Posted by By Adekunle Adekoya, Deputy Editor & Kingsley Adegboye on
MENTION Seme border to the average Nigerian, and what immediately comes to mind is a busy commercial melting pot, a trans-shipment point, in fact, a place where almost any kind of business can be done, from importation of heavy and light goods to petty trading.
MENTION Seme border to the average Nigerian, and what immediately comes to mind is a busy commercial melting pot, a trans-shipment point, in fact, a place where almost any kind of business can be done, from importation of heavy and light goods to petty trading. Which is what the place is. Driving in from Badagry, what confronts the eye are huge parking areas on both sides of the expressway. Two identical buildings also face each other across the road. These are the buildings housing the Customs, Immigrations, Police, and other necessary services of both Nigeria and Benin Republic at the border post.
All around the clearing, human traffic moves in all directions, each person going about his business. Inevitably present are rows of shanties housing food sellers, drinks sellers, and peddlers of various other items. As Nigerians will say, the place bubbles, on a normal day, that is, before the destruction that visited last Monday.
Monday was not business as usual at the border post between Nigeria and Benin Republic at Seme. That was not because the Customs, Immigrations, Police and a legion of other uniformed outfits were not where they should be, nor were the army of petty traders, transporters, smugglers, and others absent. Of course, clearing agents and importers of various descriptions were there too.
Little did all of them know that the day, which started bright and sunny, would end with tears, blood and destruction. As the day progressed, pandemonium broke out in the afternoon, a free-for-all fight ensued, and people fled for dear lives in various directions as people who used to do business with each other engaged themselves in a life-threatening battle.
The two-day clash which took place between Monday and Tuesday this week allegedly claimed six lives (four Beninoise and two Nigerians) while stores, food canteens and beer parlours belonging to both Nigerians and citizens of Benin Republic and numbering over 50 were set ablaze, in addition to an unspecified number of vehicles that got damaged.
As is usual with occurrences of this nature, there were conflicting accounts of what came about and ruptured the commercial peace of the border post. A clearing agent who pleaded anonymity said that the trouble was sparked off by touts from both sides of the border who operate on the fringes of the smuggling business.
“It is these people who smuggle rice,” he said.
“They usually cross the border and bring in a bag of rice, sometimes two, at a time, which they keep somewhere until they have a consignment they can sell in bulk. The Beninoise touts charged N20 per bag of rice crossing to the Nigerian side. But trouble started last week when they (nationals of Benin Republic) said they were increasing the rate per bag of rice, which the Nigerians resisted. The Beninoise touts wanted N50 per bag, but the Nigerians said it was too much, and offered to pay only N30. That was as at Friday.
“However, a smuggler who later brought in his bag of rice refused to pay the new rate, so the Beninoise seized his rice. He went and reported the development to his people and they joined him and returned to the other side to recover the rice.
“At this point, the matter got complicated because a gendarme (policeman) decided to use force in support of his countryman against the Nigerian petty smuggler, who was then beaten up. This did not go down well with other Nigerians, who massed up against the gendarme and gave him the beating of his life. That was how the whole thing degenerated into a Nigeria-Benin fight at the border post, and lasted till Tuesday.”
However, Saturday Vanguard learnt from another Nigerian at the border post that the bloody clash was the climax of the trouble that broke out at the weekend between Nigerian rice smugglers and a Benin Republic policeman otherwise known as gendarme in French.
Nuru Jimoh, a porter who hauls goods for buyers to the transport park said that the attention of a Beninoise gendarme was drawn to the activities of Nigerian rice smugglers at a warehouse at the border last Friday. The smugglers were said to have beaten up the policeman, leaving him with a battered head for daring to challenge them.
Nuru added that the policeman who managed to escape from the smugglers reported his ordeal to his colleagues on getting to the station, narrating further that the Benin Republic policemen on hearing the case, mobilized and stormed the smuggling scene where a free-for-all fight ensued between the policemen and the smugglers. The smugglers were said to have been dealt with that Friday evening, and the matter was believed to have been settled with the intervention of security operatives at the border.
But our source noted that people were surprised to see unknown hoodlums taking the entire border hostage on Monday evening, claiming that they had come to avenge the beating of the rice smugglers whom they said were their kinsmen, pointing out that the hoodlums saw the crisis between the smugglers and Benin Republic policemen as an excuse to loot and burn people’s stores, canteens and beer parlours.
Nuru who said there was no basis for the hoodlums’ action which turned to a bloody clash between the two countries having settled the trouble that broke out between the rice smugglers and the Benin Republic policeman, noted that the action of the hoodlums was targeted at people’s properties, as the hoodlums first looted all valuable items including cash on getting into a targeted spot before setting it ablaze.
A Nigerian Immigrations officer who spoke to this paper under anonymity however said the cause of the clash, as the Immigration Post at the border heard, was the refusal of some Nigerian drivers carrying goods to Nigeria to be extorted by the Beninoise officials at the border. He added that because the drivers did not oblige the request, the officials resulted to their vehicles being detained, a situation which the drivers resisted and what followed was a fight between the drivers and the Beninoise officials. He said the situation later escalated to a bloody clash between Nigerian and Benin Republic citizens.
However, business activities have picked up again at the border post, with security talks at advanced stages between the two ECOWAS countries to find a lasting solution to the incessant clashes at the border. Police Public Relations Officer of the Lagos State Command, Olubode Ojajuni also told newsmen of a peace meeting which held on Monday, presided over by the Defence Attache in the Nigerian Embassy in Benin Republic, Col. D.D. Kitchener, with security officials of both countries in attendance. He did not give details of the meeting’s deliberations.
Earlier in the week, top Police officials visited the border post. Emmanuel Adebayo, Lagos State Commissioner of Police after his tour of the area directed the Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of Operations, Paul Okafor, to lead two squadrons of the Police Mobile Force (MOPOL 20 and 22, Ikeja), Joint Border Police Patrol team, Federal Highway Patrol and mounted troops to ensure that youths from the Nigerian side are restrained from attacking Beninoise youths.
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