Nigeria's refined petroleum products, especially the Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), otherwise called petrol, is the 'smuggle gold' feeding Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Chad and Niger Republic, which all share border with Nigeria.
According to reports and investigations by our reporters, the porous Nigerian borders, spanning over 17,000 kilometres, make it possible for this illicit petrol trade to flourish for so long despite deliberate actions by security operatives.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reports that Nigeria has 50 to 55 million litres of petrol as daily consumption. However, findings indicate that Nigerians do not exclusively consume this amount of the product as a huge chunk is being smuggled to these neighbouring countries.
A counter statistics proving this came in September 2019 when Nigeria closed its borders and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), along with other security operatives, launched the Exercise Swift Operations (EXSWIFT), partially closing the borders until December 2020.
The NNPC record shows that daily consumption of petrol dropped to about 30million litres from nearly 60million previously.
Floaters used to ferry smuggled fuel in vehicles across the waterway in border areas of Ogun State
Still up to December 8, 2020 when the borders were still shut, the national stock record of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) reported 38.2 million as the average daily petrol demand.
According to the NNPC data, petrol smuggling became more pronounced in December 2017 when the expected daily petrol demand shot from 35 million per day consumption pattern to over 55 million.
Activities thrive despite restriction of supply in border areas
In November 2019, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) announced a directive that restricted petroleum products from being supplied to fuel stations within 20 kilometres of the borders.
Prior to that, the NNPC had raised the alarm about the increasing number of filling stations in border towns, saying they were funnels for fuel smuggling to neighbouring countries.
Petrol production, strength of Nigeria's neighbours
Data obtained for a five-year period from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a United States independent global statistics and analysis site, revealed that Cameroon, with 25.886 million people as at 2019, had consistently produced crude oil between 2016 and 2020 but no record of petrol or natural gas.
It had 92million barrels per day of crude oil in 2016. This declined to 76mbpd in 2017, down to 69mbpd in 2018, and 70mbpd in 2019 and further dropping to 67mbpd in 2020.
Its refinery processing gain was 0.5mbpd (about 500,000bpd) annually during the period, the US EIA recorded revealed.
The data released on March 31, 2021 further revealed that Benin Republic did not refine petroleum products but has about 0.092mbpd consumption annually as of 2018. Its population by 2019 was 11.819m people.
Chad Republic has a refinery built by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Chadian government. The N'Djamena refinery has 20,000bpd capacity daily and began supplying the local market with petroleum products in 2011.
However, operations have occasionally been temporarily suspended in the past due to price disputes and operational issues. It produced 116mbpd of crude in 2020 but not petrol or other refined products.
With a 23.339m population in 2019, Niger Republic's refinery gained about 500,000bpd of crude oil refining in 2020 while it lifted 9.5mbpd of crude in 2020.
These gaps in petrol production and import leaves much space to fill, and thus, smugglers thrive by shifting petrol from Nigeria to these countries, according to media reports and observations.
Smuggled petrol sales thrive in Cameroon, others
According to a recent report by Deutsche Welle (DW), a German public state-owned international broadcaster, smugglers are having a field day selling Nigerian fuel at cheaper rates than the conventional petrol stations in Cameroon.
The Deutsche Welle (DW) reports that although the exact volume of smuggled Nigerian petrol to Cameroon is not known, local media reports in Cameroon put the 'black market' illegal trade at $5million (about N1.905 billion) every year.
According to a survey by the German media in Maroua, the capital city of the Far North region of Cameroon, stolen fuel from neighbouring Nigeria is readily available for sale.
One of the illegal dealers interviewed, Abdulaziz Abdukah, said he had engaged in this illicit business for seven years and sold up to 1,200 litres of petrol daily.
"This business has been the main source of income for me and my family. It has been able to put food on our table," he said.
There is a warehouse in the Cameroonian town where packs of yellow 25 kilogramme jerry-can laden with the stolen product are stored and dispatched for sale.
It was learnt that the fuel is smuggled through vehicles across the vast Nigerian border and redistributed by motorcycle and rickshaws (keke) in the country.
Even when Nigerians are faced with shortages, it was learnt that the supply is constant in Cameroon.
Over 1000 jerry cans of petrol seized from smugglers on Nigeria-Cameroon border this year in Adamawa state
According to the DW report, there are a lot of taxi drivers and commercial motorcyclists, among others, who have not been to the conventional filling station for six years to refuel; they do this with the smuggled fuel.
According to a motorcycle rider, Sylvan, the price for a litre of fuel is about 600CFA (Cameroonian Franc), which is about N410.24, while the illicit fuel sells for 350CFA (N239.30) and up to 400CFA (N273.49).
It was also observed by a DW correspondent that although the sale or hawking of fuel outside filling stations is illegal, just as it is in Nigeria with the 'black market,' however, the activities of these illegal fuel smugglers are rampant across towns and cities in Cameroon.
Abdulrahman Aliyu, a fuel vendor, makes $40 (about N15,240) a day and noted that the enforcement officials turn a blind eye once they receive an unofficial payment of about $4 (N1,524) every month.
"We are not worried about anything because when we pay, nobody comes to worry us," he said.
The situation is said to be similar in Benin Republic, another neighbouring country in the western part of Nigeria.
According to some residents of Kishi, a town in Kishi Local Government Area of Oyo State, which is used as smuggling entry point, almost all the rural and satellite towns of the western part of Benin Republic, up to Cotonou, its commercial nerve centre, depend on Nigerian oil in an illegal chain of smuggling.
Badejo Olalekan said he often travelled to Cotonou to get goods, noting that black marketers always have a field day along the various unmarked routes.
"The fuel that all the smuggled vehicles depend on from Benin Republic is supplied by towns in Nigeria along the borders, and this has been an age-long trade," he said.
How smugglers operate across towns in Adamawa, Katsina, Oyo, Ogun, others
On the Nigerian side, our correspondents report the various strategies the smugglers deploy to fleece Nigeria of its scarce petrol while flooding it in neighbouring countries, for a somewhat 'higher gain.'
Around the border communities in Adamawa State, petrol smuggling remains a problem. This is despite the increase in pump price of petrol in Nigeria and the tougher restrictions the smugglers face due to the Boko Haram insurgency and the war theatre operations by the Nigerian Army, as well as the joint border patrol by Customs, Immigration and other operatives.
Illegal export of petrol through the land and water borders into Cameroon provides means of livelihood for thousands of young men in the border areas, it was observed.
Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the goods are conveyed in 25 litre jerry-cans, which can take a maximum of 27 litres of petrol loaded on trailers and Toyota Starlet cars, or ferried by boats, usually at night, with the connivance of some corrupt security personnel.
Some smugglers who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday said the business, though dangerous, was profitable.
One of them, a 40-year-old man, said he plied his trade through the Mubi route. "I buy petrol in Mubi at N170 or N175 per litre and sell in Cameroon at N338 equivalent to the Cameroonian currency. You then pay for transportation and settle Customs and other security personnel at the border.
"A round trip can take between seven and 10 days, depending on the destination. We take our goods to Garwa, Rai and Majungirin, a Cameroonian town near the Chadian border.
"It used to be more profitable before the increase in pump price and the border closure. Tough measures due to insurgency have also made things more difficult," he said.
Pariya Maigida, another smuggler from the Nigerian said, said he was quitting the business due to dwindling fortunes and the danger associated with it. He added that the business was still attractive to many, especially unemployed young men.
"On a good day, you can count 20 trailers moving toward the border. People are looking for jobs to do, and in this time of economic hardship and unemployment, smuggling is an opportunity to make some money and cater for your family," he said.
In Katsina State, petrol smuggling activities thrive more in Kongolam (Kwangwalam), a border town with Niger Republic, which is a few kilometres away from the residence of President Muhammadu Buhari in Daura.
When our correspondent visited the town, residents said the activities of the joint border patrol team had greatly hampered the trans-border business of fuel into Niger Republic.
Muhammad Lawwali Kwangwalam, a resident said, "Already, almost all petrol filling stations along the border communities were closed due to the problem of insecurity. But here in Kwangwalam, we have two, and another one at Mai'adua, that are allowed to sell petrol on the condition that they would receive a tanker every week.
"Even if they sold that tanker in two or three days, they would not receive another one until that one week time. And the officers and men of the border drill are constantly patrolling to inspect how the fuel is sold."
Kwangwalam said fuel would not be sold in jerry-cans, even to someone who wanted to use it for his small generator at home.
"If you want to use fuel for your generator you have to use a motorcycle to fill its tank, then find a convenient place to draw out, otherwise if in the process those border drill personnel apprehend you, you are going to be in for it. Life is really miserable for us here," he lamented.
Export into Niger
However, another resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said despite the persecution from the security agents in the area, some still maneuvered their way to export the commodity into Niger Republic.
"As the security operatives are trying their best to apprehend the smugglers, so also the smugglers are trying their best to devise means of avoiding arrest. They communicate on the movements of the security agents with their informants," he said
He added that in the border towns within Niger, a litre of petrol is sold at N250, making a four-litre container to cost N1,000.
"I prefer to cross to Mai Mujiya to buy a half gallon at N500 for my generator than to attempt buying from our filling stations due to the risk involved," he said.
The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) recently sealed a filling station in Katsina while its officials frowned at other filling station operators suspected to be selling fuel in kegs early in the morning and would close during the day.
In Oyo State, this time, towards the Benin Republic and Togo axes, there are several towns that connect smugglers and their ware to the neighbouring country.
In Saki and Kishi border communities, our correspondent gathered that smugglers buy fuel in 25 and 50 litre jerry-cans to transport to Benin Republic.
A source familiar with the routes said there were 23 illegal routes across the Benin Republic and Nigeria border in Saki alone.
Full cans hidden in a coffin bound to Togo
"We have 23 illegal routes in Saki alone. We know those who specialise in fuel bunkering. That is their job. They work with the filling station operators," he said
According to the source, the number of filling stations in Saki and Kishi outnumber those in the entire state, but they are not usually selling fuel to residents.
"You cannot get even a litter from them. Whenever they bring fuel for them, they load it at night and move," he alleged.
On how they sell to other countries, he said smugglers got the product in jerry-cans from these communities to Benin Republic within two to four hours, depending on the destination. Retailers in Benin then sell in plastic bottles, which is about a litre.
"A plastic bottle of fuel, which is about a litre, goes for 880CFA in Benin. When converted, 880CFA is about N250. Some of those doing the business are richer than the entire Saki land. Many of them sleep in the afternoon and work at night," he said.
David Ojo, a teacher in Kishi, said most smugglers were into multiple businesses. "They will load the fuel in 25 litre jerry-cans from this town in Golf cars and take them to neighbouring towns in Benin Republic.
"They will buy poultry products and other consumables with their proceeds and come to retail them at the Kishi market and even in Ilorin in Kwara State, which is 45 minutes away," he noted.
One other effect of this is that there are often reported shortages of fuel supply in the communities as the illicit export preference overrides the domestic demand obligation of filling station owners.
In Ogun State, Idi-Iroko, Ipokia, Ilara, Iwoye, Imeko and Ijofin communities, spread across Ipokia, Yewa North and Imeko Afon local government areas, are the epicentres of smuggling activities in the state.
Findings by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed that over 700 illegal routes (land and water) exist in those communities, through which smugglers export fuel and import other goods into Nigeria.
On the creeks, smugglers make use of floaters, improvised boats to ferry smuggled fuel in vehicles across the water. And on land, motorcycles are used to smuggle fuel loaded in jerry-cans through the illegal routes.
Our investigation revealed that the act continued despite border closure in the state and restriction of fuel supply to fuel stations within 20 kilometres of the borders.
About 161 filling stations fall within the restricted border communities in Ogun State, still, smuggling of fuel is unabated.
An undergraduate who specialises in smuggling petrol into Benin Republic through his motorcycle, said he made between N5,000 to N10,000 from smuggling per trip.
He said the attractive reward that came with the illegal jobs "is almost irresistible because I use the proceeds from smuggling to feed myself and sponsor my education."
Petroleum products marketers also indulge in the smuggling activities because of the limited resources in the neighbouring countries; hence they earn more on smuggled fuel.
Some of the illegal dealers said that in Benin Republic, fuel is largely sold in bottles (plastic) on the roadside, with the practice called 'black market,' just like in Nigeria. "A bottle costs about 900CFA, which if converted to naira, goes between N250 and N300," a dealer said.
Security operatives fingered in smuggling
Security operatives posted to man one of the country's busiest land borders - Idiroko in Ogun state are now involved in smuggling of petrol to Benin Republic, an investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed.
During their off days, the security men use their vehicles to carry as high as 10 (25 litres) of jerry-cans of petrol across the border per trip.
Those involved are made to part with a token to be allowed free access across the border post.
This nefarious act continues unbridled in spite of the numerous police checkpoints along the Attan-Idiroko axis of the border.
Nigeria subsidizing petrol for Cameroon, Benin, others - Analyst
The smuggling of petrol from Nigeria to neighbouring countries amounts to indirectly subsidizing the product for the countries with Nigeria's taxpayers' money, experts have said.
One of them, an economist, Dr Gabriel Ejiofor, said the existence of petrol subsidy is what fuels the smuggling business to neighbouring countries.
"Petrol is subsidised in Nigeria and far cheaper, compared to other countries in Africa," he said.
Dr Ejiofor, who is a consultant and the chief executive officer of GLG Nigeria Limited, said the country's daily petrol consumption volume would have been far less if smuggling at the borders was checked.
He said many litres of imported petrol in Nigeria end up in neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
"Nigeria is their conduit pipe for cheap petrol. We all know this. They get it cheaper here. It is business. The smugglers double their profits when they successfully get it across the land borders," he said.
He lamented that smuggling jerked up prices of petrol in rural places due to artificial scarcity.
We're deploying new monitoring tools - DPR
When contacted, DPR, the government agency responsible for monitoring lifted petroleum products and its consumption pattern, said it was intensifying surveillance at border areas, in collaboration with security agencies.
The spokesman of the DPR, Mr Paul Osu, who spoke to our correspondent in an exclusive interview on Friday, said the agency was also deploying new monitoring tools to discourage smuggling and operation of illegal outlets, from where most of these activities occur.
Osu also said the recently launched Downstream Remote Monitoring Systems (DRMS) was helping to track product movement across retail outlets and depots.
"We are now able to see supply and consumption trends across the country. We can also better monitor stock levels and distribution patterns.
"We can now strategise our monitoring activities to meet any distribution or supply challenges that may occur in operations," he said.
He said the current daily PMS consumption ranged between 50million and 54million litres.
What we're doing to curb petrol smuggling - Customs
Although the NCS confirmed that petrol smuggling activities were real and ongoing, it, however, said drastic actions were being taken to arrest the situation.
The comptroller, Adamawa/Taraba command, Ishaq Ganiyu, said they had intensified intelligence and patrol in the fight against smuggling.
Ganiyu also referred to the recent display of 1,195 jerry-cans of petrol as part of items seized on the Nigeria-Cameroon border in Adamawa State.
On his part, the spokesman of Customs, Ogun Area I, Hammed Oloyede, said, "We are intensifying the anti-smuggling campaigns, and that has manifested in the number of seizures we are making every day."
Speaking on illegal petrol smuggling across Seme border, the Customs area comptroller, Seme command, Bello Mohammed Jibo, said his men intercepted 3,208 (25 litres) plastic jerry-cans of petrol between January and March this year.
He said several vehicles used by hoodlums to smuggle petrol were also intercepted.
"The above landmark achievement is an indication that officers and men of the command are not losing their guards in detecting and stemming the tide of the nefarious activities perpetuated by daredevil smugglers," Jibo said.
In his response to enquiries by Daily Trust on Sunday, the national public relations officer of the NCS, Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, said they had cause to tackle this issue, especially across border communities.
He recalled that in 2019 when partial border closure began, the Service had to place a restriction on the movement of petrol tankers of 20 kilometres near border communities to stem the tide of smuggling.
"On this petrol issue, even the villagers along border areas have written several petitions against Customs over the 20 kilometres restriction, saying they have to go far to buy petrol as if they were not Nigerians," he said.
Attah also noted that with the reopening of the borders and the reforming of the EXSWIFT operations, there is now a joint border patrol exercise by security operatives in Nigeria and its counterparts across neighbouring countries.
"Don't forget that there is also a joint border patrol on both sides, and the operatives share intelligence daily on this," he added.
By Zakariyya Adaramola, Simon E. Sunday, Francis A. Iloani (Abuja), Kabiru R. Anwar (Yola), Tijjani Ibrahim (Katsina), Jeremiah Oke (Ibadan), Peter Moses (Abeokuta), Sunday M. Ogwu & Eugene Agha (Lagos)