How corrupt security officials assist smugglers to import rice from Benin into Nigeria through illegal border route
In 2015, the Nigerian Government placed a ban on the importation of rice through land borders and imposed a hefty 70% tariff on imports coming through the ports. However, despite these restrictions, numerous incidents of smuggling and seizures of this contraband by the Nigerian Customs Service have been reported. In this investigation, SALIHU, Ayatullahi uncovers the existence of an illegal border route in Baruteen Local Government Area of Kwara State, where about 250 smugglers collaborate with security operatives to smuggle an average of 5,000 bags of 50kg rice into Nigeria on a daily basis. Despite several other reported cases, the operation along this route remains clandestine, known only to the smugglers, corrupt security officials and local residents.
The day was Monday, and the early morning sky was shrouded in a thick blanket of gray clouds. Raindrops fell steadily, creating a rhythmic symphony as they danced upon the borderlands between Kenu, Nigeria and Kabo, Benin Republic. It was a fitting backdrop for any daring adventure.
Hundreds of motorcycles roared to life in Kenu, their engines reverberating through the air. Their riders aged between 16 to 25, with a shared purpose burning in their eyes, set off with determined speed. They all shared a single mission: to smuggle rice into Nigeria from neighbouring Benin Republic.
They are part of a secret network of smugglers—spread across communities in Baruteen Local Government areas—who embarked on this lucrative yet illegal journey. They knew that in Benin Republic, rice was available at a significantly cheaper price compared to the rates in Nigeria.
As the motorcycles sped through the terrain, their riders blended into the backdrop of the bustling border region. Their intentions were concealed, their faces masked with determination and secrecy. They knew every turn, every hidden shortcut, and every secret crossing along this route.
“Most of these people are originally farmers who have found a means to an end from the thriving illegal smuggling of rice.
“Their journey is a race against time, driven by the urgency to transport the rice and make a return for another one. A smuggler could go as many times as possible – an average of three per day,” Ibrahim Abdullahi, a spirited local who had agreed to take The Informant247 Investigative Unit through the smugglers’ journey, said.
“Some of them, like a neighbour of mine, have built houses and bought a car. As a matter of fact, they also marry as many wives as they so wish from the proceeds of their illegal trade,” he added.
In 2015, the Nigerian Government placed a ban on 41 imported items (rice included), from accessing foreign exchange from the official window. Also, the government banned the importation of rice through land borders and kept a hefty 70% tariff on imports coming through ports.
Two years later, the Buhari-led administration took a step further, as the President stated in his new year message that “Rice imports will stop” that year. In January 2018, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) confirmed that the CBN stopped issuing Form ‘M’ to importers for importation of rice. Form ‘M’ is a mandatory statutory document to be completed by all importers for importation of goods into Nigeria.
These actions were taken in a bid to discourage importation and encourage local production, especially given that over dependence on importation affects the country’s economic stability.
However, despite the government’s efforts to clamp down on these illegal importations, smugglers from across Baruteen still find a way to illegally import rice.
Similar language, culture aid illegal importation in Baruteen
Kabo, like Nikki and a few other places in Benin Republic, speaks Baruba. The proximity between communities in Baruteen, Nigeria, and the Benin Republic has, over the years, occasioned the unrestricted flow of the Beninese in and out of Nigeria. Not only that some of the border towns share the same culture and language, they have also established a cross-country marriage with each other, hence they share an age-long relationship.
Just as the sun emerged from behind the dissipating rain clouds, casting a beautiful glow on earth, we arrived at Kabo in Benin Republic on Abdullahi’s bike.
We had observed during the journey the porosity of the route from Kenu in Nigeria to Kabo in Benin Republic, which is just about 11.2 km. Despite the presence of immigration, customs, and other security officials, it was easy for anyone to move in and out of Nigeria through this illegal route.
At Kabo, we gathered that the smugglers had developed a network of trusted suppliers over time, enabling them to secure the rice at the cheapest price.
In dimly lit stalls and makeshift shops, we observed, negotiations ensued. They haggled fiercely with the sellers, their voices blending with the cacophony of the market. Sacks of rice, stacked high and labelled with foreign markings, were the currency of their trade.
Once the transactions were completed, the smugglers wasted no time. The bags of rice will be swiftly loaded onto the motorcycles, carefully covered, taped, and balanced to ensure a smooth ride back to Nigeria.
Some of the smugglers waiting to load rice at one of the market stores
“At least, each motorcycle carries an average of 6 to 8 50kg bags of rice per trip. As we have been counting, you must have noticed that we have come across no fewer than 200 motorcycles going to or coming from Kabo. About 300 of them work on this route every day,” Abdullahi said. “The negotiated prices of the rice range between N18,000 to N20,000 per bag and the sellers take payment in Nigerian Naira. It is easy to negotiate because we speak the same language and share the same culture. We are a people in two countries.”
Smuggler’s passion: Rice trading, a lifeline
Through Abdullahi’s help, we reached out to one of the smugglers identified only as Danjuma. With an almost animated expression and a gleam in his eyes, he passionately declared when asked about the smuggling business, “Let me tell you, rice smuggling is not just a business; it’s one of the best ventures I’ve ever been involved in.” As he spoke, he gestured energetically, using his hands to emphasise his point and convey his enthusiasm for what he does. He had probably thought we were also interested in the business and looking to join.
Asked if he was aware of government’s restriction on rice imports, his brows furrowed in confusion, and his hands paused mid-air, reflecting his genuine bewilderment. He continued, “I honestly can’t understand why the government would ban us from importing rice.” His palms faced upwards, as if pleading for understanding.
One of the smugglers heading to Kabo
As he shared the impact of rice smuggling on his life and family, his face softened, and a touch of emotion crept into his voice. He leaned forward, as if confiding a secret, and said, “This business is our lifeline, providing a steady and substantial income that allows me to sustain my family. I have a wife and children that I also need to feed. I am a farmer, but I need to look for alternative means of survival to meet the ever-increasing means of livelihood in Nigeria, and rice smuggling has helped me a lot.”
Talking about the risks involved, his posture straightened, and he assumed a more determined stance. His gestures became more assertive, with his hands slicing through the air to punctuate his words. “Sure, every business has its risks,” he said, his voice filled with conviction. “But let me tell you, I was raised on the streets, learning the art of hustling and making calculated moves.” His clenched fist momentarily rose, symbolising resilience and determination. “Risk is something I understand,” he continued, lowering his hand and maintaining steady eye contact, “and I’m willing to take calculated risks to secure a better future for myself and my loved ones.”
Throughout, his gestures and body language added depth to his words, underscoring his unwavering belief in the profitability of rice smuggling and his determination to overcome any obstacles in pursuit of a better life through the illegal venture.
For Yusuf, another smuggler, his greatest fear lies not in the risk of being caught, but rather in the road.
“Riding our motorcycles with bags of rice on this road is not easy. This is not a good road, as you can see. The weight of the rice adds to the challenge, making our motorcycles unstable and increasing the likelihood of accidents. We sometimes gathered together to clear the paths and make bridges with timbers,” he said.
Two smugglers with motorcycle loaded with rice heading back to Nigeria
He couldn’t hide the genuine fear in his eyes as he recalled the unfortunate accident his friend had suffered on the road.
Abdullahi told The Informant247 that no fewer than 250 smugglers work around the clock every day on the route. We, however, counted about 200 on our way to and from Kabo.
Bridging the demand gap through smuggling
Earlier last year, former President Muhammadu Buhari denied that rice was being imported. “Now [in] Nigeria we produce the rice we need and we even export,” he said.
Despite the official claim that Nigeria does not import rice, in 2022, the Senate Committee on Agriculture noted that about 2 million metric tons of rice are being imported or smuggled into the country.
Also, a US government report estimated that in Nigeria, imports have been running at about two million tonnes in recent years.
According to the report, consumption is currently estimated at seven million tonnes, leaving the country with a shortfall of two million tonnes. Nigerian farmers, in spite of the financial lifelines extended to them by the Federal Government, find themselves unable to produce enough rice—which is now one of the country’s staple foods—to meet the nation’s demand. Government data also show the cost of producing rice in Nigeria has been rising, which would translate into higher prices.
Annual Rice Production in Nigeria
As a result, the local rice that manages to reach the market commands a premium price, with consumers paying between N34,000 to N35,000 for a 50 kg bag. In stark contrast, the illicitly smuggled foreign rice, infiltrating the country’s borders, is available at a slightly lower price range of N31,000 to N32,000 per 50 kg bag.
“Though you can also get some local rice for as low as N28,000 here in Kwara, but believe me, you won’t enjoy it as it will be full of sand and stones. For the neat ones, the ones that look like foreign, it goes from N34,000 to N36,000,” Abdulwasiu Yahaya, a trader at Ojatuntun market in Ilorin, Kwara state capital city told The Informant247 during a market survey.
“I only sell foreign rice and currently, I sell at 31,500 per 50kg bag. I can give a discount of N300 on each bag if you buy 5 and above. That is the retail prices. The wholesale price sells slightly N2000 downward,” he added.
Price of rice in Nigeria
This stark disparity in pricing fuels the thriving underground economy centred around illegal rice smuggling. While consumers yearn for affordable options, the illicit trade continues to flourish, posing a significant challenge to the Nigerian government’s goal of achieving self-sufficiency in rice production.
Corrupt security officials work with smugglers on Kenu-Kabo routes
Though the smuggling activities through the illegal Kenu and Kabo routes seemed easy, it was not without its strategic alliances. The intricate web of smuggling is made possible with a sinister alliance between the smugglers and the very guardians entrusted to man the border. As the invisible line separates Kenu and Kabo, a total of six security points dot the 11.2km landscape—three under the jurisdiction of Benin Republic and the remaining trio manned by Nigerian forces. These fortified posts become the stage for a clandestine drama of corruption and collaboration.
border security data
Amongst the ranks of these security agencies — the Police, Customs, and immigration — lies a hidden allegiance that undermines the very essence of their duty. Instead of safeguarding the nation’s borders, they have become accomplices in a brazen act of criminality. Each security post, with a calculated choreography, becomes a lucrative outpost where smugglers are met not with scrutiny but with open palms awaiting their illicit offerings.
Police officer stretching his hand to get money from the smugglers
The smugglers traversing the road back to Nigeria on motorcycles loaded with contraband rice approach these security posts with confidence. With a mere exchange of N1,000, a small fraction of the smugglers’ ill-gotten gains, the gates swing open, and passage is granted.
“There are locals who also support the security officers at their post to take the bribe. This, by extension, is aimed at the effectiveness of getting it,” Abdullahi told us on our way back to Kenu, Nigeria. The sun, now shining brightly, cast long shadows on the road ahead as we find our way back.
“We pay the sum of N1,000 at each checkpoint. There are 6 checkpoints. So, if I buy 8 bags of rice (50kg) at N20,000. That makes it N160,000. I will pay only N6,000 to get it across to Nigeria hitch-free. I have wholesale buyers already. Just for me to get it across to the other end in Sinau and they will come to get it between N26,000 to N27,000,” speaking in Baruba, one of the smugglers, who refused to disclose his name, had earlier in Kabo told The Informant247.
Smugglers lined up at a Benin security post to pay their dues
“This, my friends, is how the system works. A web of criminal collaboration, where even those meant to protect us, become entangled in their own greed,” Abdullahi declared. The rumble of motorcycles fills the air as we arrived back in Kenu after a long trip.
Occasional glimpses of vehicles loaded with rice emerge from the shadows and sharply disappear as fast as they appear. “We have a few vehicles working along this route, too. Just a few though,” he added.
Photo: Vehicle loaded with rice heads to Nigeria
In Sinau, Korobori and Okuta markets, all spread across Baruteen, the smugglers would find willing wholesale buyers eager to purchase the smuggled rice at cheaper prices. They in turn take them to other places in Kwara state and neighbouring Oyo, to sell at market prices.
Smuggling attracts life sentence in Nigeria
According to legal practitioner A.J. Edun, the Nigerian law forbade the importation of rice across land boundaries.
Nigeria’s Import (Prohibition) Act, Section 2 states: “Any person who brings, causes to be brought, induces any other person to bring or attempts to bring into Nigeria any of the goods specified in the Schedule to this Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment as stipulated in section 2 of the Export (Prohibition) Act.”
Another security post on Kenu Kabo route
Then section 2 of the Export (Prohibition) Act states that: “Any person who takes, causes to be taken, induces any other person to take or attempts to take out of Nigeria any of the goods specified in the Schedule to this Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.”
According to Edun, the emphasis on this is “imprisonment for life” for the smugglers and conspirators.
Importantly, the act’s interpretation of “Goods” is ejusdem generis (it includes rice and goods of the same kind), regardless of the goods listed in SCHEDULE (Sections 1 and 2) of the Import (Prohibition) Act, the importation of which is absolutely prohibited, The Informant247 learnt.
Speaking on the effective ways to counter smuggling, Abdulkareem Abdulrazaq Azeez, Criminologist, University of Ilorin, said, “One of the most effective ways to counter smuggling is by improving cross-border coordination between different agencies and countries. This can involve sharing intelligence, increasing communication, and implementing joint operations to identify and intercept smuggled goods.”
The expert also suggested the use of aerial drones and other sophisticated technologies to monitor activities at the borders. This, he said, will make their officers sit tight at duty.
Kabo to Kenu
Ahmed Omotosho, a European-based International Economist who specialises in International Trade and Economics Demography, when reached by The Informant247 on the impact of the smuggling activities, said, “For a country to function properly, there is what we call fiscal policy. This is the policy that establishes the need for the government to generate revenue in order to invest in some activities that help in the economic development of a country.
“But all the elements (Smuggling, tax evasion, and Illicit Financial Flows), what they all do is that they negatively impact the country’s economy by reducing government revenue, distorting markets, undermining fair competition, and hindering economic development.”
Ahmed, however, holds a contrary view of Nigeria’s ban on the importation of rice. He said, “The government’s decision to ban rice imports was motivated by the goal of boosting local production, creating jobs, and increasing the overall value of our GDP. The intention was to reduce our reliance on foreign rice and promote self-sufficiency. However, I believe that an outright ban on imports may not have been the best approach, especially considering our current inability to produce enough rice to meet the demand.
“Economics teaches us that the interplay between supply and demand determines the price of commodities. When demand exceeds supply, scarcity arises, leading to price increases. Conversely, if supply surpasses demand, prices tend to decrease. Therefore, if we cannot produce enough rice to meet the demand, we can expect an increase in the price of rice. Instead of imposing a ban, I believe the government should focus on improving our domestic rice production (both in quality and quantity) until we can achieve self-sufficiency. Once we reach that point, the price of locally produced rice will adjust according to market dynamics and potentially become competitive with or even cheaper than imported rice. At that stage, the market will naturally regulate itself, as consumers would prefer to purchase affordable, locally grown rice of equal standard.”
He furthered, “Clearly, I am not justifying illegal activities; I am simply highlighting the potential for such behaviours to arise when policies create imbalances. I believe that finding a balance is crucial. The government should focus on supporting and improving domestic rice production, gradually reducing our reliance on imports, and allowing the market to self-regulate as local production meets demand. This approach would lead to sustainable economic growth and benefit both the people and the nation as a whole.”
We’ve dismissed more than 200 officers; every organisation has bad eggs: Customs
The Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) Kwara State command, when confronted with findings on the involvement of their officers in the smuggling activities, argued that they do not tolerate such acts as many of their officers have been dismissed due to their involvement in illegal activities.
“There is no organisation where you will not find bad eggs. But I can tell you that the command doesn’t tolerate smuggling and corruption. We have dismissed a lot of officers from the service due to things like this,” he said.
We don’t deal with goods: Immigration
When contacted, Muhammed Tunde Yahaya, the Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) Kwara State Command vehemently denied any association. He asserted their primary focus on combating illegal immigration rather than dealing with the movement of goods.
“We don’t deal with goods. Customs are in charge of that,” he said.
Reacting to this response, Abdulkareem said the excuse is not tenable, stressing that security officials, irrespective of their agencies, have a primary responsibility of curbing illegality.
“The right thing to do is to stop and arrest them, then hand them over to the appropriate security formation,” he said.
Immigration officers on Kenu Kabo illegal route
When asked why the migration of people in and out of Nigeria through Kenu-Kabo illegal routes remains unfettered despite the presence of their officers, the PRO said, “There are things anyone who wants to come into Nigeria must present to the officers at the border point. But there are some people who reside within the boundary and if they are bonafide citizens of this country, you can’t deny them from coming in.”
Rice Farmers say smuggling affecting their businesses
The Chairman of Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), Kwara State Chapter, Honourable Saba Yisa in an interview with The Informant247 said the negative impact of illegal importation of rice on the local production and Nigerian economy is enormous.
Yisa said that Nigeria is losing a lot of foreign exchange earnings to the illegal importation of rice.
“It has crashed the price of local products and made large and small holders farmers lose their job including the loss of foreign exchange earnings,” he said.
He added, “Foreign rice is hazardous to health because it stays longer in silos with chemical preservation.”
And so, as the day wore on, the secret operations of these smugglers and the conspiracy of security officials along this route remained hidden from the prying eyes. The day may change, but the cycle of rice smuggling will continue.
The streets of Kenu would once again come alive with the hum of motorcycles from riders across Baruten. The smugglers would gather, their eyes filled with determination, ready to embark on another journey. The rice smuggling trade would continue, driven by the interplay of economic disparity, border porosity, and the relentless pursuit of survival through illegal means.
This report was published with support from Civic Media Lab.