The unusual shipment route from landlocked Niger Republic to Nigeria
Daily Sun – Wednesday, April 22, 2009 – Emmanuel Maya
Four weeks after the arrest of top Customs officers over N3 billion duty frauds in connection with the Vaswani Brothers, Emmanuel Mayah travelled to Niger Republic and tracked the itinerary of powerful smuggling ring running amok with the nod of border officials.
But for the arrest last month of three top customs officers, the scale of impunity going on at the various commands of the Nigeria Customs may never have been imagined. In a classic pursuit of high profile corruption, agents of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) stormed the Apapa Port in Lagos and arrested two Comptrollers, Mrs. Hannatu Suleiman and Johnson Olufemi Taylor for allegedly helping controversial businessmen, the Vaswani Brothers; evade payment of N3 billion duties on rice import. A third Customs boss, former Assistant Comptroller of Trade and Tariff; Nathaniel Iheanacho, was later arrested over the Vaswani conspiracy.
Ever since the Vaswani case blew open, some top Customs officers are hardly sitting comfortably at their strategic desks and may be applying the break the brake on their sweetheart relationships with organizations. Others reportedly have been visiting marabouts and spiritual houses in a desperate bid to cover their tracks. If Hannatu, Taylor and lheanacho got entangled in a rice import racket, another area where the EFCC may need to turn it searchlight is the nation’s land borders where activities are even more brazen and shocking. About the most disturbing, at the moment, is a N3 billion tobacco smuggling ring promoted by a multinational, the Imperial Tobacco Group (ITG); manufacturers of Superking brand of cigarette.
The story begins from far-away Dakar, capital of the West African country of Senegal. A consignment is destined for Nigeria but even when the country has eight seaports, the importers curiously elect to use a landlocked country, Niger Republic. But first, the cargo must come to Port Autonome de Cotonou in Benin Republic. Other times, the choice port would be Lome, in Togo. In this particular cross-border operation monitored in the early days of October 2008, there were a total of five trucks, each destined for the Nigerienne-Nigerian border. Indeed, not a few industry watchers were puzzled by the paradox. Elsewhere in the world, imports are moved from countries with seaports to landlocked ones. The case here appeared to be the absurd reverse. Shipments were being hauled first to landlocked Niger before they were moved in the dead of night into Nigeria.
Investigations revealed that four of the trucks were laden with Superking brand of cigarette. The fifth, against all expectations, was carrying sets of expensive furniture. It was only days earlier that the consignment of tobacco, imported from Senegal, had been cleared at the Cotonou port. It was imported in the name of Nakura Integrated Concepts which address was given as: No 5E, Civic Centre, Fagge LGA, Kano, Nigeria. Nakura was listed on the manifest as both the consignee and notify. After the cargo was discharged in Cotonou, the containers of tobacco were loaded on trucks to begin the long journey to Niger Republic.
Given the fearsome dimension this particular shipment was about to introduce to the smuggling business in Nigeria, investigations painstakingly had an eye on the identities of the five containers and trucks. While all the containers are blue in colour and carried the CMA/CGM logo, all the trucks are of Renault Model 340. Again, all the trucks were registered in Republic of Benin (RB).
The first container of identification number ECMU 931302 (0) was loaded unto truck No.AD 6932 RB/ AD 6931 RB. Container 2 of CMAU 400435 (4) was conveyed by a white headed truck with registration number: AB 5906 RB/ AC8130 RB while container 3 of EGMU 987908 (0) was loaded unto a yellow headed truck with registration AC 0339 RB/ AK 3091 RB. The fourth truck, a white head with registration number AE 3098 RB/ AD 4708 RB conveyed container 4 of identification ECMU 952504 (4) while the fifth truck, a grey head, with registration number AF 8132 RB/ AY 2869 RB carried container 5 of identification GLDU 725207 (0). By the 12th of October, four of the trucks had arrived Maradi, a town in Southern Niger, about 110 kilometers from the border. Maradi is one of Niger’s commercial centres and transport hubs, connected by road to the capital Niamey, and to Katsina and Kano in neighbouring Nigeria. The fifth truck, the grey head with registration number AF 8132 RB/ AY 2869 RB, failed for some reasons to arrive Maradi same day as the others. It turned up in the evening of the following day, the 13th October 2008.
The Maradi phenomenon
Recently, Maradi in Niger Republic has become the preferred choice of transit town for smugglers who, by creating a multiplicity of smuggling routes, have sustained their ability to introduce an uncanny dynamism to one of Nigeria’s most violent organized crime. Only last year, a top customs officer was bludgeoned to death along the Lagos-Seme road by suspected smugglers after a negotiation went awry………….
That singular act, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates that what goes on at the land borders is more brazen and shocking. For the five trucks to arrive Maradi, they must follow a transportation corridor starting from the ports of Cotonou or Lome and passing through the Malanvile market and customs posts in Gaya. Malanvile is a border town in northern Benin while Gaya is on the other side in Niger Republic.
All the goods coming from these ports are registered in Gaya at the border before they are transported to Maradi or Zinder. These transit formalities help verify that the goods are really meant for export and not for the Nigerienne market. But according to long-distance transporters as well as traders, the goods are almost never unloaded but simply ‘checked’. Only weapons are systematically sought out. Like Togo and Benin before it, Niger Republic has very liberal import system since its tax revenue depend on re-exports to Nigeria.
Daily Sun gathered that when the first four trucks arrived at Maradi, two of them were parked at the front of the Customs house. The other two were parked behind the same building. When the fifth truck turned up the following day, it took its position and all the five trucks were holed up at the customs house for two more days with the drivers doing nothing but occasionally warming the engines. The containers were all intact. Over the years, smuggling activities by Nigerians have turned Maradi into a warehousing town. While the containers are waiting in the transit park, several players intervene at several decision-making levels. Here, the necessary paper works are perfected after which the imports will either be transshipped into a Nigeria bound truck or offloaded into a warehouse. Then operators will clear with both the Niger and the Nigeria custom before crossing over.
By nightfall, on 16th October, two of the drivers started the trucks parked behind the customs house. They droved out and began to move in the direction of Dan Issa, the last town on the Nigerienne side of the border with Katsina state. Apparently the idea was to use the same drivers to drive the same trucks across the border into Nigeria. But there was a last minute change because just after a few kilometers, the trucks u-turned and made their way back to Maradi. This time, they moved to the transit camp. What followed was trans-loading into a waiting 25- foot DAS truck.
The trans-loading of the first container started about 7.50pm and took till 11.30pm to round off. The second truck took its turn, and the offloading lasted till 1.20am. The trans-leading of the cigarette in master cans was taking that long because the labourers were actually building a skyscraper all in the bid to cram the entire consignment into a single trailer.
A little before the second container was completely emptied, two other trucks had been positioned to enter the park. The labourers worked on them and completed their task at 4.40am on Friday morning. About one hour later, the four trucks left the park carrying the empty containers. At 7.58am, the trailer was directed by Nigerienne customs to move to the far end of the transit park. It was an indication that
The kingsize carrier was not about to leave very soon. In fact, it did not leave that same day. Three hours later, the fifth truck pulled to be trans-loaded. It was at this point that it was discovered that unlike the other trucks laden with Superking cigarette, the consignment in this container was furniture.
Two days later, the trailer was still at the same spot. It was not until the morning of 19 October that it began its journey under the cover of the night to Dan Issa. On arrival, it parked at the customs office where over 60 other trailers were awaiting the nod to move into Nigeria. These other trailers were found to be carrying general merchandize, second-hand clothing, drugs, furniture, rice, used tyres and other items. About 1.20pm, the trailer was separated from the rest and moved to the transit park at Dan Issa. Later in the evening, at 6.13pm, it joined a convoy that were allowed into Nigeria territory but hadn’t yet left the border. On 20th, about 7.15pm, over 66 trailers were allowed to cross into Jibiya, the first town on the Nigerian side, and journeyed into the night. Among them was the one carrying Superking cigarette, over 3860 master cans, with a street value placed at N40 million.
The Indian connection
Investigations revealed that at the head of the tobacco smuggling ring in Nigeria is Sashi Daswani, an Indian businessman based in the Republic of Benin. Daswani, who coordinates the distribution of tobacco products in that country, is used by Imperial Tobacco Group (ITG), manufacturer of Superking, to bring the product through illegal routes into Nigeria. It was further gathered that Nakura Integrated Concepts is promoted by one Ahmadu Nakura, a well known Bureau de Change operator and a prominent figure in cross-border activities. While Nakura is in the picture only to facilitate the importation and underhand entry of the product into Nigeria, the Indian, Shashi Daswani, manages the company that oversee the distribution of the product in Nigeria. Curiously, the distribution company is something of a phantom especially as it is known to mutate on impulse from one name to the other. This side to its character is made manifest by the sales strategy seen by industry watchers as dubiously peculiar. The product is sold solely to trusted bulk buyers or wholesalers who must make payment to a bank account. The Indian makes use of different companies through which these payments are made. The company name given to one bulk buyer is different from one given to another. There are over a dozen names and accounts, Once the payment is made, all the buyer presents is the bank teller after which he is referred to a warehouse to take delivery of the goods. Receipts are never issued. One of the numerous companies used is Mayatu Global Services Ltd; it has an account with Access Bank.
In 2008 alone, a total of 66 containers of Superking cigarette, valued at over N2 billion were known to have been brought into Nigeria. Records have it that ITG commenced importation during the last quarter of 2007. The first “three containers were imported through the Calabar port. Obviously the idea was to test the waters. Eventually, it resorted to the land borders used mainly by illicit operators. All the lTG’s imports in 2008 were through the land borders.
Documents obtained by Daily Sun showed that on 3rd November 2007, a vessel, Caja Princess, brought among other cargoes three containers of Superking cigarette to the Calabar Port. The consignment was discharged the following month on 9 December. On 13th December 2007, eight new containers of the same product were brought in- seven through the land borders and one through Calabar port. Two of the seven containers were discharged into a warehouse in Dan Issa; four into another warehouse in Gaya, while the seventh one was last spotted at Dosso in Niger before it was discharged at an unknown destination.
On February 18, 2008, the tobacco smugglers brought in another shipment; this time 11 containers of Superking cigarette from Dakar. Available documents showed that eight of the containers were discharged on April 4 into a warehouse in Dan Issa. However, it could not be ascertain the final destinations of the other three, namely containers KNLU- 5082300, MAEU-8280369, and MSKU-9596597 conveyed respectively by trucks with registration numbers: AB 1029/A1876 RB, AB 0470/ AC1936 RB and AG 6310/PH 0168 RB.
In June of the same year, nine containers of the same tobacco product were smuggled into Nigeria. This time the handlers shunned Maradi and Dan Issa and took an even longer route to Konni, the last town on Niger’s side of the border with Sokoto state. Like Maradi, Konni is a warehousing town. Here the cargo was trans-loaded into Nigerian-bound trucks that crossed the border into Ilella on 17th and 18th June respectively. Only one of the containers- EASU 9642047 conveyed by truck AB 5906/ AC8130 RB- passed through Dan Issa and was discharged into a warehouse.
In the next nine weeks, Dan Issa would be the repository of 19 more containers of Superking cigarette. While some were trans-loaded into Nigeria-bound trucks and taken by trucks with registration numbers: AB 1029/ A1876 RB, AB 0470/ AC1936 RB and AG 6310/PH 0168 RB across the border in a matter of days, others had to be stored first in a warehouse. The last container was discharged on 28th October.
Between November and December, 16 new containers were smuggled in with the help of Maradi. Virtually all of them were discharged into a warehouse owned by one Alhaji LawaI Gago, a citizen of Niger Republic. Gago has several warehouses in Maradi and Dan Issa and is said to wield such an enormous influence that men of the Nigerian customs allegedly help watch over his goods, before helping to cross same across the border in the night.
To the ordinary eye, Gurbi petrol station, located along Kano-Katsina road in the northern city of Kano, looked just like any other. Built at the outskirt of the ancient city, there was nothing in its outlook to suggest anything eclectic; least-or all, a suspected link in a long chain of a trans-national conspiracy. If it had ever caught the eye of the law, it would be for common underhand practice like hoarding; product adulteration or tampering with the pump; all of which this retail outlet coated in somber colours appeared incapable of. It is even environment friendly with, adjacent lands cultivated for vegetables and lush enough to motivate a bunch of happy-go-lucky goats to run amok and in fact stage a mock battle under a scorching sun.
But Gurbi gas station may have been the work of a master illusionist, for this petroleum retail facility also harbours a secret warehouse. When a truck or tanker pulls into this filling station, it is not always petrol, diesel or kerosene that they have come to discharge.
The cigarette-laden trailer, among the 66 which crossed into Nigeria from Dan Issa on 20th October 2008, was trailed into Kano. About 11.45pm, it made a detour to Kofar Wambai Market where some, probably all of its contents were offloaded into some stores. It was discovered that there are several storage facilities for several products and the smugglers take advantage of this to keep moving the Superking cigarette from one warehouse to the other. While this consignment may have favoured Kofar Wambai, this next one may be taken to a more far-flung place. It is also believed that, Kofar Wambai may just have been a decoy. Smaller trucks and vans may have been used to evacuate the product to more obscure sites; one of them being the warehouse behind the filing station. Prior to this new warehouse, that is over 15 kilometers from the Kano Central Market, the Superking distributors were using one located in the centre of the city. The decision to relocate and use a secret warehouse at the outskirt of a bustling city may have betrayed desperation to cover an illegality.
The movement of 66 trailers across the border in the dead-of the night is seen by observers as a sign of the imposition of gang laws on Nigerian borders. Bassirou (other names withheld), a Nigerienne citizen who served as an escort to this reporter disclosed that smuggling of goods into Nigeria had become a thriving cottage industry. A resident of Maradi, Bassirou have occasionally travelled to Sokoto to buy motorbikes and would spend two full days on the road just to bring it in. He said many traders in border towns like Dan Issa , Konni and Maradi began by transporting goods across the border on foot. He started from taking a few jerrycans of petrol from Jibia to Dan Issa. He knew all about Gago, having worked at his warehouses, trans-loading goods into trucks. Bassirou further disclosed that one of the techniques for masking tobacco contraband was to move in about five trucks at once into a warehouse. “The gate is closed behind them and when they finally emerged you would not know which trailer is carrying rice, textile or cigarette. All the loading takes place at night; they cross the border at night and they move in a convoy”
None of the Customs officers at the Jibiya post was willing to comment on the activities of smugglers; instead they advised Daily Sun to direct any question to Abuja. However, it remains impossible that the movement of 66 trailers or any other convoys across the border would have gone unnoticed. In a panic reaction to an apparently serious development, the importers of the Superking consignment smuggled into Nigeria on 20th February, filed their Single Goods Declaration (SGD) on 27th October and paid some duties.
Reacting to this anomaly; Lanre Ogundipe, a public affairs commentator, told Daily Sun that filing SGD is a step undertaken before goods are cleared at the ports or land borders; not a week after the same goods had been stored in a secret warehouse, Ogundipe lamented the cozy relationship between smugglers and unscrupulous customs officers: ”It is a national shame that our customs men will think nothing of making criminals and economic saboteurs their best friends. They have shamelessly forgotten that only last year, one of their colleagues, Mr. Ahmed Babale, a deputy chief inspector of customs, was clubbed to death by smugglers at Morogbo in Lagos state. Babale was chasing smugglers when he met his death; now his colleagues are acting in complicity with his killers and smiling straight to the bank.”