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Despite rising insecurity, Nigerian borders remain porous, under-policed

While Nigeria battles insurgency, banditry and other forms of criminal activities, little attention is paid on securing the country’s borders, especially the one with Niger…

While Nigeria battles insurgency, banditry and other forms of criminal activities, little attention is paid on securing the country’s borders, especially the one with Niger Republic – believed to be the major route of arms smuggling into the country. This is even as corruption among security officials saddled with the border security responsibility further complicate the situation as finding by Daily Trust on Sunday from trip to two of the major entry points indicate.


Open, scarcely policed borderlines, homogeneity of the peoples on both sides, and security officials often willing to look the other way for a few Naira notes: This is the summary of the story of Nigeria’s vast land borders which security experts and policymakers often describe as the gateway for illegal arms fuelling the country’s intractable armed conflicts.

Nigeria has been battling a 12-year-old insurgency with the North East geopolitical zone as its epicentre. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, released in June, says 349,000 people were killed either directly or indirectly by the Boko Haram insurgency.

In parts of the North West and North Central, banditry in rural communities, which started as a little flame of criminality is ballooning into another long-drawn security problem and creating in its trail another humanitarian crisis. In a June 2020 report, a security think tank, International Crisis Group, estimates that since 2011, when the menacing rural banditry began to escalate into a full-blown armed criminality, some 8,000 persons had been killed, mainly in Zamfara State, while about 200,000 were displaced from their homes, with about 60,000 of them fleeing into the neighbouring Niger Republic. Despite thousands of the displaced persons returning home, early this month, over 50,000 others were still taking refuge in the neighbouring country according to a Daily Trust story.

Besides these two major security challenges afflicting the country, there have also been armed insurrection by members of the militant wing of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), in addition to cases of cultism, kidnapping for ransom and armed robbery.

 While these security challenges differ in geographical space, scope and actors, they are driven by a common factor: Availability of arms in the hands of non-state actors—criminal groups and individuals. In April last year, a study on proliferation of arms in Nigeria by SBM Intelligence reports that there were up to 6,145,000 small arms in the hands of non-state actors in Nigeria. The statistics means that there at least one gun for every 35 Nigerians, at the country’s estimated population of 212 million. 

Nigeria occupies an area of 923,768 square kilometers, and is bordered by Chad on the North-East; Cameroon on the East, Gulf of Guinea on the South, Benin Republic on the West and Niger on the North-West.

Most of the country’s border with these neighbours, stretching a total boundary length of 4,900 km, is made of land, with only 853km as coastline, largely with the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s borders with Benin and Chad are 773km and 87km long respectively, while those with Niger and Cameroon span 1,497km and 1,690km respectively.

 “Across the over 4,000 square kilometres coverage, we have illegal routes which are not manned,” David S. Parradang the then Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) Comptroller-General, revealed in 2014. He said although the country had 84 approved borders, there were over 1,400 illegal routes.

Parradang who made the disclosure while addressing the National Conference Committee on Immigration, cited the examples of Ogun and Adamawa states, with 83 and 80 illegal posts respectively.

“The number of illegal routes is 100 times more than the number of approved routes. In Adamawa State for instance, we have about five control posts but we have 80 illegal routes in the state, through which people come into the country,’’ he said at the time, warning that the development has grave security implications for the country. 

Katsina State Commissioner of Police, Sanusi Buba, agrees. As the man in charge of maintaining peace and security in the troubled state, which has vast open borders with Niger Republic, Buba says the porosity of the border gives him and other security agents in the state a tough time, especially in the absence of high tech solutions and scant men to effectively keep an eye over the indescript borderlines.

“Just mere siting of checkpoints on main road is not sufficient,” the police commissioner tells Daily Trust on Sunday in his office in the metropolis. What our reporter found traveling from Kano to Daura and Kongolom, and from Katsina to Magama and Jibia, confirmed the police chief’s prognosis.

The roads, at both ends, are tinctured with checkpoints manned by men of the Nigeria Police, Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). The three security agencies had the traditional role of providing security and ensuring that only legitimate goods and persons move in and out of the country. But in 2019 the Nigerian government formulated a joint security outfit named “Joint Border Drill Operation” following closure of the country’s land borders in August of that year. The border closure itself was premised on the need to check smuggling of banned goods and illicit arms through the borders especially with Niger Republic, Benin and Togo. Even with the border reopening, this security task team, under the new codename of Joint Border Patrol.

The new border security force, in addition to police, immigration and customs personnel has officers drawn from the Department of State Service (DSS), National Intelligence Agency (NIA), and the Nigerian Army. This hybrid forces were deployed to all key land borders in Seme, Idi-Iroko, Maigatari, Jibia, Kongolom, Illela, among others.

The army, however, was said to be withdrawn from the combined team in the face of increasing pressure on the troops to face the crises being fuelled by the dangerous contrabands crossing from the border.


Many security checkpoints lie on the road to Jibia, a major smuggling hotspot

The blackspots, the loopholes, the tactics

Despite the presence of the security men along the border communities and official border posts, arms and ammunitions still find their way into the country in what experts described as booming trade. Criminal elements operating especially in the forests neighbouring Niger Republic boast of war chest that is being fed by the illegal arms coming in through the land borders as well as from the sea via southern Nigeria.

Security agents, especially the police and customs, have routinely announced capture of gun-runners both at the country’s sea and land borders, and sometimes while delivering to criminals in the hinterland.

But in spite of those sparing arrests, the armed groups do not appear to be short of supply. In an interview with this reporter in February, a prominent bandit, who masterminded December 2020 abduction of schoolboys from a boarding school in Kankara, Katsina State, Auwal Daudawa, likened access to arms with purchasing bread, to demonstrate the ease. Another bandits’ leader, Shehu Rekeb used similar comparison in a recent interview.

Findings by Daily Trust on Sunday indicate that the major routes used by the armed smugglers along the Nigeria-Niger border are the corridors around Jibia in Katsina State Illela in Sokoto and Ruwawuri and Kamba in Kebbi State.  

In most of these border areas, the line is blurry as a result of absence of clear demarcation. In places like communities visited by this reporter around Daura and Kongolom, as well as Jibia and Magama, all in Katsina State, the border exists only in name but absent in physical and psychological realities.

In Kongolom, for example, residents say there are about 13 unmanned entry points, mostly through farmlands from where persons from both ends can enter the other side. But even at the official border, our reporter witnessed how persons walk in and out of the two countries, with some using motorcycles.

“Some of our people go in (to Nigerien side) to buy bread and milk in the morning for breakfast, every day. They also come in to do whatever they want to do and go back in,” says a Kongolom resident and leader of commercial driver’s in the town, Lawali Planner.

A resident of MaiAdua, Aminu Aliyu, says the movement in and out of Niger is easy for locals as the two sides share social connections and economic activities. He says vigilance is only placed on strange faces

“We pay serious attention. Any suspicious movement, we report it to the right authorities. We don’t house strangers, or tolerate anyone who can create problem for us,” Planner, who is the local chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) says.    

In Jibia, the situation is the same with Kongolom. Hamlets and farmlands located along the borderline blur the distinction between what lies on both sides, and make movements of persons, both law-abiding and criminals seamless.

At Jibiyan-Maje, a village outside Jibia town, Nigeriens come with their cow-driven carts to fetch water at a water work located in the community. Along that stretch of the borderline, as in elsewhere, bush paths connect villagers who see themselves as one, with both sides defending on each other for socio-economic activities.

Katsina State governor, Aminu Bello Masari describes the borderline as “an open border that is harbouring the same communities with same culture and same religion”. Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, Masari laments; “obviously it poses a threat and a big challenge in terms of securing the borders”.

With increasing resource pressure occasioned by climate change, movement across these communities equally intensify as persons who make living out of farming and animal rearing increasingly move in search of a more clement environment.

Aided by the porosity of the border smugglers employ a number of tactics to conceal arms and ammunitions, which they deliver at exorbitant prices to the criminals operating in the swathes of forests stretching from Zamfara and Katsina down to Niger and Kogi in the North Central.

Findings by this reporter indicate that the smugglers disguise the arms through various means, while a number of them also rely on insiders, security personnel, to beat whatever semblance of security exists along the road. 

Touregs moving with camels through bush paths laying between the two countries are often used on ferrying the arms. In places in Kebbi State, the arms dealers use a stream running along the border as the smuggling corridor, sources familiar with the illicit trade told Daily Trust on Sunday.

Some, however, like Shehu Ali Kachalla who was arrested in May by the police in Zamfara State, use motor vehicles for his operation. A security personnel told this reporter that some of the smugglers hide such arms in inconspicuous places in cars, such as between the outer frames of doors and their internal covers.

Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that the arms consignments are often concealed in paddy rice or in consignment of tiger nuts and dates. 

Katsina police commissioner explains such tactics further: “They follow through bush paths. They can use camels, and other domestic animals like donkeys to pass where no vehicles can pass; where there are no noticeable roads. You can see (the area) is not even a forest, so to say. They can embark on that journey at night with these animals. How many security agents do we have, that you can line up around this expansive borderline? We are definitely few.”

Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, the former Immigration boss, David Parradang, re-echoes his 2014 alarm: “There are so many illegal routes and creeks at both our land and sea borders that are not patrolled even though identified”, he emphasises that “the large expanse of both land and sea borders are not adequately patrolled and managed”.

A Sahelian problem

Cross-border organised crimes like gun-running and drugs pedalling are not unique to Nigeria. Both Parradang and Masari speak to the international context of the problem, especially in the West African sub region.  

“All countries in the sub region are experiencing same security threat,” Parradang says, adding that the free movement protocol of the ECOWAS contributes to the challenge of insecurity in the region, “hence the need for all to come together to fight this common threat by integrated border management policies and strategies”.

Masari, on his part, speaks on the much-talked-about the Libya factor in the security challenge facing the Sahel, the instability in Mali and Chad, and how Nigeria is the destination for the illicit articles. In the aftermath of the fall of Late Libyan strongman, Muamar Gaddafi in 2011, it was estimated that the large stockpile he left behind were plundered, in addition to the small and light weapons supplied the Libyan rebels from outside the country. Most of these weapons ended up in the hands of non-state actors.

“Cumulation of many problems in Libya, Chad, Mali, saw arms and ammunition finding their way into Nigeria. How do they come into Nigeria? They have to come through Niger Republic. Illicit drugs and intoxicants also find their way into Nigeria through Niger Republic.

“Now, the ungoverned space of Libya, Chad and Mali have now become collection and distribution centres of arms and ammunition. When you look at them all, which one has the highest market? Is it not Nigeria? So the target is Nigeria.” The Katsina governor adds that the situation in other nearby countries “has put a lot of pressure on border control and intelligence gathering,” the governor said.

But beyond what is not in the control of the Nigerian authorities, many inadequacies and conduct of personnel make the pressure from outside pass off easily into the country. In addition to lack of adequate and modern equipment, laxity and corruption among security men deployed for that important assignment make mockery of the deserved seriousness the borders ought to get.

Greasing the palms

“It’s because he has not given them (money),” The man sitting beside this reporter says as the soldier at the check point asks the bus driver to park. Sabo himself a commercial driver familiar with the road boasts, “We know them. He just wants to delay us because he has not given him anything”. This was at an army checkpoint just out of Kazaure, on the road going to Daura and linking up to the border towns of Zango, Kongolom, and MaiAdua.

True to Sabo’s prediction, the sentry soldier was only trying to delay the uncooperative driver. He requests to see contents of the luggage but later changes his mind and passes the vehicle. He would have to as it was still drizzling from an overnight downpour.

The unwritten rule, especially for commercial drivers, is to “pay and go”. At checkpoint after checkpoint on both the Kano-Kongolom route and the Katsina-Jibia Road, drivers conveying goods and passengers pass money to personnel manning the posts. With money exchanging hands, vehicles are let to pass with no hesitation. There were 14 of such spots along the 30 kilometre stretch between Katsian and Magama border, in Jibia, at the time of this reporter’s visit. At one of those spots, this reporter on camera the exchange of money between a driver and a customs officer.  

With this culture of corruption and compromise as accepted norm, security agents on these important routes have developed familiarity with the commercial drivers. This means two things: The drivers can occasionally skip paying the unofficial tolls, the security agents also pay less attention on these familiar faces.

But beyond the obvious everyday bribery on the road, secret deals occur between some of the personnel and persons smuggling contrabands, including arms, into the country. In some instances, gun runners have confessed how they buy the cooperation of corrupt security personnel who either look the other way for the contrabands to pass, or actively participate in the dark trade.

A resident of Mai’Adua, Auwal Tijjani, speaks to this, saying most persons plying what is locally tagged “Hanyar kasa”, the illegal routes, do so after settling the same persons who ought to arrest them. An officer of one of the security agencies attached to the Joint Border Patrol confirmed to Daily Trust on Sunday the involvement of some of his colleagues in aiding smuggling.


Your naira, your identity

In the short stretch between Daura and Kongolom, this reporter counted four checkpoints manned by Immigration and Immigration officers. At the second checkpoint, coming from Daura into Kongolom, this reporter came face to face with the practice that many travellers around the Nigerian land borders are familiar with: Bribe in exchange of identification.

After passing an unmanned checkpoint on the road from Daura to Kongolom, the driver was stopped at the second one, operated by immigration officers. The young officers peaks into the car from the driver’s side and asks the three passengers for identification.

“Come down!” he instructs in response to the reporter’s confession of having no ID card. The driver motions the reporter not to obey the order. “Do you have N200 with you?” he asks. The security personnel tries bargain further but the driver begs, making him pocket the naira note and wave off the vehicle. The bribe was a substitute for scrutiny.

The driver narrates how this was normalised over time. The bribe is normally collected from passengers in advance: N500 for immigration post for persons, whether Nigerians or Nigeriens without a valid national identity.

“It is better you give them here than they take you into that office,” he says. “Once you enter there, the price goes up”.


The concerns, the way out

Our insider source in the border operation team speaks to the many inadequacies which make jest of the seriousness the border security deserves and why corruption is pervasive among operatives.

“Officers are men are not being adequately catered for, making compromise and extortion rampant,” he says. “Government is making security personnel vulnerable. What structure is in place for personnel killed on duty? You don’t have security relating to health or housing”.  

There is also strategic and operational inadequacies, he says, in addition to lack of coordination and rivalry among different agencies with immigration, internal security and customs duties.

“I am of the opinion that our country takes for granted the relevance of well managed borders to our national security. It is assumed that because we have friendly countries as neighbours, investing in border control is not a priority. This however is a huge error as we have come under severe threats to our national security by non-state actors such as bandits, terrorists, small arms and light weapons smugglers, drug barons and other and other trans-border criminals,” Parradang submits when asked to comment on the country’s problematic border security.

In Katsina, for example, the state government had to device a way to respond to the cross-border crimes, though borders and international relations are outside states’ remits, according to the Nigerian constitution.

In response to crimes of cattle rustling, Katsina State Government signed a treaty with state of Maradi in Niger Republic, according to Governor Masari, “and we meet quarterly, especially with regard to movement of cattle immediately after rainy season”.

The Katsina governor is not too optimistic about tight policing of the borders to avert influx of arms. “I think…is a problem that we have to live with, because this proliferation of weapons through Libya, is a problem beyond our own direct control, but our borders are our under our own control and if we work hard, we can bring the problem to the barest minimum this problem arms and ammunition and illicit drugs into our country,” he tells Daily Trust on Sunday.

The Katsina police chief, Buba, says the police “Require credible intelligence. Without credible intelligence it’s not going to be easy to police this expansive and porous border. Niger Republic is almost twice the size of Nigeria, in terms of landmass. That means a lot needs to be done in order to police these expansive border lines all over the place.”

For the former Immigration Service boss, “more officers should be recruited, trained and well equip to manage our borders”. The government, he says, “should consider a well-articulated border management law that clearly defines the roles of relevant agencies in border patrol, both paramilitary and armed forces”.  

Both Parradang and Masari make case for deployment of technology in monitoring and securing the vast border. According to Parradang, “Government has not invested enough in both human and technology resources in managing our borders. There are effective equipment and technologies in the market that can to a large extent secure our borders”. The technology, human resources, and, as Masari adds, “support of the rural communities” are essential for any desired inroad.

 A personnel with the Joint Border Patrol says technology would make their job easier. “We are not sophisticated,” he says, asking not to be named as he has no authority to speak to the media. “We don’t have geospatial equipment. Satellites equipment can give you pictures and determine exact location of the bad guys before you strike.”  

Findings by Daily Trust on Sunday showed that in April 2019, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved N52 billion for what the Minister of Interior at the time, Abdulrahman Dambazau, called e-border project. Nothing is however heard about the initiative after this time and from responses of personnel interviewed, it is apparent that, like many government’s interventions, the project hardly left off the shelf, or ended up in drainpipes.


Funding for this story was provided by The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through the Daily Trust Foundation, with additional funding from the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO)

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