“Laws in Nigeria work in strange ways. I am a Nigerian, living within Nigeria and you still arrest me for what I am legally entitled to as a Nigerian,” a commuter plying Abeokuta-Imeko road told our reporter at the beginning of their journey to Imeko.
It was about 7pm when the bus arrived at the Imeko/Afon Local Government Area administrative headquarters, and just about 8 kilometres away from Ilara, the Nigerian-Benin Republic border post. The sun was closing up its eyes upon the town. It appeared as though dark night would soon descend, as there was no sight of electricity.
Tropical trees dwarfed most of the buildings, as natives found shelter under them. The breeze coming through the trees had a mixture of rainy wind and firewood smoke. Some women were seen cooking with firewood under the tree shades. Life seemed bubbling for the school-age little children running around. In front of most houses were makeshift centres giving shade to nothing but a handful of bottles filled with petrol.
Intermittently, motorcyclists stopped by to empty one or two bottles into their fuel tanks as they made their payments. An average bottle, mostly measured to be one litre, sold for N350, and sometimes higher depending on the location.
“This is one amongst many other businesses common to our people here,” Ajeigbe Emmanuel*, a native of the town, told our reporter.
“No filling station is functioning in the entire local government area, so people buy in jerricans from other places and sell them in bottles here. And it is one of the reasons things are expensive here.”
FUEL, A ROADSIDE COMMODITY
Like many of its communities, Imeko township, the administrative seat of the LGA, has no functioning fuel station to serve the needs of its people and other Nigerian communities around it.
Movement around the town showed that, even though there are many fuel stations, they are not being put to use.
“The government has restricted movement of fuel from 25 kilometres away from the border, which is Ilara. But some fuel stations bypass the restrictions,” Gabriel* a former manager of a now abandoned station told FIJ in confidence.
“Security operatives collect money from them. There is a fixed amount they pay to the police, customs and all other security forces present along the route. If a filling station fails to pay, that’s when they raid. They even come to raid from Ikeja zonal headquarters.
“For a truck to have access to any fuel station, there’s a fixed amount they pay to the security operatives. It all starts from Rounda (refers to a police checkpoint) in Abeokuta.”
Corroborating Gabriel, Falomo Jamiu*, one of the petrol truck drivers that take the product into the town, explained to FIJ the financial hurdles faced while trying to take the product to fuel stations in the community. He said the money paid to security operatives was often too much.
“We pay huge expenses getting fuel across here. Before you know it, expenses keep piling up. We pay sometimes over N200,000 to officers on-duty from Abeokuta to places we are to offload. And this excludes weekly payments. There’s a place where we contribute this money, and it is to be shared among the officers,” one of the petrol truck drivers told FIJ.
PRIVILEGED PETROL MARKETERS WOULD RATHER BREAK THE LAW
Contrary to Emmanuel’s account, coming from Abeokuta, the state capital, in Obada, 28 kilometres from Imeko town, our reporter observed the presence of a few functioning fuel stations. While sales of the product were ongoing in some, many others were deserted.
However, it was later discovered that the stations only open for sales at night, a period which had been agreed to by the managers of the petrol stations and those in the business of smuggling the product across many communities of the LGA to the other side of the border in Ilara.
“We sell to people who are into taking the product across the border in Ilara at night. We sell in kegs and jerricans. They bring mostly a lot of 25-litre jerricans. It depends on how many litres they want to buy. Some buy as many as 1000 litres,” Adeigbe* a fuel station attendant told this reporter.
“There are a lot of vehicles that transport the product to Kànga (the Ilara border post). They used to move in a long stretch of entourage during the day. But they later restricted their movements to midnight because there were accidents in the past,” Alfa, a native who was aware of this movement, explained to FIJ.
Ilara, one of the communities under Imeko LGA, is the host community to the international border with the Republic of Benin. Other than one main road that leads to the town from Abeokuta through Imeko, a tour of the community by our reporter revealed that there are many other routes, albeit discreet, that enter and exit the border town from Nigeria’s side.
THE FEDERAL POLICY THAT ‘OPENED ROAD’ FOR THE TRADE OF THE PRODUCT IN ILLEGAL WAY
On August 21, 2019, claiming to strengthen the country’s economy and security, President Muhammad Buhari gave an executive order banning movement of petroleum products near land borders in four geopolitical zones of the country. Imeko/Afon is one LGA affected.
According to the latest City Facts’ data on population estimation, Imeko/Afon Local Government Area estimated figure swings at 146,349 inhabitants, a number above the size of Seychelles.
Though 16 months after the federal government’s pronouncement, the policy was relaxed. However, as though it was a selective arrangement, the Imeko community and many communities under it still continue to grapple with scarcity of fuel.
The policy, though unintended, has further widened illegal passage of the product now into another country. FIJ monitored the activities of the locals illegally transporting the product to the neighbouring communities, most of which are in the foreign land of the Republic of Benin.
A VISIT TO THE ILLEGAL ‘INTERNATIONAL TRADE ZONE’ OF PETROL
FIJ’s visit to the Ilara border post revealed that there is an established trade zone where the product is being sold in large quantities to buyers from the Republic of Benin.
At Kanga ‘fuel market’, our reporter observed the in-and-out movements of the product, as well as how the trade works.
“Do you have a market for us?” A woman trader asked just when our reporter approached her tent which fence is made of broken 25-litre jerricans.
“Yes, ma. Like how many trucks of the product would you like to be supplied?” FIJ reporter keyed into the business conversation. But before the trader could make her response, two more of her co-traders in other tents had heard of the new business prospects, and so they rushed in to join in the deal.
“If I can get a half of a truck,” she said. “Agh, my husband, if I have a truck, I will do well,” another trader said.
FIJ’s findings revealed that while no less than 25 trucks of petrol enter the communities under the LGA weekly, an average of six trucks are sold in the Ilara petrol market daily.
“Approximately, about 25 to 30 trucks enter Imeko/Afon weekly,” said a filling station manager who would rather not want their name mentioned. “And that’s when we are being moderate in figures. These figures are only obtainable when there’s low market turnouts. Now, just imagine when the market is booming.”
The privileged marketers who succeeded in taking the product beyond the government-declared demarcated spot of 20 kilometres away from the border bypass most of the Nigerian communities under the LGA, and they would rather load the product into large containers of the standby buyers who take the product across borders.
There are many routes at the service of the smugglers to transport the product to the illegal trade spot. However, as observed by our reporter, Nigerian security personnel and the Benin Republic personnel will struggle to excuse their complacency in the illegal movement and sale of the product.
“As you can see, that is petrol loaded in jerricans being taken to Ilara. He is taking it to those that sell it in bottles in Idofa, or taking it to the border to sell to those taking it to the Republic of Benin,” said the motorcyclist conveying this reporter. The journey commenced from Imeko.
EFFECT OF THE POLICY ON THE LOCALS
Chinedu Micheal, an Anambra indigene serving in a community school in Imeko shared with our reporter his experience so far serving in the community.
According to Chinedu, his monthly allowance of N33,000 has not been adequately sustaining him although he’s serving in a “local area where supposedly things are meant to be cheaper” compared to what’s obtainable in the city.
“You don’t even get water for free here in this community,” the corps member, who had met our reporter at a commercial phone charging spot, said when this reporter sought to understand why his attempt to re-boost his phone would cost him N150.
Just like our reporter, Chinedu had as well visited the spot to charge his power bank.
“Even in the city, you can have a haircut for N700. Here, they’ll tell you you can only shave with that amount. Except you’re already used to them. Rice is the only commodity you can get at a cheaper price here, and that’s because they’re close to the border,” Chinedu said.
RESTRICTION POLICY DISCRIMINATORY
Speaking about the effect the policy had on the community, Oba Benjamin Olanite Oyekan, the community’ traditional ruler, faulted the federal government’s wisdom behind the policy. According to him, the policy is a covert revelation that the government agency originally charged with the purpose the policy was meant to serve had not been effective in its service.
“If it’s because of smuggling and bunkering that you restrict the movement of petroleum products from 20 kilometers into the border, then what’s the function of customs operation? The question is why are customs operatives in place? The commission of that agency? Is it not for the purpose of manning the border post to checkmate smuggling and bunkering in the border communities?” The monarch asked.
The monarch, while recounting the effects the policy had on his people, said it was discriminatory. He alleged that the government should have sought for the opinions of the leaders in border communities before enthroning the policy.
“There must be room for consultation before giving out a policy. Hardship to the larger number of the populace of my town is the effect of this policy. The 20 kilometres restriction covers my land.
“This is a town where for almost 6 weeks now, we haven’t had electricity. My people would constantly have to travel over 20 kilometres as stipulated by policy formulators before they can get fuel.
“We are all Nigerians. I see the policy as discrimination against the border communities. It’s discrimination against the people of border areas. If the farm produce from the border communities could get to the country’s capital and Lagos metropolis, why should petroleum products be limited to certain areas where the same government has put in place agencies to look into issues of illegal importation and exportation.
“Majority of my people are farmers. Some of them lack enough money to buy fuel for their motorcycle to take to the farm.
“I think it could be as a result of the ineffectiveness of that government agency. Perhaps the government is telling us something we also know already. Since customs service is in place, to me, I do not see why petroleum products should be limited to certain areas of the country.”
FG SHOULD LIFT BAN, MY PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING — FADIPE, IMEKO/AFON LG CHAIR PLEADS
“May we not be pushed to the backyard of the universe because it all seems we are at the backyard of life and the universe here in Imeko. We need help from the government to lift the ban. The suffering is too much and unbearable. We have lost our sons and families because of it. Cars and other means of transport have burnt since the closure. To get your generator fueled, it’s a big issue. And there’s no electricity. That one has even become a thing of the past. The seat of a local government must have a filling station! Help us reach out to them. They should lift the ban.”Fadipe, Imeko/Afon LG Chairman
When FIJ reached out to Alhaji Yahayah Fadipe, the current chairman of the LGA, he expressed disaffection towards the federal government’s restrictive policy, saying the consequences it had brought upon the communities under him had caused untold suffering.
“It has grievous effects on us. To buy a single litre of the product, you’ll have to travel a lot of kilometres to get it,” Fadipe told FIJ.
“The policy has affected my people in many ways. The distance we cover in getting fuel is greatly affecting my people.
“Recently, a son of the soil here in Imeko town went to a filling station outside of Imeko to get fuel because no station is allowed to function in the town. On his way back, and because of the bad nature of the road, he and other two persons had an accident. He died on the spot while others sustained serious injuries that we had to rush them to Federal Medical Centre in Abeokuta.
The chairman further alluded to the compounding effect of the policy. According to him, the restricted access to the product, which is an alternative source of power for the community, had a ripple effect on the entire local government area as electricity supply in the locality had been a serious issue.
“To make it worse, there’s no electricity. We have a constant issue of lack of electricity. Many people from Iwoye, Oke àgbède, Ilara and so on go through serious stress to get fuel. It is affecting us in many ways, seriously. And we are powerless; we don’t have power to affect anything. We keep pleading for even one station here, the seat of power in this local government area, but no, we are powerless.
“We don’t have power. It’s a federal government policy that the product be banned from the border communities, and we are in the border community. We cannot move ourselves to another place because of it. This is our God-given land, and maybe that’s why we are suffering. We have to keep enduring it.
Fadipe, however, appealed to the FG to relax the policy as it was grievously affecting the people of the community. “We only have to keep appealing to the government to at least give us access to it. Even if it’s in Imeko, the seat of the local government, it is okay. We want the government to lift the ban on border closure. That’s all we want.”
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