the checkpoints around Elijah Bus Stop. Recently, they seized my four bags of rice and they didn’t return them. My kids are currently at home because I can’t pay their schools fees as a result of the seized goods. For every bag I buy and successful transport from Seme to Alaba, I make between N800 and N1, 000. The only way you can make N1, 200 on a bag is when you divide it into fractions when transporting.
“Ironically, the goods and merchandise of the real smugglers who smuggle large quantities of rice and groundnut oil are allowed to sail through after ‘booking’ which is done before arriving each checkpoint along the route. In the dead of the night, you will find trailer loads of contraband goods passing freely without any molestation while women who are trying to make ends meet are subjected to all manners of humiliation and troubles”.
Another trader, who simply identified herself as Uche and sells fairly used bags at Vespa Market along Lagos-Badagry Expressway, said that traders that bring in rice and turkey from Seme are the ones at the receiving end of the Customs’ officials’ activities. And rice sellers, who are mostly women bringing in three or four bags at a time, are worst affected. It is difficult for Customs officials to ignore their activities.
Apart from traders, Sunday Vanguard found that some police officers, army officers and naval ratings also engage in rice smuggling along the Lagos-Seme axis. Usually, uniformed officers leverage on the opportunity their job affords them to engage in this act.
The unscrupulous officers usually board commercial buses from Seme to Iyana-Iba and sit in the front seat beside the driver with their smuggled bags of rice or turkey or groundnut oil in the course of the journey.
While a few of them are fully dressed in their uniforms, the majority of them, especially army officers, wear their camouflage caps and military vests. And unlike the civilian Firewall, who shares the rice into smaller portions which he hides in the car bonnet, under the seat or other hidden places in the car, to avoid being seized by Customs’ officials, these military officers carry full bags unquestioned. It was learned that they usually buy rice at Seme at a cheaper rate and sell to retailers.
The uniformed personnel make a lot of money because they, oftentimes, don’t pay the bus drivers as they help to ensure that Customs’ officials and other security officials at checkpoints don’t trouble the drivers, who are also carrying their own smuggled items, during the trip.
Some years back, military police from Ojo Barracks were said to have clamped on some of their personnel involved in this act at Agbara when their activities became embarrassing.
Speaking on the health implications of transporting foods in the bonnet and under the seat among other hidden places in a car, public health physician, Professor Akin Osibogun, who is also a former Chief Medical Director (CMD) of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), said, “Depending on what else has been in the car, you know there could be all kinds of contamination. The contaminants can be bacteria, it could be even chemical. For instance, if they had carried chemical or soap or detergent in the car and the rice pours inside the car, definitely when packing and re-bagging, those things (chemical or soap or detergent) will be parked with it.
“If you are buying rice, it is advisable to wash the grains properly before boiling. That is one way of reducing the risk. If you then boil the rice properly, most of the harmful organisms will die. But then, transporting rice inside car bonnet and engine isn’t a healthy way to handle food.”