Divided by border, united by business interest
In spite of the border dispute between Nigeria and Benin Republic, business activities continue to thrive in the towns connecting the two countries. DEBO OLADIMEJI who returned recently from Benin Republic reports
REPORTS of the invasion of about 16 Nigerian communities by the Benin Republic along its border with Kwara State notwithstanding, business activities continue to blossom between the two countries in that area.
Even the tension around one of the disputed communities, Ogomue, has not affected the movement of goods and persons from Nigeria to Benin Republic through Ogomue border.
Commercial drivers continue to load their vehicles from Okuta, Kwara State to the markets in neighbouring villages of Benin Republic as usual.
Also the traffic of Nigerians going to Benin Republic for medical treatment is on the increase.
The road to Kabo, Sahoro Local Council of Benin Republic from Okuta, Kwara State is winding, and accidents happen on the road from time to time. The road is due for reconstruction.
Yet, Nigerians businessmen continue to make use of the road to have access to Kabo and other parts of Benin Republic such as Parakou, Lome and Cotonou.
Nigeria Immigration, Customs and port health officers are always present at their duty posts, which is also due for reconstruction. They share almost the same attitude with their Benin Republic counterparts, collecting duties from commercial motorists with or without proper documentation.
At Kabo, Nigerians were doing their businesses without fear. One of them, Mariam Taju, a trader, said Nigerian traders in Kabo have cordial relations with the indigenes.
“I am from Saki in Oyo State. That is where I buy the goods (groceries) I am selling here. I have been living here for the past 30 years. I live here with my husband and seven children. We don’t have any problem at all with the locals,” Mrs Taju said.
She said that there is no trade restriction between Nigeria and Benin Republic. “Just pay the Customs and Immigration dues and you are free to enter the country with your goods.”
She said Nigerian children go to the same schools with the Beninoires. “But there are schools for Nigerian children here. Regarding other amenities, he said the government has tried. “They have provided solar energy for those who could afford it. They gave them meters. Everybody has access to the public water system powered by solar energy provided by the government.”
The Emasion Nursery and Primary School, Kabo, was founded in 2004 for Nigerian pupils.
Headmaster of the school, Michael Oluwasogo, a native of Ilesa, Osun State, said Beninoire pupils, mostly Baruba, and Nigerians, populate the school. He added that about 20 per cent of the pupils in the place are Beninoires.
“We have French teachers for the children of the Beninoires. I came to the town around 2013. The indigenes are very friendly people. They like the foreigners in their midst,” Oluwasogo said.
A 2007 graduate of College of Education, Oro, Kwara State, Oluwasogo started his teaching career in Ilesa Baruba, Kwara State. There, he worked at Ilesa Baruba Precious Academy Nursery and Primary School. He had to leave when the proprietor was not ready to increase his salary, but things have changed now.
Oluwasogo said the management is thinking of extending the facilities in the school by building more classrooms. “Each of the pupils pays N2, 500 per term. Some of them moved to Nigeria to continue schooling after their primary schools here.”
He recalled that the Yoruba Parapo in Kabo came out massively to join with the traditional ruler of Kabo when he was celebrating his anniversary.
On her part, Aminat Taiwo, a trader at Kabo from Okuta, said Nigerians are free to do their businesses without any hassles in Kabo. She has been trading there for the past eight years.
“There is no problem. I travel from Okuta to places like Kabo and Parakou to do my business. I sell jewelries.” She urged the Nigerian government to help repair the road from Okuta to Kabo.
The experience of Ayuba Aliu, a driver from Okuta, is not different. Aliu who plies Kabo route almost everyday reiterated that Nigerians are free to do their business in Benin Republic.
He noted, however, that there is no good employment for the youths in the Baruten area of Kwara State.
“I went to Okuta Baptist Grammar School. I finished 10 years ago. Baruba people are mostly farmers but no industries to process our agricultural produce. We have to transfer them to Benin Republic to process them. That is why people like me are commercial vehicle drivers.”
At Nikki, Benin Republic, the Chairman of the Igbo Community at Nikki, , Emmanuel Edeani from Enugu State said he has been living there for the past 20 years.
“It is a peaceful place to live. I have my own house here. The only thing is that the people don’t have money like Nigerians. The Baruba in Nigeria and those at Nikki share the same culture. On December 24, they always do their annual Gani cultural festival here,” Edeani said.
He confirmed that the President of Benin Republic, Thomas Boni Yayi attended the event last year. Edeani who sells motorcycle spare parts said motorcycles are the common means of transportation in Nikki.
“I go to Lagos and Nnewi to buy my goods. The only problem we are facing is that of high customs duties. Customs officers always visit our shops to ask for customs papers and they may even lock up your shops because of that,” he lamented.
The owner of Ets Emmanuel Spare Parts, he added that many Nigerians are fond of sending their wards to schools in Nigeria (in Okuta and Saki).
“If we can have a Nigerian school here it will be good. Nigerians are many here. We are more than 2,000 people. Some of our children attend primary schools here. Some of them will later go back to Nigeria to complete their studies. Others complete their studies here after which they start working.”
He recalled that the Nigerian community in Nikki used to meet to discuss about their welfare. “Many of the Igbos still go home from time to time through Ilorin or Ibadan. Nikki is a lovely place; you have to be the patient type to do business here. They are basically farmers. So food is very cheap. A bag of imported rice is about N7, 000.”
Edeani said that one could spend Naira in Nikki. “There is electricity 24 hours. We have pipe borne water flowing in our houses. The place is well organised. The little money they have; they manage it very well.”
He said the President personally came to supervise the construction of some roads in Nikki two years ago. “The roads are of high standard.”
He said some of his Igbo friends even married Beninoires. “We have Yoruba and Hausa people living here as well. I can speak the local language. Every Friday, the people go to the general mosque to pray. There is no religious crisis here.”
Wale Odewale, a native of Osogbo, Osun State has been coming to sell traditional medicine in Nikki since 2000. He shuttles between Nikki and Oshogbo to replenish his stock.
“I sell drugs for fever, dysentery and weak manhood. I was born and brought up in this business. I know the roots and the bark of the trees used to make the medicine.”
He said that he was based in Okuta before. Relocating to Nikki.
According to him, every day there is a market in Baruten area. He recalled how he came to Nikki:
“On one Tuesday during Chikanda market, a border between Nigeria and Benin Republic, I met one old man at the market. After I introduced my products he said: ‘Can you come to where I am living?’ I said ‘where is that?’ He said ‘Nikki in Benin Republic.’”
One thing led to another and three months later, he was in Nikki to honour the man’s invitation and to sell his products. “I have been coming here right from the time I was in Osun State College of Technology, Esa Oke.”
He stressed that the Benin people are very accommodating. “Everybody likes my products. Even the gendarmes buy from me.”
Odewale recalled that during the Gani Festival in 2014 the Secretary to Benin Republic President bought one of his products. “We met in one hotel close to where I live and he bought beer for me and bought my products. I learnt the Baruba language to sell my products because they like foreigners who can speak their language.”
To buy a packet of aphrodisiac costs N500 (about CFA2000), he said. “You also can get Nigerian food here like amala. It is only eba and fufu (made from cassava flour) that you cannot get.
As for Ige Wasiu, a mechanic from Oyo State, he has been living in Nikki since 1987. “We are all living here like brothers and sisters. Though there is no place like home, the indigenes of Nikki don’t discriminate against the non-indigenes. They even allow us to partake in local politics.”
Wasiu said some Nigerians are employed in the armed forces and many Nigerians are now nationals of Benin Republic.
“Once you are born here, you are automatically a citizen. When I came here, the place was not as developed. They don’t have any mechanic doing alignment here. But we were many in Saki then. That was why I decided to relocate to Nikki.”
He goes home often to see his mother who is a widow. “We find it difficult to enter Nigeria whenever we are going home. We use the number plate of Benin Republic but the Nigerian security men disturb us on the road whenever we are going home. We have more freedom in Benin Republic than we do have in Nigeria.”
Another Nigerian whose parents are from Oyo State, Salami Tijani Yekini was born in Benin Republic. He is now a director of a school called Gosogi Primary School in Nikki.
He said he is very happy living here be cause he has a job in government school and his salary paid regularly every month. “I have been working for the past 12 years. I am used to this place than Nigeria. I married two wives, Kadjat and Sopiat. They are from Benin Republic.”
He said house rents are inexpensive at Nikki. “Food is also cheap that is why people come here to buy foodstuff and transported it to Nigeria. There is rest of mind. You can go to any social event even at night. People can steal your goat or motorcycle but no cases of armed robberies here,” he said.
He added that language is not a barrier as most Nigerians living in Benin Republic can speak French.
Dr Salau Gafarudeen was born and bred in Benin Republic. His parents are also from Oyo State. He is a graduate of Veterinary Medicine from Lycree Technique d’ Agzicole de Kiki in Benin Republic.
He is now working as a community veterinary doctor in charge of the animals in Nikki and its neighbouring communities.
“There is no problem for Nigerians who are not looking for problem here. Coming to Nikki from Nigeria is not a problem but to go back to Nigeria is a problem. The Nigeria customs disturb us a lot at the border.”
Nzenagu Exevier from Anambra State said Nigerians living in Nikki are doing well. “Whenever there is a problem we always find a way to settle it. Most of us don’t have resident permits and the security agents are not giving us any problem as such. However, we find it difficult to bring goods into the country because of high import duties. We want free movement of goods and persons in the member countries of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
He commended the security agents for not disturbing Nigerians using vehicles with Nigerian plate number. “There is steady supply of electricity, and there is constant water supply. The rent for accommodation is from N5, 000 to N7, 000 per month depending on the type of the building you are living. I lived in a rented apartment built by a Nigerian for more than 20 years.”
Exevier said his brothers are now living in his former house. “Most of the provisions I am selling are from Nigeria and Cotonou. You just have to obey their laws here and you don’t have any problem.”
Also instructive is the fact that Nigerians are now going to Nikki for medical treatment. Sani Ayuba was one of the Nigerians who came to Suno Shoro Hospital, Nikki, all the way from Saki to see his brother, Suraju.
He disclosed that his brother was brought to the hospital after all efforts to get adequate medication failed in Saki.
“He was having malaria and we took him to a hospital in Saki but there was no improvement. Since we brought him here, he has been improving. Even people are coming here from Lagos and Ibadan for medical treatment. It is cheaper to do surgery here than to do it in Nigeria.”
He said they have to travel for three hours to seek medical care in Nikki due to poor medical treatment in Nigeria.
“Nigerians are many in the hospital. There is no language barrier as most of the doctors can speak English or Yoruba. After treatment they will give you appointment to come back for medical check ups.”
Nigerians in Parakou are also doing well. One of them, a trader, Johnson Uko, from Akwa Ibom State, said there is freedom of movement in Benin Republic.
“I have been living here for the past 15 years. My children are attending Igbo Community Secondary School. They teach them English and French. We enjoy constant electricity and water supply. There is no problem with the locals. I can even speak their language.”
Another trader, Oke Uko from Abia State said life is going on smoothly in Parakou. He has been living there for the past 10 years. “To make life easy depends on individuals. How you live your life is very important. When you are living in another man’s country, you know what to do and what not to do. You have to sit down with one side of your bottom. Whenever you see quarrel, somebody caused it. Don’t look for anybody’s problem.”
His neigbour, Joel Maduka from Abia State, has been living in Parakou for the past 10 years. He disclosed that his master brought him there from Nigeria to look after his business.
“My children are going to Nigerian International School. I can speak the local language. I also can speak French passably. We buy our goods from Nigeria. I sell stainless plates and kitchen equipment. The customs are our problem.”
He is worried that the customs in Benin Republic are collecting high duties from them. “They used to come to the market to ask for our customs papers.”
He said his wife, Happiness, is doing well with his two children. “Foodstuffs are cheaper here than it is in Nigeria. Commercial motorcycles are common here. I have my own motorcycle. I can’t say much about the cost of transportation.”
In the same vein, Mathew Olagbenro, a graduate of Political Science, University of Ibadan who is also a trader said food is very cheap in Parakou.
“With CFA500 which is about N200 you can eat twice a day with satisfaction. Parakou is just like the breadbasket of Benin Republic. The people here are the ones supplying food to the other parts of the country,” he said.