Officials say fake cigarettes are huge public problems to Nigeria, heightening the existing public health concern posed by growing but uncontrolled tobacco market in Nigeria.
Since 2008, Luka (he declined to provide his surname) has run a lucrative business a few hundred meters from Sheraton Hotel, one of Abuja's most prominent hotels. At the moment, he is operating from a jalopy white Toyota Corolla Wagon - the car's back seat is the store, while the trunk serves as the shop. Before that, until he was dislodged by officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, he operated from a small yellow metal kiosk where he retailed a variety of items, making thousands of naira in profit daily.
Luka looks as if he in his early 40s, and declines to fully identify himself. But for the five years he has been on the business, Luka's most priced merchandise are not the simple consumer goods he sells to Abuja's low and mighty. They are smuggled cigarettes he tucks alongside other goods in a small blue plastic bucket.
Not only are the cigarettes illegal, but many are fake, he admitted recently.
"Customers buy them plenty because they are cheap," he said, holding up a packet of a fake brand, produced by a local cigarette company.
Thousands of traders like Luka serve as important links between a growing number of smokers and smugglers in a booming illicit tobacco trade that is finding its roots in Nigeria's borders across the northern states, where an expansive network of traffickers work tirelessly to compromise government officials before channelling huge quantities of cigarettes across the border from Niger and Chad.
Luka's supplier drives around Abuja, dispensing cartons of cigarettes to retailers who pay him after sales. He then connects with the tycoons in far away Kaduna, Kano and Katsina States who control a largely unregulated tobacco market, likely the biggest in West Africa.
A 2005 study by the World Health Organization, WHO, estimated that more than 30 per cent of cigarettes smoked in Nigeria are smuggled. A more recent (2012) publication by the World Custom Journal claimed the volume have dropped to less than 10 percent.
But months of investigations by PREMIUM TIMES have shown that the difference don't lie much in the numbers but in tactics. Faced with government checks at the seaports, smugglers have since switched to a fragmented operation which makes it difficult to trace and fails to reflect in official statistics.
Under the adopted approach, dealers move illicit shipments of tobacco across Nigeria's porous land borders using car trunks.
Without statistics, the new method masks the danger of the growing trade on the health of millions of Nigerians.
A Global Adult Tobacco survey on Nigeria estimates that Nigeria is home to 4.5 million smoking adults who expose 27 million others to harmful secondhand smoke. On the whole, Nigerians spend an average of N89.5 billion yearly on tobacco, most of which are illicitly traded and smuggled into the country.
Most of the foreign cigarettes are transported into Nigeria by car smugglers, a set of specialized drivers popularly known in the north as Yan-Pitos.
When delivering smuggled vehicles from Benin Republic and Togo, the traffickers are contracted by wealthy patrons in Kano, Katsina and Kaduna to transport what they call "exhibits", which range from foreign contrabands like condensed milk, rice and electronics to all forms of tobacco products.
Tobacco mafia heads usually stash up consignments - popular as exhibits within the traders - in neighbouring Benin Republic where weak regulation allow direct importation of tobacco through the seaports.
Yan-Pitos are contacted to pick the 'exhibits' before travelling up north of Benin Republic, entering Nigeria through the border states of Ogun and Jigawa, or further north, into the edges of Niger Republic from where they enter Nigeria through Kebbi, Sokoto and Katsina States.
In all of the trade, a vital asset for the smugglers is Nigeria's notoriously porous borders.
The inter-country Maradi (Niger Republic) - Jibiya [in Katsina, Nigeria] route, considered one of the most guarded in the sub-region, is ironically also amongst the most porous as Customs officials are easily compromised by the Yan-Pitos, who draw up funds as a union and pass same to the officials.
"They [Custom Officers] tell us when to pass after Union settles their oga," Illiyasu Saleh, a former Yan-Pitos, said.
On a typical return trip, Mr. Saleh narrated recently, Yan-Pitos drive as a convoy mostly at night and converge at holding areas around Maradi until a signal indicating entry has been approved by compromised Custom officers.
Once the signal is relayed, all drivers on the trip must cross within the given time frame or risk re-negotiation of bribe, Mr. Saleh narrated. "Crossing can last many hours," he said.
Most tobacco smuggled through this route are made in China, and are shipped in large containers to seaports in Benin or Togo, before the goods are lifted on land through Katsina and Kano into Nigeria.
For the many years Mr. Saleh spent on the job, delivering huge consignments of 'exhibits' for popular tobacco distributors in Katsina, through the Maradi-Jibia border, not once was his shipment inspected by officials, he said.
Mr. Saleh lost part of his limb in a car accident and now makes a living as a property agent in Kaduna State.
His experience, confirmed by other traders, mirror the terrible state of the Nigerian government's drive to combat illicit tobacco trade, a failing successive governments have been berated for, with little or no improvements.
Desert Merchants, Unchecked borders
Young men haul goods - mainly grains, in which anything could be embedded - in carts powered by donkeys across the border
Between Sokoto and Katsina states, there are 10 known border crossings between Nigeria and Niger Republic, besides the estimated hundreds of less-known ones that crisscross the desert.
From Illela in Sokoto, it costs N200 to cross into neighbouring Birnin NKonni in Niger Republic, on motorcycle. At a small border post on the Nigerian side, N100 is paid to Custom officers for permission. Another N20 is paid to local groups, our investigations show.
But between the two border towns, travellers are rarely inspected, unless they are transporting large volume of goods in lorries and unable to bribe their way.
Young men haul goods - mainly grains, in which anything could be embedded - in carts powered by donkeys across the border and hardly arouse the interest of Custom officials, except when the cart pusher is a new face.
During smuggling hours late at night, lorries haul merchandise ranging from food supply to large quantities of contrabands, including tobacco without inspection and in direct contravention of many Nigerian export and import laws, and binding international anti-tobacco treaties.
Early February 2013, the Nigerian Customs said it was re-organizing its operations at the Nkonni-Illela border, and began thorough search of big haulage vehicles on the route. On Thursday, 6 February, when PREMIUM TIMES re-visited the border, six lorries loaded with goods queued for search while one had its goods - mostly noodles - offloaded for inspection.
But the increased inspection only pushed smugglers further into the bush paths that lie behind the small border post in the outskirts of Illela. Smugglers who are unwilling to pay duty fees also use the longer bush paths and several alternative routes lying in the deserts behind the border post. These routes are also popular for petrol smuggling.
Cigarettes smuggled by merchants on the N'Konni-Illela route mostly originate from North African countries like Libya, Morocco and Egypt. The smuggling routes are also relied upon by tobacco companies in Kano.
Duty Free Abuse
One of the most sought after illicit cigarette sold by Luka near Sheraton Hotel in Abuja is the Duty Free, regarded by many because they consider it foreign and low in tar and nicotine.
Globally, passengers are allowed to carry Duty Frees across borders for personal use. Under Nigerian laws, a traveller is allowed 200 cigarettes or 50 medium sized cigars or 200 grammes of tobacco of foreign manufacture.
The law demands a high 20 percent tax on the whole quantity, "If more is imported," to discourage re-sell to open markets.
But at the Aminu Kano International Airport in Kano, the Duty Free policy has been abused and is instead used as a cover by a network that smuggles Duty Frees and feeds them into the larger tobacco market in northern Nigeria.
The quantity of Duty free cigarettes travellers can bring in can be higher than legally allowed without paying the excess charge so long as they can tip and persuade Custom officers on duty that such quantities are for personal use, a staff of the Federal Airport Authority [Identity protected] told PREMIUM TIMES.
This stream duty free cigarettes, disguised as 'for personal use', and passed at the Kano international airport, form part of the growing trade in smuggled cigarettes in Nigeria. Most of the tobacco passed this way originate from the Middle East and United States of America.
Yabo Salisu who has sold Duty Free cigarettes opposite Hamdalla Hotel, Muhammadu Buhari way in Kaduna, for up to 10 years, said most of his duty free sticks are brought in this way.
The porosity of the Nigerian entry port to excessive duty free cigarettes is a direct contraventions of Article 6.2 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, FCTC, which encourages parties to prohibit or restrict, as appropriate, sales to and/or importation by international travellers of tax- and duty-free tobacco products. Nigeria is a party to the FCTC.
Nigeria is home to one of the largest tobacco markets in Africa. Despite the country's local laws and obligations to international tobacco control treaties, Nigeria runs one of the most unregulated industry in the world.
In addition to those smuggled, many of the cigarettes sold by retailers like Luka are fake, even when they are manufactured abroad.
It is almost impossible to tell fake cigarettes from the real thing. But a former smoker, who is now building up advocacy against trade in illicit tobacco, Tom Akor, said fakes are usually badly made, and rarely comply with regulatory standards for tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide levels.
"The fakes are usually cheap, and contain unapproved ingredients," he said. "Some of them leave smokers with a situation close to Asthma."
In most parts of Nigeria's north, the tobacco industry is typically what Mr. Akor described. The market is flooded with a wide variety of fakes and highly substandard cigarettes. Some of them are produced in Nigeria and contain ingredients like dry pawpaw leaves.
The Tobacco Desk officer at Nigeria's Health Ministry, Malau Mangai Toma, admits fake cigarettes are huge public problems to Nigeria, especially in the North, and that they heighten the existing public health concern posed by growing but uncontrolled tobacco market in Nigeria.
The health ministry said it is currently investigating a company suspected of being responsible for most of the fake brands in the region.
Despite such efforts, the counterfeit tobacco market appears on a steady growth. Analysts tie that ballooning of the market to the boom in illicit tobacco trade in Northern Nigeria, which has stirred a corresponding high demand for "foreign" brands.
To meet the growing demand, many businessmen have recently set up local production plants. One of such is the Blackhorse Tobacco Ltd, which is owned by three Lebanese nationals, and operates from the Sharada Industrial area of Kano. The main owner is Hassan Hamdan.
Formally opened for business in February 2011, Blackhorse operators have other products, such as hair brushes, sponges, plastics. Their cigarettes bear the marks of genuineness, with the ingredients and official government-authorised warning about the danger of smoking tobacco prominently displayed on both sides of the pack.
The company has now operated for three years but the business has never been inspected by health authorities. In fact, the federal health ministry does not keep a record of tobacco companies operating in Nigeria.
While Blackhorse Limited is listed in the records of the Nigerian business registration agency - Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC - others are not even so recognized as legitimate businesses in Nigeria. Some manufacturers even lied about their physical address.
One of such companies is the Cigarette and Tobacco Kano Co Ltd. On its cigarette packs, the company claims to be operating from No. 30 Maiduguri Road, Chikin Gari, Hotoro, Damarke, Kano. But when PREMIUM TIMES visited the address, the firm wasn't found and neighbours said no such company has ever operated from that location. Also, a corporate search commissioned by this reporter - at two different times - showed the company is not known to the CAC.
Although the ownership and operational location of Cigarette and Tobacco Kano Co Ltd is unknown, the company's products are on high demand in the region, perhaps because they are cheap and mimic major international brands.
A pack of 20 sticks of these brands of cigarettes sells for as low as N150, less than one U.S. dollar.
"This is not tobacco leaves," Myle Mohammed, a smoker, said recently amid cough, after puffing a stick of cigarette manufactured by Cigarette and Tobacco Kano Co Ltd.
Investigators from the Health Ministry in Abuja believe the "guy" behind the Cigarette and Tobacco Kano Co Ltd is a local smuggler. Dr. Malau, the Tobacco Desk Officer at the Nigerian Health ministry said officials are on the trail of those behind Cigarette and Tobacco as well as other smugglers.
Gate of Drugs
The proliferation of illicit tobacco in Nigeria is now a serious challenge the government is pushing hard to deal with, Dr. Malau said.
Legally, the government appears ill-equipped to deal with the menace, and the extent of the trade reflects the weakness of Nigeria's current anti-tobacco laws and agencies.
Nigeria operates an obsolete tobacco control law. Passed in 1990 by the then military government, the Decree 90 covered only basic tobacco control mechanisms. Even so, warnings stipulated by the decree, is routinely violated by many cigarettes in circulation in Nigeria's Northern cities.
Nigeria is a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, FCTC, and is currently pursuing a bill to fully domesticate the framework in a local law. However, Nigeria is yet to endorse the WHO Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products which many anti-tobacco campaigners believe will nail the trade.
The WHO Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products protocol, encourages signatory countries to adopt and implement a set of effective measures to control or regulate the supply chain of tobacco goods to prevent, deter, detect, investigate and prosecute illicit trade in such goods, and to take any necessary measures in accordance with their national law to increase the effectiveness of their competent authorities and services, including customs and police responsible for preventing, deterring, detecting, investigating, prosecuting and eliminating all forms of illicit trade in tobacco.
On the current level of enforcement of the available law, Dr. Malau blamed the Nigerian Customs Service and the police for the proliferation of illicit tobacco trade.
"The Nigerian Customs know about it and they do nothing about it," Dr. Malau said. "Some of these people [illicit tobacco traders] buy their way in these organizations and they find their way into the market with their products."
The Customs Service operates a unit it calls Preventive Division, dedicated to curtailing smuggling, arresting and prosecuting offenders. But an officer, who served in that unit, told PREMIUM TIMES "tobacco is not a contraband priority for the Customs". He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
Officially, the Customs Service declined to comment for this story. Several attempts, including a Freedom of Information request, were turned down.
This investigation was carried out in fulfilment of a Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK)-funded Journalism Fellowship on Investigative Reporting on Tobacco Control Issues in Nigeria, implemented by the Environmental Rights Action and the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center (ERA/CISLAC).