How security agencies hunt, extort local farmers over border closure (2)
A highly organised racket involving security agencies has been exploiting rural farmers and traders in border communities since the closure of Nigeria’s land borders in August 2019. In this second part of the investigative report, CALEB OJEWALE uncovers how the racket is structured and who gets what.
The quarantine document turned out to be a scam after all. It was nothing but a piece of paper that was to serve as payment voucher for three units – Customs officers at Olorunda; A10 (a feared patrol unit also with the Customs service), and some Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) personnel in the area.
The document, seen by this reporter, reads: “This is to certify that these goods e.g Tomatoes/Pepper/Pineapples/Grains/PKC etc are produce (sic) within Imeko/Obada areas. Kindly allow the bearer with vehicle registration numbers……….”
The quarantine document, which is now procured for N25,000, used to be “free” before the border closure. If drivers wanted their consignment examined, all they paid was N500 and the only other cost was N30 to make photocopies of the document. Now, no examination is done – simply pay N25,000 and the document is issued to you. Failure to pay means you would remain stuck in the village with the farm produce and watch it rot away.
Breaking down the extortion racket
Midway into the journey with Timi, who was taking 172 crates of tomatoes to Lagos, he revealed the tomatoes he was transporting were “smuggled”. At this time, we had successfully passed more than 15 checkpoints without incident. All that mattered was paying up, and goods passed.
Along the road to Abeokuta, the document was only requested at five out of 26 checkpoints. And even after showing the document, the necessary payment still had to be made.
The document was finally retained at the Customs’ checkpoint at Olorunda, where an officer in plainclothes asked, “Is this from Alhaji?”
“Yes,” Timi replied.
At this point, the document becomes a payment voucher, used to claim that unit’s share of the N25,000 paid to a man called “Baba Akere”, an elusive man who plays a pivotal role in this syndicate.
To give some context, up to 50 Ford Transit buses load every day from Ilara, Iwoye, Imeko/Afon axis with at least N1.25 million paid daily through the said Baba Akere. In just 100 days of the border closure, he had collected at least N125 million in extortion fees on behalf of the two Customs’ units earlier mentioned, as well as the NAQS. In smaller communities where N2,500 is paid on small cars for the same quarantine document, the amount realised from extortion is substantially low, but still not less than N12.5 million since the border closure.
While tomatoes attract a N25,000 fee before they can be moved from many of the villages to a city like Abeokuta or Lagos, pineapples attract N50,000 payment upfront to obtain the quarantine document through Baba Akere in Ilara.
Before he became middleman for the security agencies, sources revealed that Baba Akere was a well-known smuggler who brought every type of food item into Nigeria – from rice to turkey and palm oil. If it was edible, Baba Akere smuggled it in.
Now, he is unable to do that business like before and “has gone to double cross us”, said Timi. “People like him still want to make money in any situation, even if they have to connive with security agencies to exploit their kinsmen.”
Timi said they are made to get documentation from smugglers, which shouldn’t be.
“If you refuse to pay through them, they would call Customs and tell them to arrest us. They would not call Customs unit in our area, but that of another town far from us, describing our vehicle, how far we would have gone and where to wait for us,” he said.
Furnished with such information, the concerned Customs unit would waylay such a driver, ask for all manner of documents and failure to produce any would lead to the vehicle being impounded.
This reporter later visited Ilara where the notorious Baba Akere resides. Ilara shares boundaries (not actual borders) with the Republic of Benin, and crossing from one country to the other is as easy as walking across an unmarked road. For residents here, however, the difference is known only too well.
Posing as a fruits dealer from the Mile 12 market in Lagos, this reporter got Baba Akere’s number and called him to lament about the increase in cost of moving pineapples to the city.
Under the pretext that I suspected his employees of cooking up non-existing fees, I asked to meet with Baba Akere to negotiate a special arrangement for my constant shipments. Baba Akere was, however, elusive. According to local informants, he is fetish and may have sensed that I was not the fruits merchant that I claimed to be.
In a recorded telephone conversation later, Baba Akere would admit that he indeed coordinates collection of N50,000 for every pineapple shipment on behalf of the Nigeria Customs Service and other agencies. He said the money is used to settle different law enforcement agencies who have insisted nothing would move out from the area since the border was closed.
“We are not supposed to say they are collecting money from us, but this is only being done because of the border closure,” he told this reporter. “We are the ones that know how the money (collected from farmers and traders) is shared among the different agencies.”
However, as Timi told this reporter, “If any vehicle loads and does not see Baba Akere, he [the driver] cannot leave, and if he does he is joking with his vehicle.”
How bribes are paid along the road
After paying Baba Akere N25,000 on behalf of the security agencies, Timi had to part with another N30,000 at barely a dozen checkpoints between Ilara and Imeko, a short distance of 15 minutes’ drive.
From Imeko where this reporter joined the vehicle, N20,900 was paid on the three-hour journey to Abeokuta. Checkpoints are often manned by indigenes of communities in the area. Filled with disdain, other villagers and drivers would refer to them as “Aja Custom”, “Aja Olopa”, or “Aja Immigration”, as the case may be. These translate to “Customs’ Dog”, “Police Dog”, or “Immigration’s Dog”.
These “Aja”, as locals refer to them, are the ones who collect money at every checkpoint, insisting on what amount to be paid, and initiating search where any motorist is “proving difficult”. The payments start from N200 and gradually increase to N2,000. Timi was lucky on this trip as no checkpoint insisted on getting the usual N2,500 and above, a sign that things had improved from a month earlier.
The bus departed Imeko at 4.55pm and two minutes later, arrived at the first checkpoint in “Oyor Imeko”, where NAQS collected N200 and Army collected N500 – after checking the quarantine document.
Three minutes later, the next checkpoint was still in Oyor Imeko, where Immigration collected N200, NAQS N500, and the police N500.
At 5.04, the bus got to Oke Elefun. Here, the driver was asked to park and his conductor was asked to alight. Mobile police officers sitting under a makeshift tent asked the conductor to bring the money. He returned shortly to say the policemen rejected the N1,000 he gave them and asked for N2,000 instead.
“Oga, please I beg you in the name of God,” the driver said when he got down, pleading to the mobile policemen to accept the N1,000 but they refused. For what they termed “stubbornness”, the policemen asked the driver to open up the tomato consignment for inspection. The vehicle had to be wedged with a stone to avoid us rolling back downhill.
After the purported inspection, the driver still paid the N2,000 and the journey continued at 5.13pm.
At 5.18pm, we encountered another group of mobile police officers at “Baba Oloola”. Here, the mobile police officers, like the previous group, also rejected the N1,000 offered and insisted on N2,000.
“Pay your money, pay your money o! You know how much you are supposed to pay,” yelled one of the officers.
Eight minutes later, at 5.26pm, the vehicle got to a Customs checkpoint at “Oloka”, where N1,000 was paid after the quarantine document was checked. Here, the driver observed that the actual Customs officers were just arriving in a car and those manning the checkpoint were the “Aja Custom”.
The “Aja” at the checkpoint was identified as a Benue indigene who originally came for farm work and later started working with Customs officers, albeit illegally.
At 5.41pm, we encountered a SARS patrol team from Lagos with number plate BDG 789 AH at Owode and paid N2,000. The SARS patrol unit from Lagos came all the way to unleash terror on the mostly naïve villagers, this reporter learnt. In over two dozen interviews conducted by this reporter, one law enforcement unit was consistently mentioned – SARS – even though there was only one unit of SARS sighted in the entire region.
Hours after leaving this checkpoint, the driver received a phone call from another driver. It turned out that the other driver had met the SARS team and did not want to pay the N2,000 demanded.
“2,000 ni ko fun won ki won ma lu e ooo,” he said in Yoruba to the caller. This translates as, “Give them N2,000 so that they won’t beat you.”
There were other pockets of payments to local government agents, N200 at Owode and N500 at Obada instead of N200, also increased because of the border closure. There was another N500 for Oke Ogun LCDA.
A particular N500 ticket at Obada, collected at 5.56pm, was, according to the driver, the only useful document on this journey as it would also be useful for him at Berger before getting into Lagos.
At 6.23pm, we arrived at an Army checkpoint at “Olodo” where, as usual, the driver offered N1,000 to the “Aja Army”, while the soldiers relaxed under a tree. The “Army Dog” insisted on N1,500 which had to be paid before the vehicle could leave.
At 6.32pm, we stopped at another checkpoint, still in Olodo, where they again rejected N1,000, insisting on N2,000. At that checkpoint, a truck containing what appeared to be bags of flour was being offloaded to punish the driver and his conductor for “proving stubborn”. To leave the checkpoint with his goods, the driver would still have to pay.
At 6.55pm, we came to a mobile police checkpoint at Olorunda, where N2,000 was paid before the vehicle could continue its journey. There also, a Customs unit identified by the driver as “A12” collected N500 as well as the quarantine paper, asking if it was from “Alhaji”, a reference to Baba Akere.
The next checkpoint was close to Target Filling Station after Olorunda, where another Customs team collected N500.
At 7.07pm, yet another Customs team in Akinyegun collected N500.
At 7.08pm, another Customs team in Akinyegun rejected N500, insisting on N1,000.
“Oga, what happened sir? Please I beg you,” the driver kept repeating, but the “Aja Custom” manning the checkpoint refused, asking him to go park in front. A man the driver identified as “OC Patrol” sat under a tree receiving fresh air, his shirt off.
At 7.23pm, we arrived at Orile Aje, a bus-stop where notorious armed robbers used to hold sway. A local vigilante group had successfully chased the robbers away, according to the driver, and now has a checkpoint there, but the group does not ask for money.
“These ones deserve money even if they ask,” said Timi, the driver.
At 7.34pm, just before the Kunfayakun mosque, and Denro Baptist Church right after it, a Customs unit mounted yet another roadblock and collected N500.
At 7.38pm, we arrived at an Army checkpoint before the Alamala Barracks where the driver offered N500 and it was rejected.
“No be tomatoes he carry? If he can’t pay N1,000, he should go and park there!” yelled one of the soldiers sitting under a tree as the “Aja Army” negotiated with the driver. At this checkpoint, the soldiers previously collected N200 before the border closure, this reporter was told.
At 7.55pm, we got to a place called “Rounder”, which appeared to be a way of referring to roundabouts. Here, he gave N500 to a mobile police unit and was given N400 change, meaning he paid only N100. The driver declared this was the last extortion point.
However, a few unexpected bonus payments were ahead. Three of them collected N100 each, and two collected N200 each. There was a SARS unit at Mile Two, and there was an Army unit which was the last to be paid at 8.12pm.
Things weren’t always this bad
Before the border closure, Customs did not usually extort motorists or those moving agricultural goods.
“Some sort of power descended on them following the border closure,” said Timi. “Before, we would simply drive by with our farm produce.”
Even immediately following the border closure, BusinessDay investigations showed it was not so bad at the beginning. An arrangement was reached for every farmer and trader conveying farm produce to pay N5,000 to the Customs’ unit known as A10, N500 to the Customs unit at Olorunda and N2,000 to another Customs unit at Idofa, making a total of N7,500. Some locals, however, switched the game having seen an opportunity to cash in on the misfortune of their kinsmen.
“The road to Lagos is not so difficult. Here to Abeokuta is the main problem. They are the real Boko Haram,” Timi said.
Before August, drivers conveying farm produce to Lagos carried big baskets of tomatoes at N450 each “because things were easier”, he said.
As extortion increased at the checkpoints, the cost to farmers and traders also increased, and it now costs N1,000 to carry each basket.
For small baskets, N160 was charged per basket in July 2019; those small baskets are now carried for N350 each. Then, drivers took goods to Lagos and got paid N60,000 for the full load of their vehicle, and they still had “excess after spending all required extortions on the road (hardly exceeding N9,000)”, Timi said. That was when Nigeria was good.
“There was no A10 Customs or anything. They didn’t bother us initially, then suddenly we were hearing tomato is also on the prohibition list, maize, etc,” he said.
The border was supposedly closed to goods coming from outside Nigeria, but BusinessDay investigations in these border communities of Ogun State have revealed a systemic oppression of farmers and traders in those areas, who are made to pay thousands of naira before they can move their goods to markets in the cities.
A trader at the Imeko market told this reporter that before the border closure, a trip to Abeokuta using a small car cost N2,500; now it costs N10,000 plus N5,000 for fuel and N1,500 for loading.
“What is left for the farmer of trader?” the trader asked.
Traditional rulers are either complicit or maintain a distance, the “big men” too
On a sunny market day in Ilara, hundreds of tomato baskets cook slowly under the sweltering sun as desperate farmers count their losses with every passing hour. It is worse for those who have fruits, especially pineapples. Heaps of these go bad in the middle of the market as no trader wants the misfortune of being caught with what is now becoming the equivalent of “illegal weapons”.
At the market, the story was told of woman whose pineapples were seized on the road and she literally ran mad at the scene, out of shock at the loss that had befallen her. All efforts to find her or her relatives proved futile, and it remained an unproven casualty story.
Every four days, farmers and traders keep a date at the market, where diverse farm produce are sold. From tomatoes to pepper, oranges, yams, maize, pineapple and other fruits, the market showcases balanced diet in its raw form. However, when farmers should be coming to the market with joy, they come instead with apprehension and uncertainty.
If Sidi (not real name) failed to sell all her tomatoes today, it would be the second consecutive market day, and those from the previous week would surely not make it to the next market day. Preservation is not her problem. Instead, those who would usually buy from her are no longer eager to make purchases.
Asked how much a small basket of tomato costs, the women said N500, even though for a serious buyer, the cost could come down to as low as N200. In the past, the same basket would sell for N1,000. However, since the border closure, many farmers are stuck with their farm produce, and even when buyers come, they offer ridiculously low prices so as to compensate for the hazards on the road.
“Write that the king also expresses his displeasure over the plight of his subjects,” said Sunday Ogunrinde, a local chief who was asked to speak on behalf of Oba Samuel Alabi Adeluyi, the Oloola of Ilara. “I can’t teach you how to do your job, so make up the words.”
Oba Adeluyi on whose behalf Ogunrinde was supposed to speak was indisposed, as physically verified by this reporter. Coincidentally, his son, Tosin Adeluyi, is also the chairman of the LGA, though seemingly uninterested in the extortions his people are being subjected to.
At Iwoye-Ketu, market leaders gave this reporter a designation of their own choosing – a representative of the Federal Government who has come from Abuja to hear their plight. This was the only way the farmers and traders at this market would agree to speak with this reporter.
On a visit to the palace of Oba Joel Ademola Alaye, the Ooye of Iwoye, the traditional ruler, like others who spoke with BusinessDay, said extortions were no longer a source of concern like in the past.
Now armed with the information that a certain quarantine document had become a requirement before agricultural goods could be moved from those villages to the cities, this reporter asked if that was also a requirement in Iwoye.
“No, there is nothing like that here,” Oba Alaye said.
According to him, the quarantine document is not being imposed on farmers within his domain as is done in the neighbouring communities.
At 7.19 the following morning, when this reporter was preparing to embark on the day’s rounds, a call came in from a strange landline. The caller would later introduce himself as one of those present at the palace meeting the day before.
“I cannot say what the king said is a lie, but it is also not quite like that,” said the caller, whose identity is also being concealed.
The caller later narrated how Oba Alaye supposedly went to the quarantine service to “snatch” the documents, putting them under the control of the Community Development Association which he had appointed. In essence, the Oba who looked this reporter in the eye and said the fraudulent quarantine document does not exist in his community was the one overseeing its administration, according to sources.
Some people would rather not talk about the extortions, and even when they did, only few wanted to be seen in public with this reporter.
“There are spies everywhere,” one villager said, speaking in Yoruba. Security agencies, particularly Customs, have locals who spy on their fellow villagers. Initially, it could have been in order to provide information on those conveying banned goods. Now the reason is to target dissidents and those who fail to cooperate with the extortions.
A market woman who had volunteered information to this reporter would not let him accompany her vehicle in order to have a firsthand experience of how the extortions take place.
“It is not safe for me to be seen with you,” she said.
As one departs Imeko, a new tomato plantation is being set up on the right hand side of the road. With time, the new investors would find out they have sunk millions of naira into an area which, even though it is Nigerian soil, has been marked by law enforcement agencies as foreign land, one from which they are entitled to illegal taxes and extortions before anything can move out.
While the government claims it shut the borders to protect farmers, the opposite is what is playing out in some border communities and those in their immediate vicinity.
“We have no one to fight for us, we are suffering and have no choice but to endure it,” Timi said. “From Rounder to Ilara, there is no single company. We have to eat, so what do we do other than farming and trading in farm produce? Or aren’t we part of Nigeria?”