How security agencies hunt, extort local farmers over border closure (1)
From disguising as a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member hitching a free ride on a van conveying smuggled tomatoes to fronting as a fruits dealer, CALEB OJEWALE, in this investigative report uncovers how a highly organised racket involving security agencies exploits rural farmers and traders in border communities.
Farmers across Nigeria were ecstatic when the government announced the closure of the country’s land borders in August 2019. Finally, it was their time to become rich.
“Let the borders remain closed,” the farmers echoed. “We can feed Nigeria.”
They were joyous that they would no longer suffer headaches over imported agricultural goods. Not in their wildest dreams did farmers in border communities think the border closure would put them on the hit list. But that’s exactly what has happened.
This BusinessDay reporter, from disguising as a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member hitching a free ride on a van conveying smuggled tomatoes, to posing as a representative of government sent from Abuja, and finally as a fruits dealer, uncovered a highly organised racket. Set up since late August, it involves the Nigeria Customs Service, Nigeria Immigration Service, Nigeria Police Force, and Nigerian Army.
The linchpin of this operation that is fast becoming a syndicate is the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS). Less known, especially in urban centres, NAQS has given legitimacy to an extortion racket which, according to estimates, has seen helpless farmers, traders and villagers in just one local government area contributing up to N668 million ($1.85 million) in extortion within 100 days of the border closure.
The border closure, according to President Muhammadu Buhari, was meant to revive agriculture and protect local farmers from the influx of foreign agricultural goods that always entered the country at lower price points. This border closure was supposed to end poverty and misery for local farmers.
When Hameed Ali, comptroller-general of Nigeria Customs Service, asked Nigerians to “endure the pain” of border closure, it sounded like “gain” in the ears of farmers, but over the last three months, at least in some communities in Ogun State, there have been more pains than gains.
In villages and small towns within 20 kilometres of Nigeria’s land borders, different law enforcement agencies have united to hunt a common prey – not rice smugglers, not those into illegal arms movement, but the millions of peasant farmers and traders who rely on agriculture for survival.
This reporter visited Imeko, Iwoye-Ketu, Ilara, and Idofa, all rural communities clustered around Imeko-Afon Local Government Area of Ogun State. It was discovered that security agencies have abandoned chasing smugglers and, instead, are focusing on the slow moving targets. As farmers ride out of their farms on their old, worn-out motorcycles struggling to maintain balance on roads that are more of holes than actual ground, they also have to keep an eye out for any of the several law enforcement agencies that have now turned them into meal tickets.
The extortion is brazen, so much that farmers and traders are mandated to pay for a “government-issued document” which serves as a pass for them to get on the road with their farm produce. It, however, does not guarantee them a safe trip. Cooperating with the dozens of checkpoints is what guarantees arriving at their destination, not only with their goods intact, but also without being beaten by officers attached to any of the many agencies. The men, especially the young ones, are routinely beaten, while the women, particularly the elderly, have water poured on them. This, to the women, is “being lucky”.
There are over 2,000 border communities located in 105 local government areas in 21 states of the federation, according to the Border Communities Development Agency (BCDA). When the magnitude of extortion taking place in just few border communities in Ogun State is multiplied across the country, the result is a likely wide scale corruption and abuse of power of epic proportions.
“We have been reduced to chickens packed inside a wooden cage,” said Victoria Ogunleye, the Iyaloja of Imeko, when this reporter visited the community. (Commonly used in South West Nigeria, Iyaloja is the title given to a female market leader.)
“Like pop-corn, they are just frying us as they please. The trouble is too much,” Ogunleye said.
Her words, all translated from Yoruba language, are filled with so much emotion and anguish. Like other villagers, she sounds defeated, but what sets her apart is her refusal to be broken.
These villagers have been told that tomato, pepper, yam, pineapple, lafun (a derivative of yam used for yam flour), along with dozens of other farm produce have been banned by the Federal Government from “entering Nigeria”, enforced in these areas to mean moving from the rural settlements to the cities such as Abeokuta and Lagos. According to the fictitious “list of banned food crops”, maize is said to be number 17, and like other crops, before these can be moved from the villages where storage facilities do not exist or even electricity to preserve them, the farmers have to pay through their nose along the battered, dusty roads leading to Abeokuta.
In one of these rural communities, the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB) has its Centre for Community-Based Farming Scheme. In another, Odua Investment Company Limited owns a 10-hectare land for commercial tomato cultivation – all within Nigerian territory. According to law enforcement agencies in the area, however, every farm produce here is “foreign” and must be treated as smuggled items.
For thousands of villagers in these isolated areas, there is no hope. Neither government nor their traditional rulers have come to their rescue, and they do not see any ray of sunshine coming to dispel the dark clouds of uncertainty they have endured for over 100 days. In Yoruba tradition, “Kings do not lie”, but one of the traditional rulers visited in the course of this investigation looked this reporter in the eyes and said what would later turn out to be a false statement. He had, in fact, set up the committee coordinating extortion under his domain on behalf of the quarantine service and other security agencies.
How it all began
When word first filtered out around September that the border closure had become an avenue for extorting farmers and traders of agricultural produce in some rural communities, it seemed implausible. Several attempts to speak with people in the areas affected proved abortive. As this reporter would later find out, mobile networks are not so reliable in many of the communities.
When Tosin Adeluyi, chairman of Imeko/Afon Local Government Area, was eventually contacted, his disposition was as though the cries of hundreds of thousands of residents under his administration were really nothing.
This reporter would later be told that Tosin Adeluyi is the son of the traditional ruler of Ilara, the community where the worst form of extortion takes place under the supervision of a notorious smuggler.
The first trip to the area began on an uneventful morning in November 2019. The journey to Abeokuta from Lagos was smooth, if one chose to ignore the deplorable road connecting both economically significant states from the Oshodi axis.
From the Ayetoro Park around Lafenwa in Abeokuta where the journey to Imeko was to begin, passengers trickled in to fill the Toyota Sienna car. Originally meant to convey six passengers, the car would eventually carry nine on a journey to a part of Nigeria conveniently disconnected from the realities of the country.
When the roads were good, this journey took 45 minutes, said a passenger who tried to strike a conversation. The passenger explained that with the bad roads, it would take one and a half hours on the average, but this particular trip took four hours and 15 minutes. The right rear tyre deflated twice, and on both occasions, the driver had to leave all passengers by the bush side, flag down a motorcycle and head to the closest settlement to have it fixed.
Arriving at Imeko late in the afternoon, this reporter decided to head for the palace of the traditional ruler in the area, Oba Benjamin Alabi Oyeditan-Olanite, the Onimeko of Imeko.
After a brief bargain with a commercial motorcyclist, we made our way out of the motor park located right beside the major market serving the community. As we approached what appeared to be a purpose-built palace painted in green and white, the motorcyclist continued to accelerate, prompting this reporter to ask if there was another king in town. The motorcyclist explained that the king preferred to stay in his private residence.
This reporter arrived soon after and was ushered in to see the Onimeko after introductions were sought outside. As the king hardly spoke at first, one of the palace chiefs did the initial talking and motioned for the reporter to sit after performing the customary greetings by prostrating. This appeared to be a gaffe – sitting without the king’s permission. For the next 10 minutes, this reporter received a crash course in traditional etiquette.
When his majesty finally got to the purpose of the visit, his submission was simple: Yes, there was extortion in the first two months following the border closure, but not anymore. He explained the situation had been brought under control and arrangements had been made to ensure security agencies no longer cooked up fictitious laws to extort the villagers. He spent more time instead lamenting on the abandonment his community, like other border communities, suffers.
“We are treated like foreigners,” he said, preferring instead to highlight the many developmental needs within his domain.
“Fair enough,” I thought as I departed the palace, making sure to observe every required etiquette to avoid being held down with another crash course. “The king has to be concerned about development.”
Back at the motor park, and almost dejected the trip had been futile, this reporter struck a conversation with one of the drivers at the park, who said, “Well, the king may not be aware those things are still happening, why not enter the market and ask?”
Even though it was not the market day and the stalls were empty, there were two people who could provide answers – the Iyaloja and Babaloja (the male version of Iyaloja).
The two market leaders were not in the market on arrival, and perhaps as the first stroke of two lucky events, both of them soon arrived together in Babaloja’s car.
After exchanging pleasantries and briefing them on the purpose of the visit, Abdulateef Otolorin, the Babaloja of Imeko, who also introduces himself as a chief, was the first to speak. Like the king, he also said all was well, and that the extortions were a thing of the past. He went further to explain that as part of efforts to address the issue, a document was being provided by the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), which farmers or traders moving agricultural goods would show at checkpoints. Made available to each person at the cost of N2,500 (in Imeko), this document was supposed to be a magic wand – wave it at security agents at any checkpoint and they would grant passage.
All the while the Babaloja spoke, Ogunleye, the Iyaloja, an elderly lady with a small stature, had her mouth pouting as though she was trying hard to restrain herself from hissing out loud.
“Things are far from ok,” she suddenly interjected. “In fact, there is trouble.”
She made to continue explaining what else could be wrong since both the king the Babaloja has said all was well, it appeared the Babaloja slightly pinched her to keep quiet, and she did, but just momentarily.
Phone numbers were exchanged soon after and as this reporter made to depart.
“We have a lot to talk about,” said Ogunleye.
This was the second stroke of luck for the day. Iyaloja would, in the course of subsequent meetings and conversations, exhibit courage, matched only by one other person in the course of this investigation, a man whose identity is concealed to avoid retribution.
Returning to Lagos, there was only one lead – the mysterious document being issued by NAQS. The Iyaloja made good her promise when she called two days later expressing her frustrations, like those of other farmers and traders. They have quietly suffered extortion for over two months and have been unable to get help.
Returning to experience the extortion firsthand
As though a huge letter S were engraved on that side of the hill, two successive twists of dangerous turns welcome you to Imeko, a typical rural Nigerian settlement, with no commercial activity save for every five days when it is the market day.
Here, more than 90 percent of the residents rely on agriculture for survival, and every five days, throng the market with their farm produce to sell, and equally buy the things they need for personal and family use.
Retuning to Imeko two weeks after the first visit, the first port of call this time was not the palace, but the market. It was a Sunday, and from the motor park, one could see onions laid on the floor by the roadside. The wooden tables that served as stalls were filled with goods, and meat sellers rolled up two knives against each other in their own corner of the market. This clearly was the market day, one that is observed every five days.
As this reporter approached the main entrance of the market, a motorcyclist pulled to a stop and two women ran towards him. Both leapt forward to drag the basket of pepper he had in front. Similar scenes would later be seen, with many motorcycles having the baskets behind them.
These motorcycle riders were farmers bringing their farm produce to the market, and those women were helping hands to the bigger traders who aggregated farm produce for onward shipment to the cities. Without the consistent movement of foodstuffs to Lagos and other cities by these women, food prices would surely go through the roof.
“Buhari has said no farm produce should leave all the villages close to the borders. We are not allowed to move our tomatoes, yam, and other crops,” said Timi (not real name), who later allowed this reporter to join him on a trip to Abeokuta with his tomato consignment.
“Go and park, or you turn back!” he said, mimicking officers at different checkpoints. “Is the government not aware we farm here, or aren’t we supposed to eat?”
These villagers have since late August been deceived by security agencies using the border closure to extort them and exploiting their ignorance to make them feel like outlaws. As many do not know better, they resort to appeals.
“See these tomatoes. Do they look like something that came from the French territory?” a female trader asked pointing at her basket of tomatoes. French territory is a reference to neighbouring Benin Republic.
Even when the red pulpy fruit, or vegetables, may not necessarily look different whether grown on Nigerian soil or Benin Republic, the farmers and traders that met this reporter were desperate to convince whoever asks that these agricultural goods, which are becoming a source of nightmare to them, are indeed produced on Nigerian soil.
Racing through checkpoints with smuggled tomatoes
With the exception of rice and palm oil, literally everything else can easily enter Nigeria at the right price, this reporter discovered.
Posing as an NYSC member, this reporter reached an agreement with Timi, the driver earlier mentioned, to follow his Ford Transit vehicle to Lagos with 172 large crates of tomatoes valued at N1.72 million. I was sandwiched between the driver and his conductor to the right and left.
The entire back of the van was filled with baskets of tomatoes, with a smell that was anything but scintillating as the end product when it becomes soups. The journey, a little over three hours, was without music. The 1990s model van had no functional radio, but the conversation with Timi and his conductor was more than enough entertainment, although more than half of all Timi had to say was curse after curse as we moved from one checkpoint to the next.
“They are unable to impound rice and are now focusing on tomatoes and pineapples,” he said at one checkpoint, followed by yet another curse directed at the officers there.
After 36 checkpoints and N75,900 paid in bribes, including N25,000 for a “quarantine document”, we arrived at the OGBC area of Abeokuta after three hours on the road for what should have been a one-hour journey, minus the bus’ suboptimal state, of course. Timi was paid N1,000 for every basket, a total of N172,000 to move the consignment. He estimated N120,000 as costs to be incurred, leaving him with N52,000.
This reporter witnessed 26 of these checkpoints between Imeko and Abeokuta, taking record of places and amounts paid.
We parted ways in Abeokuta as the driver had to wait till 11pm to continue on the Lagos leg of the journey. On arrival in Lagos, he estimated roughly N85,000 was spent in total on bribes, N9,100 higher than what was spent to reach Abeokuta. The Lagos leg was ironically less challenging.
With every checkpoint, security agencies nibbled away at this margin, and about half Timi’s entire pay was used to bribe different security agencies. His crime? He was carrying tomato which they claim is “no longer allowed into Nigeria”.
Timi may have been driving smuggled tomatoes that day, but no single security agency cared about that. After all, his quarantine document clearly stated the consignment was of Nigerian origin, and so he was subjected to the same treatment any Nigerian producer would get.
Customs officers and their co-travellers in the extortion racket have now grown even more confident. Odua Investment Company Limited owns a 10-hectare land in Imeko, which is meant for commercial tomato cultivation. The company until November enjoyed an immunity of sort from the extortion ordinary farmers have been subjected to.
However, when this reporter met Zachariah Fatokun, the farm manager, he explained that two weeks prior to the meeting, they were warned to start preparing to pay along the road or leave their tomatoes on the farm. To fulfil all righteousness, he said the company got the notorious quarantine document, provided to the company directly for free and without intermediaries like other farmers and traders.
A week before the meeting with Fatokun, the security agencies made good their threat, delaying a van conveying the company’s freshly harvested tomatoes and vowing to ensure the entire shipment goes bad unless payment was made. The driver spent several hours at every checkpoint as he made frantic calls to his superiors who insisted no payment would be made.
The company was to make another harvest the week of that meeting. Asked if they would eventually pay their way through, Fatokun was quick to interject, “We are preparing for whatever would happen because we are not going to pay.”
This reporter would later find out that the tomato harvest never made it to Lagos, even though Fatokun said it was not out of fear of what would happen on the road.
Government agencies react
Vincent Isegbe, director general, NAQS, expressed shock when told of the role his agency was playing in this racket. He described what was happening as an abuse of office by whichever officers of his agency that may be involved.
Isegbe told this reporter in a phone interview that he would fly down to Lagos from Abuja today (Tuesday) to personally investigate the alleged involvement of quarantine officers in this extortion of local farmers and traders.
Joseph Attah, spokesperson of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), did not answer calls to his known number as at the time of filing in this report, neither did he respond to text messages.