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21.02.2024 Featured Undercover as a Smuggler

Published 21st Feb, 2024

By 'Fisayo Soyombo

Following repeated complaints about the porosity of Nigeria’s borders, investigative journalist ‘Fisayo Soyombo attempted to illegally import not one or two but 100 bags of rice from the Republic of Benin into Nigeria. He succeeded without the faintest security resistance, working with information from greedy Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) bosses who betrayed patrol teams by updating smugglers on their colleagues’ itinerary and the days and times when the roads were free, and daredevil smugglers with insider knowledge of the forests, the roads and Customs officers.


“This is a dangerous journey; I would not advise you to embark on it,” Jide*, my newfound smuggler-acquaintance, whispers to me.

I have heard variants of that statement several times in the past decade, most notably in 2013 when I investigated the brutality of ethnocentric killings in the villages of Plateau, in 2016 when I investigated the abandonment of Nigerian soldiers injured on the battlefield with Boko Haram, in 2018 when I drove the equivalent of a stolen vehicle from Abuja to Lagos and back, and in 2019 when I went undercover at a police station and a prison to track corruption and malfeasance in the criminal justice system. I did not make an about-face in each of those situations; why should I, now?

WHEN BULLETS PIERCED THROUGH VOODOO

A smuggler leads me through a forest connecting Adja Ouere in Benin Republic to Oja-Odan in Nigeria

But Jide should know better. He and his friend were in that forest bordering Benin Republic and Ogun State just two months earlier when Customs officers fired gunshots at both of them. While Jide was lucky to escape after ditching his motorcycle and diving into a ditch, his voodoo-fortified, overconfident friend refrained from immediately taking flight. He was hit by bullets from the rear and died instantly, leaving behind a young wife and two children, one a toddler. The late smuggler himself was young; he was only 26.

“Well, we still have to go,” I answer Jide, much to his bemusement. “That, or my business partner and I pull out of this deal.”

Not wanting to lose the oncoming windfall, he accepts defeat in his attempts to dissuade me.

HOW THE STORY STARTED

Smugglers who had paid bribes to Customs officials move rice through the forests on a day the officials told them their colleagues would not be patroling the forests.

One young Nigerian had complained to me about the porosity of the country’s borders and the attendant insecurity in Ilaro, a small town of roughly 60,000 people once famed for its timber industry, located some 50km from Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital. Off I set to Ilaro, where, after five days of embedding myself in the local environment, I succeed in finding ‘someone who knows someone’ who links me to Jide. He would in turn connect me to Alaba*, a sturdily-built twenty-something-year-old smuggler who walked with a swagger and spoke not only with surefootedness but aggression. And although he never admitted it throughout the duration of our partnership, Alaba carried himself with the haughtiness of someone with metaphysical fortification. Overall, he struck me as one with a get-rich-or-die-trying mentality. 

After negotiating the terms in Oja-Odan, a trading town in Yewa North LGA of Ogun State, Alaba agrees to lead my quest to import 5000 kg bags of rice through the backdoor. To kick-start the process, he introduces me to Bose Adeleke, a Yoruba woman who agrees to sell me 100 bags of rice for N2,490,000. Date: November 15, 2022.

The following day, Jide and I meet up in Ilaro, a town renowned among smugglers for its unique location and landscape, for the two-hour ride through Olorulekan, Ebute, Oja-Odan and Ologiri to Adja-Ouèrè, a trading town in the Plateau Department of south-eastern Benin Republic. Our journey out of Ilaro takes us through the entryway to IBD International Hotels, Ilaro, well-known by all and sundry to have been built with proceeds of smuggling. 

KILLING THE PETTY THIEF, FREEING THE BIG-TIME CRIMINAL

The status of the founder of the hotel, Ibrahim Dende Egungbohun, more commonly known as ‘IBD Dende’, as Ilaro’s biggest smuggler has been helped by his proximity to power, coupled with the influence he has amassed with his wealth.

Dende has numerous allies in politics — no less President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, for whom he publicly canvassed support in the lead-up to the presidential election, and whose delegation to COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai he was on — and in entertainment, where he has been referenced in the songs of many popular Nigerian musicians. In fact, Fuji star Pasuma has two tracks titled ‘Dende‘ and ‘I. B. D. Dende‘ in his honour.

He is friends with the media, too. When he hit 50 in 2020, this national daily described him as a “seasoned businessman and hospitality guru”. Then when he turned 53 last year, the Ogun State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) lauded him as a “quintessential and cerebral business mogul and philanthropist”, someone who “has always been in a different class – a class distinguished by examples of personal discipline, generosity, compassion, hard work and unbendable principles”.

Beyond the laundered image of him the media, however, the real Dende has been arrested for smuggling multiple times; but on each occasion, he emerged unscathed. He is that connected.

To provide further context, when Dende was arrested for smuggling in 2018, the Customs curiously never specified the illicit items he sneaked into the country. Joseph Attah, the then Customs Public Relations Officer, confirmed his arrest by simply saying: “He is our suspect and currently in our custody over his smuggling activities.”

That was all.

SO, WHAT DID DENDE SMUGGLE?

Dende (right) in a close-up photograph with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu

“Dende used to import Turkey, but he subsequently smuggled guns and his cover was blown; this was around August 2022,” smuggler Jide tells me during our first smuggling trip to Benin, unaware he is conversing with an investigative journalist.

With his years of experience in smuggling, Jide had been educating me on how a newbie like me could succeed in the business. If I was determined, he explained, I could graduate from smuggling rice in just a few years to getting introduced to the camp of the “big thieves” like Dende, Ilaro’s most ‘successful’ smuggler.

“He is a big thief,” Jide adds with tantalising enthusiasm. “He doesn’t play in the league of the petty thieves like us. He fled the country for a while, but he recently returned.”

A smuggler explains to me why I need to work up my way in smuggling until I penetrate the camp of IBD Dende, Ilaro’s most ‘successful’ smuggler

Although Jide’s claims never made it to traditional media, they were indubitable, given the word in Ilaro that Dende’s 2018 arrest was indeed for gun-running. A licensed clearing and forwarding agent, Dende also smuggled cars, his patronage transcending the political class. As he entrenched his interests in the shady trade through the years, he started to build a legion of foot soldiers to perfect the dirty work on his behalf. Some of those boys whom Jide knew personally were bringing in high-value automobiles stashed with arms and ammunition on Dende’s behalf when they were apprehended in 2018. 

Dende (right) with Dapo Abiodun, governor of Ogun State, during the Africa Cup of Nations (

Jide cannot understand why Customs officers let “big-time smugglers” like Dende off the hook but kill “scavenging smugglers” like him.

“They have killed many, particularly the riders,” he laments. “This year [2022] alone, I cannot even start counting. The day they killed my friend, I fled when they chased us. I was running and I tripped into a ditch; that’s how I broke my leg. I was smuggling rice; I had 10 bags on my motorcycle. Once we step out every morning, we know our return is not guaranteed.” 

STRUGGLING TO TACKLE SMUGGLING

Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari shut Nigerias borders in an attempt to curtail smuggling; it failed.

Nigeria’s long-running but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to tackle smuggling are well-documented, and came to a head in August 2019 when then President Muhammadu Buhari enforced a partial closure of the country’s borders with Benin Republic due to largescale smuggling, especially of rice, although he would later admit on his way out of office that “only God can guard Nigeria’s borders”.

“Please note that from Lake Chad to Benin Republic is more than 1,600 kilometres, so only God can effectively guard the borders,” he had said. “You need a person who has the energy and the competence to supervise.” 

But to combat smuggling, Nigeria needs more than one person, energy and competence. It needs a multitude of Customs officials who possess the intelligence to understand the destruction of the local economy by smuggling, and the moral presence to defend their country’s interests despite the allure of quick bucks. Indeed, Nigeria has thrown so much at its smuggling and compulsive importation headaches, with only scant rewards in return. The decade-long policy of forex ban on select items, including agricultural staples, to drive up the prices of foreign rice, thereby discouraging imports, may have served to boost local production, especially coupled with the government’s investments in agriculture, but so did it exacerbate smuggling. According to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, rice production in Nigeria increased from an annual average of 7.1 million tonnes between 2013 and 2017 to 8.9 million tonnes in 2018. However, there are also reports of increased rice smuggling, with Customs officials continuing to seize large quantities of the grain at the borders, suggesting that Nigerian rice farmers are still not producing enough.

SMUGGLING DAY: YOUR GOODS OR YOUR LEGS?

All the bags of rice in this mall in Adja Ouere, Benin Republic, are for smuggling into Nigeria

On November 16, 2022, the agreed date for smuggling the goods into Nigeria, Alaba finds his way into Benin Republic quite early, just after sunrise. By the time he informs Jide to fetch me, it is almost 8 am. I start to sense that Alaba’s game plan is to exclude me from the deals until the bags of rice arrive in Oja-Odan. 

In a little over an hour, Jide and I arrive at a Beninese market in Adja-Ouere housing hordes of stalls filled to the brim with ready-for-smuggling rice. Many of the stores are locked, only specifically opened when a smuggler shows up to move goods. Inside the one patronised by Alaba, I see tens of thousands of rice bags delicately stacked on one another in multiples of twenties. Artisanal smugglers fetch bag after bag from the stall for onward loading onto scores of waiting motorcycles. This loading happens at great risk of irreversible damage to the motorcycles and physical injury to the riders. To accommodate as many 50 kg bags of rice as possible, the riders detach the motorcycle seats, leaving the full weight of the bags as the only source of the machine’s motoring balance. On the average, motorcycles weigh 150 kg to 160 kg. A rider who loads 10 bags of rice, for example, has piled 500 kg of rice on a 150 kg motorcycle! It’s a life-and-death mission. Riders who have lost balance in the past while trying to save their goods from damage have lost their legs too. Those who are lucky after breaking their legs return to the job but have to endure a limp for the rest of their lives; others simply no longer have the legs to continue with the job.

I ask Jide why the young in Ogun State and Benin Republic continue to embrace smuggling despite the threat of physical deformity and possible death. “I am originally a tailor,” he replies. “The only month I earn enough from tailoring to feed my wife and kids is December. Other than during Christmas and New Year celebrations, how many people in Ilaro sew clothes every year?”

THE STOP-START JOURNEY THROUGH THE FOREST OF DEATH

Smugglers move hordes of rice bags onto tens of waiting motorcycles. Ten to 12 of these bags (500kg to 600kg) are loaded on each motorcycle weighing 150 kg to 160 kg.

At exactly 10:35 am, dozens of motorcycles — not just ours — disappear from Adja-Ouere into the forests. Jide and I hop onto two waiting motorcycles behind them, thus kick-starting nearly two hours of journey into thick, narrow-footpath forests bypassing the major road to Oja-Odan. We had only ridden a quarter of an hour when we encountered the first casualty, a bare-bones motorcycle that had crumbled under the weight of 600 kg of rice. The journey does not resume until Jide and I have joined three others in steadying the motorcycle and helping its rider restart it.

“The rains must not meet us here,” Jide warns, “otherwise the road will become too slippery for us to continue without risking an accident.” It felt as though he was foretelling what was to come, as shortly after, we run into a swampy section of the footpath that was still recovering from the last rains. The sogginess of the soil had slowed some motorcycles down, eventually mowing them down to a halt. We spend some minutes helping them attain balance, before resuming the journey. But no sooner had we resumed than we ran into another struggling rider, his motorcycle sprawling on the ground. “One, two… one, two…,” five of us belt out until we lift the fallen motorcycle. It soon becomes the defining fixture of the trip; every five or 10 minutes, we run into a broken-down vehicle. Most times, we stop, especially if we sense the victim is in a real strop. Other times, we simply hail the rider and wave him good luck.

Just before noon, the lush, green forest vegetation starts to give way to sparsely populated brownish greenery, indicative of the onset of civilisation. The bushpath empties into an untarred, dusty brown road by an immigration signpost, closed out by a run-down, abandoned building. The farther we drive en route to Oja-Odan, the higher the number of smuggler machines trooping in from adjoining footpaths. Onlookers outside the mud shops and houses dotting the village do not bat an eyelid as rice-filled machines fly past; it is clearly a common sight in these parts. 

In a matter of minutes, we cross to the opposite lane, driving against traffic for another minute before vanishing into another footpath by Foursquare Bus Stop, away from the glare of the village. We continue past Yewa North Local Government Schools II and IV for just under 1 km until we arrive in front of a nondescript bungalow where motorcycle riders are unloading heaps of rice. I enter the house and locate the room where my consignment has been stored. One, two, three, four, five… 97, 98, 99, 100, all stacked in the room, awaiting clearance from — wait for it — the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), for onward smuggling into Ifo and sale to Nigerians.

INCREDIBLE! GREEDY CUSTOMS BOSSES SNITCH ON THEIR COLLEAGUES TO ENABLE SMUGGLERS

The lead smuggler explains the delay in moving our bags of rice from Oja-Odan to Ilaro. Customs bosses have to be bribed so that they update us on the movement of Customs patrol vans. These Customs bosses are the ones to tell us when it’s safe to smuggle!

As Oja-Odan was not the intended destination of the goods, I ask Alaba how soon they would be moved from the temporary storage. I had practically relocated to Ilaro for this expedition, and I had only nine days left before my next trip out of the country. Alaba had told me we could bike the goods immediately through the forests, just how they got to Oja-Odan. However, having experienced smuggling by motorcycle, I was determined to witness the vehicle experience. I also needed to confirm we could pull it off within those nine days, but Alaba offered no guarantees.

“I will know tomorrow if there’ll be ‘work’ in the forest or if the roads will be free,” he answers. “That will decide if we’ll move the goods with bikes through the forest or with cars by road.” 

I try to tease more information out of him without giving myself away or coming across as overly inquisitive.

“There is someone who controls each of those roads, even the road leading right to the border,” he tells me. “They are Customs bosses; you have to be under one of them. You have to let them in on your plans, your movement. They are the ones who tell you the specific days and hours when you can move. Once you have their permission, you have no problem.”

It wasn’t until Alaba’s revelation that past events began to truly make sense to me. During the November 16, 2022 trip from Ilaro to Adja-Ouèrè, Alaba constantly worked his phone. Many times, he made phone calls immediately after receiving one himself. Other times, he randomly dialed out to secure updates from his foot soldiers.

“Hilux! Hilux!!” he often screamed. As I would later find out, he made those calls because one of the Customs officers controlling the specific road had informed him the Hilux patrol vehicle of the Customs Service was headed in a particular direction. As Alaba received those prompts, he instantly rang his foot soldiers to divert their vehicles or motorcycles off that road. In more straightforward terms, Customs officers who had received bribes from smugglers were snitching on their colleagues!

I ring Alaba the following day to check with Customs clearance for road travel, but he doesn’t answer. He answers on the second day, but with no positive news. By the fifth day, I start to lose faith. On the seventh, I head out of Ilaro, leaving instructions for the bags of rice to be preserved until my return. But it wouldn’t happen. A little over a week later, someone in Alaba’s camp reached out to say the goods had to be sold immediately. Some Customs officers had raided a smuggling safe house in Oja-Odan, trucking away tons of seized goods. Alaba feared we could be victims of the next raid. I give them the nod to relocate the bags to Ifo and resell them at a slight loss. 

Selling the goods eliminated the urgency for me to return to Ilaro for the second leg. When I finally did, in April 2023, not much had changed.

Independent, public-interest journalism has never been more vital than in times like this when truth is constantly being suppressed. With your support, it will be easier for us to continue speaking truth to power and preserving your right to know

SMUGGLING BY CAR

Things pace faster than usual on April 5, 2023, the day I resume in Ilaro for phase two of my mission. We had seen the stalls back in November, so it was unnecessary to re-enter Benin Republic. Instead, I make payments and wait in Ilaro while the motorcycle smugglers move the 100 bags to Oja-Odan through the forests. Then we begin the arduous wait for the rogue Customs officers to grant permission for smuggling by road. It takes only six days this time.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 11, 2023, Alaba, evasive for days but suddenly in a boisterous mood, contacts Jide to announce we finally have clearance to move. His instruction is that all three of us should converge on a settlement called Ona-Egbo, some five kilometres from Ilaro Polytechnic at the centre of Ilaro. Already suspicious of my numerous questions and strange insistence to sit in one of the cars, Alaba schemes me out, deceptively keeping me at Ona-Egbo while stocking and setting the cars off at Oja-Odan. He only arrives at Ona-Egbo after noon to unceremoniously declare that the cars were already en route to the market in Ifo.

A car smuggling rice along the Ibogun-Giwa Road on a day approved by Customs.

I motion Jide to join me in plotting their route. We confirm that the cars would veer off the Ilaro outbound road into a bush path in a village called Oteyi, and eventually rejoin a major road in Ibogun-Giwa. Therefore, at exactly 1:57 pm, we hop on a motorcycle with strict instructions to the rider to move with speed and fury, our target being to arrive at Ibogun-Giwa before the last of the departed cars. A risky adventure, but we succeed by the skin of our teeth, arriving in Ibogun-Giwa four minutes ahead of schedule at exactly 2:20 pm. At 2:24 pm, when the targeted car ploughs past us, its overloaded boot strapped to the bumper with thick, elastic ropes, we mount our bike and start to trail it all the way to Ifo.

Pothole-ridden and long-abandoned by the government, the Ibogun-Giwa-Ifo road is a notorious smuggling route, evidenced by the absence of private or public vehicles on the entire stretch of the road. On either side of the road is more vegetation than civilisation, the numerous potholes ideally rendering it unsuited to high-risk driving. No smuggler apprehended on this road can conjure up an escape, yet nearly all locomotives on it — cars, motorcycles, tricycles — have smuggled goods strapped to them, suggesting they were indeed cleared ‘from above’ to pass. The ones without goods are those on the opposite lane that have offloaded smuggled goods in Ifo and are en route to Oja-Odan and environs to fetch some more. Throughout the approximate 20 minutes on that road, we do not encounter a single security official — not the Customs, not the police. Our only contact with the police is on the streets directly leading to the market in Ifo, and they all know the game plan. Rather than stop us, the police themselves wave us through the thoroughfare until we arrive at the market, welcomed by the cacophonous sounds of vehicles unloading smuggled products, and traders haggling prices.

BRIBE CUSTOMS OR DIE TRYING NOT TO

While Customs bosses took bribes to give a free pass to ‘cooperative’ smugglers, they did not spare the ones who tried to do it on their own. Sometimes, it cost them their lives.

The relatively smooth journey we had undergone, courtesy of bribes to Customs, is sometimes fatal for smugglers attempting to bulldoze their way through — such as Solomon Hassan who suffered a damaging leg injury from Customs’ gunshots and underwent a lengthy treatment, yet did not learn once he recovered. Before entering smuggling, Solomon only helped smugglers load bags of banned items, whatever they were, onto the vehicles. But, as always with criminal activities, enough is rarely enough. From longtime middleman, Solomon’s upgrade to protagonist would ultimately cost him his life. 

“Some years ago, he went on a trip during which Customs raided them,” his young widow, Adebisi, tells me in front of the wooden hut on the outskirts of Ilaro where she now sells odds and ends to make a living. “He was shot in the leg but he recovered after several months of treatment.”

Hassan regained the use of his legs, even if he walked with a slight limp afterwards. Fast-forward to 2021, a fully-recuperated Hassan had proceeded on another smuggling operation without bribing Customs. His troubled wife was home dialing his number without success when one of his brothers scampered in to announce his involvement in an accident. It happened very early in the morning. Attempting to escape from Customs while smuggling rice, Hassan’s vehicle had rammed into another. 

Adebisi, expectant at the time but unaware, hurried to the hospital as soon as the news was broken to her. “He was still alive when I got there, but once I saw him I knew he would not make it,” she says. “He was badly injured. One of his eyes was detached; his legs were broken. In fact, they ripped his trousers open with scissors to get to his legs. Even his arms were injured.”

‘SMUGGLING BETTER THAN ARMED ROBBERY’

Motorcyles and Tricycles smuggling bags of rice on Ibogun-Gowa Road on April 11, 2023 — a day approved by bribed Customs officials.

Hassan, 32, died that evening after close to two decades of a ‘career’ in and around smuggling. Could Hassan have chosen a respectable venture, and did his wife ever try to discourage him from the crime? 

“He had little choice,” she responds. “He was a child when he lost his mother; his father married several wives. I could only pray for him each time he went out. It is at least better than armed robbery; it’s really the only job for many in this area.” 

Adebisi was pregnant with her second child for Hassan — her third overall — when life was ebbing away from him on this hospital bed, but she would only find out weeks later. That did not prevent his extended family from ejecting her from his home in Oja-Odan. 

“At the time, I didn’t know I was pregnant,” she recalls. “It was much later that I found out. Still, his family told me to leave.” 

A month before birthing that child, she rented an apartment in Ilaro. That financial outlay and the burden of solely raising three kids ended up draining her bags and jewellery business, leaving her in penury while Customs officers who were just as guilty — probably guiltier — as her husband continued filling their pockets with filthy lucre.

‘WHY FARM IF YOU CAN JUST SMUGGLE?’

Smuggling is damaging our economy, says Akande Sanyaolu, a farmer.

Akande Akin Sanyaolu, Principal Consultant/Director at Ale Farms Nigeria Ltd, wants the government to defend farmers against the scourge of smuggling.

“Smuggling is very bad and is something that should seriously be discouraged,” he says. “It affects farmers, agriculture and the general production economy of the country. It reduces the revenues of farmers unreasonably; it also reduces the country’s foreign exchange earnings through agriculture. When people make more money from smuggling, how do you expect them to go into farming?  

CUSTOMS SPOKESMAN: ‘YOUR METHOD OF REACHING OUT IS UNPROFESSIONAL’

Abdullahi Maiwada, the spokesman of Nigeria Customs Service

FIJ sent WhatsApp messages to Abdullahi Maiwada, spokesman of the Nigeria Customs, every day between February 16 and 18, asking to be allowed to present the findings of this investigation to the Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC), Bashir Adewale Adeniyi MFR, so he could respond to them. However, Maiwada did not reply to any of the three messages. 

When FIJ rang him on WhatsApp on February 18, Maiwada answered the call but protested that the medium of reaching out to him with “the information against Customs” was “unprofessional”. He still did not budge when he was told the caller was out of the country and so could not have made cellular calls or sent a Short Message Service (SMS).

When asked to supply the details of the ‘professional’ medium through which he or the CGC would rather receive the enquiries — an email address, another phone number or a physical address — Maiwada angrily terminated the call.

Editor’s Note: The asterisked names are pseudonyms

Produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) funded by the MacArthur Foundation

Independent, public-interest journalism has never been more vital than in times like this when truth is constantly being suppressed. With your support, it will be easier for us to continue speaking truth to power and preserving your right to know

2 replies on “Undercover as a Smuggler”

This is real journalism.

Let me once again salute the courage and determination of ‘Fisayo to see that journalism remains alive, especially, in Nigeria.

Thank you again and again. Kudos to the team.

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Published 21st Feb, 2024

By 'Fisayo Soyombo

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