Monday, June 11, 2012

Porous Borders: Nigeria's security compromised by loose frontiers

Nigeria’s security reeling under loose frontiers
Pic 1. PHOTOS: MAURICE ARCHIBONG Copyrights Reserved.

In 2007, after several studies of the country’s security situation vis-à-vis the relevance of frontier areas, this writer filed a lengthy report, which was published in the Travels column of Daily Sun. That essay, entitled A trip to Nigeria’s four corners, premiered on June 14, 2007 and ran for several weeks afterwards.

It would appear that, whereas this writer saw darkness on the horizon, few people could actually imagine that, which would soon unfold. For too long, enemies of Nigeria have been invading the country through her loose frontiers leaving the nation awash with suicide bombers, arms dealers, drugs pushers and human traffickers.

Today, millions of Nigerians and other people across the world are familiar with Boko Haram; but, the signals of imminent attacks by terrorists had been beaming for a long, long time before the bombs began to explode.

Nigeria’s major frontier posts travelled in the course of this study include Kamba in Kebbi State next door to Niger Republic, Daba-Masara in Borno on the fringes of Lake Chad and Mfum in Cross River State leading to the Cameroonian settlement of Ekok.

The routes linking Benin Republic to Nigeria, like Igolo through Idiroko, Kilibo via Saki as well as Babana through Nikki were similarly traversed. Also monitored, were the Jibiya and Illela passageways, which connect Nigeria’s Katsina State and Sokoto respectively to the Republic of Niger settlements of Maradi and Birnin Koni.

Although much has been done in the last two years to arrest risks from inadequately secured frontier areas, our investigations revealed that no Nigerian border post could be described as truly water-tight. Despite the ostensible importance of any nation’s frontline to her security, economy and social wellbeing, Nigeria’s borderlines remain poorly manned and inefficiently managed. To be candid, the situation is not good.

In this report, Alhaji Mahmud Aliyu, a former Controller of Customs for Borno and Yobe, two of the states in Nigeria’s embattled North East geo-political zone, says; the rising tide of insecurity plaguing the land is a consequence of the lingering porosity at the nation’s frontiers, which has also permitted sundry contraband and substandard goods to flood the country.
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The spate of bombings and lingering atmosphere of insecurity would be considerably reduced, if Nigeria’s border areas with neighbouring countries were less porous, a former Customs Area Controller (CAC), Alhaji Mahmud Aliyu has said.
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Speaking during an exclusive chat with Daily Sun in Abuja, Aliyu; a retired Comptroller of Customs, asserted that loose frontiers contributed in many ways to the nation’s nagging security woes. Proper demarcation of Nigeria’s frontier is sine qua non to beefing up security at the nation’s border and consequently minimising risks, Aliyu intoned, while stressing that the current situation, where things are vague as to where Nigeria begins and some of her neighbours’ territories end, is unhelpful to national security.

Nigeria’s neighbours
Interestingly, Nigeria is an English-speaking nation, whereas all her neighbours are Francophone, with the exception of Cameroon that is officially bilingual. Nigeria shares borders with four countries: Benin Republic, Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. Of this quartet, Cameroon shares the longest borderline with Nigeria; roughly 1,680km. Republique du Niger comes second with a frontier length of almost 1,500km, while Benin’s margin with Nigeria covers a distance of 773km. Chad has the shortest borderline with Nigeria (87km) and this riparian frontier lies within Lake Chad.

Starting from the North-east, in clockwise order, Nigeria’s neighbours are Chad to the extreme North-east, Cameroon (East), Benin Republic (West) and Niger Republic (North-west and North). Reading between the lines, Nigeria’s security or otherwise may have more to do with each of these countries than could easily be imagined.
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With a land area of almost 924,000km, Nigeria is a very large country, and the size of Borno State, the largest of Nigeria’s 36 states, calls for several hours’ travel just to get to some of the border areas.

Called to the Nigerian Bar in 1987, Aliyu who has since returned to law practice; should know what he is talking about because his valedictory posting was to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, where he served as CAC for Borno-Yobe Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) from 2006 to 2009.

It is also worth noting that Aliyu is an indigene of Pindiga in Gombe State, neighbouring Bauchi, which; together with Borno and Yobe constitute the major flashpoints of the nation’s security concerns in recent years.

While observing that gnawing poverty, lack of jobs and hunger contributed to the ease with which criminal elements found willing recruits into their army of terrorists; Alhaji Aliyu averred that reinforcement of Nigeria’s borders would help to rein-in the parlous security situation plaguing the land.
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He suggested that beacons defining Nigeria’s borders should be installed along relevant lines were these were lacking, instead of the current state of affairs, where some geographical features like river, mountain or even a tree serves that purpose. Would you believe that at the border post of Banki, for instance; the southern entrance to the local mosque stands in Nigeria, while the northern door of the same house of worship lies in Niger Republic?

Such is the nebulous situation at the country’s frontiers. This cloud of uncertainty which continues to take enervating toll on our national security, thus trumping the economy and social standard should be urgently dispelled, advised Aliyu, who pointed out that, constant surveillance of Nigeria’s air-space, land and sea are necessary for proper security.

While it is true that various security agencies have always made life difficult for criminal elements due to enhanced road patrols, until the recent past; however, countless smugglers recorded innumerable successful incursions because operatives of Nigeria’s security apparatuses were severely hampered with regard to monitoring the country’s waterways. Aerial surveillance to track smugglers was also inadequate.

Although the nefarious elements called smugglers continue to make unwholesome gains owing to difficulties in monitoring them from the air and along waterways, their activities have been curtailed by the acquisition of maritime vessels and aircraft by the police and NCS, whose personnels’ surveillance have yielded staggering successes, going by the frequency of reports of interceptions and arrests recorded in recent years.

Comparing the state of affairs, when he was Customs Area Controller for Borno-Yobe to what obtains nowadays; Aliyu remarked: “I am happy that you yourself visited those areas those days and can bear me witness that the situation was not good”.
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Indeed, our visits to numerous official border stations and some of the countless illegal routes plied by smugglers, arms dealers, drug couriers and other undesirable characters, across West Africa over the last 20 years opened one’s eyes to frightening lapses in the security situation arising from inadequate fortification of Nigeria’s borders with neighbouring states.

Apart from the Nigeria Customs Service, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria Police (NPF), Port Health Service, Plant Quarantine Service et cetera have personnel manning our border posts. However, the total number of official frontier stations amount to very little, compared to the country’s perimeter length.

Barely 10 years ago, only 59 official border posts dotted Nigeria’s perimeter, which covers a distance of roughly 4,050km. This translates to a ratio of one border station to a distance of over 65km. The stations would not seem too remote to one another, if there were adequate personnel and gadgets at each one, but our findings revealed that not only are these outposts ill-equipped, the working conditions at some of such control posts are such that those deployed to work there see their posting as a punitive measure.

Border closure’s impact on commerce
Sovereignty notwithstanding, it is doubtful any country could be so cocooned as to be entirely immune to impacts from immediate neighbours. Indeed, no nation is an island: And, as prose maestro, Chinua Achebe taught the world in Things fall apart, “when one finger brings oil, it soils the rest”.

Instance, Nigerian envoy to Chad, Alhaji Abdullahi Omaki, recently revealed that developments in Abuja were taking staggering economic tolls on N’Djamena, Niamey and Yaounde, among other countries surrounding the land of Good People, Great Nation. This came to light during the 4th Summit of Heads of States and Government of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), which was attended by President Goodluck Jonathan and four other African heads of state.

It could be recalled that President Goodluck Jonathan in a bid to curb suspected infiltration by cross-border terrorists; had declared a state of emergency in 15 local government areas of Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobe states in December, 2011. Unlike Plateau, which is not along Nigeria’s borderline, Niger, Borno and Yobe are gateway to some foreign countries; viz: Benin Republic, Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic.

While the Niger State fringe settlement of Babana, which is adjacent to Borgu Region in Benin Republic is not among the more disturbing frontier areas; Bama, Banki, Biu, Gamboru-Ngala and Jere et cetera all lie in the troubled north-eastern geo-political zone. As a result, economic and social activities have ebbed considerably in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic. 

Going by Ambassador Omaki’s recent comments, Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic were reeling from economic shocks engendered by the closure of borders in some north-eastern parts of Nigeria. Hear him: “The volume of trade, (though) largely unrecorded, is about 80 per cent in favour of Nigeria”, and “most of the goods and services coming into Chad, 80 per cent come from Nigeria with less than 20 per cent coming from Cameroon”.

But, for the borders’ closure, the roads to Banki and Gamboru would be busy with trailer and trucks’ traffic, the top-flight diplomat intoned. “If you go through the Banki road or Gamboru road you will see the numbers of trailers that ply such routes on daily basis”. But, this was until late 2011, when the borders were closed. “Now that the border has been closed (since late 2011), if you ask the Cameroonian authorities, they will tell you how much they are losing in terms of revenue that they would have collected from vehicles that pass through Banki and Gamboru into their country”, Omaki mused.

Apart from Cameroonians, Chadian merchants are also suffering from the border closure in Nigeria. For example, Chadian importers are now forced to source from Sudan, wares they used to buy from Nigeria until the borders’ closure. This translates into higher costs for the end consumers because more money was paid on freighting the goods from Sudan than would normally have been paid were the items brought in from nextdoor Nigeria.

It is worth noting that Nigerians have also borne some brunt from the border closure. Alhaji Omaki again: “The effect is both ways: Although, Chadians who were the recipients of Nigerian goods and services are losing some money, because they are not getting wares from nextdoor Nigeria; automatically, since 80 per cent of goods and services to Chad used to come from Nigeria, Nigerians are also losing because those goods and services are no longer being bought from them”.
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Chad: Insights into a neighbour’s relevance to security
Strategically placed at the intersection where the continent’s North, West, East and Central regions converge, Chad deserves more than casual attention. Speaking on Chadian-Nigerian relations, Omaki; who noted that Chad is strategically located between North Africa, East Africa and Central Africa, where there had been extreme religious and political tensions; echoed the popular perception that security was never far from the core issue during any deliberation.

Omaki helped to put things in perspective, this way; “All manner of people from different parts of Africa (some of which had witnessed extreme religious and political strifes) melt into Chad. From there, they then find their way into neighbouring countries. So, Chad is of a strategic importance to Nigeria and I think we should re-evaluate our relationship on that basis and on the fact that this country is a major corridor between Nigeria and other countries around Africa”.

Speaking with the News Agency of Nigeria in the Chadian capital, Omaki; who went on to remind that, until a few years ago, Chad had hardly been crisis-free since it became independent on August 11, 1960; recalled that various conflicts in that country had forced countless Chadians to migrate to Nigeria. Most of such immigrants had made new homes in Jos, Kano, Lagos and Maiduguri, among other settlements.
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Millions of Chadians are now ‘Nigerian with Chadian blood’
“I was told by the Consular-General of Chad in Lagos that there are more than one million Chadians in the Lagos area alone. In Maiduguri, there are certain quarters that are basically Chadian and this city holds the largest concentration of Chadians in Nigeria. Most of these people’s children are of necessity already Nigerians by virtue of birthplace. Most of them were born in Nigeria and they grew up here. They don’t know any other country, and usually would tell you: ‘I am a Nigerian with Chadian blood’”, Amb Omaki revealed.

Why borders are still porous
Owing to logistic and manpower inadequacies, even the formal border posts are not secure enough because operatives of some security agencies deployed to man them are ill-motivated, poorly equipped and rather vulnerable.

During our expeditions, we encountered security personnel whose source of drinking water was the same pool where cattles and other animals drank from. In some instances, makeshift huts built out of cornstalk served as residence for the officers. Often, patrol vehicles had broken down and the rifles and other items in the operatives’ arsenal were dysfunctional and inferior to the fire-power of the criminal elements they are supposed to overwhelm and intercept.

Believe it or not, a number of security officials posted to some frontier posts are often absent from duty. Some do so because of the harsh working conditions, others adopt this unpatriotic attitude to work because the station to which they had been deployed “is not lucrative”. As a result, many Nigerian border posts are still loose.

Although a staggering segment of Nigeria’s borders are still in a sorry state, some of the above-named Federal Government agencies; notably the NCS, NIS and NDLEA; have in the last two years, through reinforcement by way of men and material, redoubled their efforts to keep smugglers at bay.

Asked for his view as to what obtains now, Aliyu opined: “Thanks to the efforts of some of the country’s security agencies, the situation has improved considerably”. The former Borno-Yobe Customs’ chief lauded incumbent Comptroller General of Customs, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko Inde, for recent developments in the service, which includes vigorous drive to improve staff welfare and working conditions. “In many ways, the border has become less dangerous because the current comptroller general of customs procured sturdy patrol vans, aircraft and boats to enhance surveillance”, remarked Aliyu. 
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He went on to add that, “the Alhaji Dikko-led Customs has also boosted staff morale and consequently fostered dilligence, loyalty and patriotism through improved welfare evident in better remuneration, staff promotion as at when due and commissioning of more housing estates to ease scarcity of decent accommodation for officers and men”.

Aliyu again: “At least two aircraft have been procured for Customs Air Command. Also, more maritime vessels were commissioned for both the Eastern and Western Marine Commands of the NCS. On land, dozens of vans have been bought by the Service to enlarge the fleet of vehicles for land patrols.

So, today, whether in the air, at sea or on land, Customs patrol teams carry out surveillance duties more than ever before”.

While observing that, “These surveillance patrols have led to more interceptions as could be seen from Customs data on arrests and seizures”, Aliyu went on to declare: “In less than three years we have witnessed tremendous improvements in personnel training; many officers and men have undergone weapons training, capacity-building and in other areas of Customs Duty. And, you will also agree with me that the image of Nigeria Customs Service has improved steadily in recent years. Based on these and other measures, this comptroller general has made us proud”.

That, notwithstanding, Aliyu was nonetheless candid enough to assert that “more work remains to be done”, to properly secure Nigeria’s fringe lands. He suggested that all hands must be on deck: “More cooperation among the various security agencies will boost security at the border areas”.

As prelude to facilitating such inter-services cooperation, Aliyu suggested greater interaction among officers and men of the various military and paramilitary services. He said one of the ways to foster such fraternity and consequently engender camaraderie and cooperation was to reintroduce the inter-services games, where in previous times, personnels of the Police, Customs and Immigration Services met in sports contests through which friendship developed.

Another strategy could be to borrow another leaf from the days of yore, when personnel of these services enjoyed joint training with their counterparts as well as others in core military simultaneously at the same Defence Academy, Police College or Training School. Such forums made it possible for service personnel to know and understand one another. One of the benefits of such interaction, Aliyu pointed out; “Is that you can actually identify any criminal, even if the suspect was wearing the uniform of a service different from your own”. 

Inside Borno-Yobe
Even at the best of times, business could be very dull in the northeastern states of Borno and Yobe, due to climatic factors and the resultant challenging terrain. Apart from the seasonal torridity, when ambient temperature sometimes hovers around 40 degrees Celsius for weeks, the Borno and Yobe landscapes, which are largely loose sand, make road construction very expensive. This means that road transportation across these parts is more cumbersome both for commuters and commercial vehicle operators.

Contrasting with the searing heat and scorching sun that practically leaves the earth parched, the volume of rains in quasi-desert Borno-Yobe climes sometimes hit surprising levels, flooding the land and rendering hitherto access routes impassable. Although these geographic characteristics pose a drawback to security agencies, smugglers consider them a blessing.

Our expeditions to Daba-Masara and Doro-Baga from Maiduguri gave us some idea of what it takes to travel in these parts. Daba-Masara and Doro-Baga lie in Kukawa Local Government Area, one of Borno’s 27 LGAs. While Daba-Masara is closer to Cameroon across the lake, Doro is nearer to the fringes of Chad. In any case, both villages are around the Lake Chad Basin and are important destinations for traders shuttling between Nigeria, and Cameroon as well as Chad on the foreign side.
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From the Borno State capital, the scorching sun accompanied this wayfarer all the way to Mile 90, which stands two hours’ drive from Maiduguri. Beyond Mile 90, commuters’ woes are compounded by the fact that after turning off the motorway, to the right, the rest of the drive to Daba-Masara is across uncharted desert plains. The ride does not only become bumpier as the four-wheel vehicle struggles through craters covered by fine particles of sand and mini-dunes, the sojourn is made more hazardous by gangs of armed bandits that frequently pounce on commuters across this desert land.

The opinion of countless respondents was that the invaders originate from Chad and the belief is also popular that the armed bandits are spin-offs of militia involved in previous Chadian crises, apparently sparked by the fighting between the Sudanese Government-backed Janjaweed militia and rebels in that country’s south-western region of Darfur.

Whatever their origin, the cross-border marauders move in large numbers and are usually heavily armed and shoot mindlessly. When asked about the frequency of these criminal elements’ raids, the chorus of Nigerian security personnel at various border posts in this part of the world that literally seems to be part of nowhere, was; “Almost daily!”

Such is the fear of these murderous gangsters that virtually all the operatives of various security agencies working at Nigerian settlements around Lake Chad avoid wearing uniforms because such persons are usually the primary targets of the invaders, who are notorious for their love of blood-letting. Given the natural and man-made hazards of travelling or living in these parts and the closure of some border areas by the federal government as part of efforts to keep trans-border terrorists out; most of the traders and residents that hitherto kept local communities here buzzing have fled. These folks’ departure has not only led to a virtual end in economic and social activities, many frontier settlements in Nigeria’s north-east zone have turned ghost town.

What is a border?
In Nigeria and virtually everywhere else across the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, one way of knowing that you are approaching a border is the plenitude of checkpoints mounted by personnel of various security agencies.

Whether heading to Nigeria’s north-eastern frontier of Gamboru, vicinal to Cameroon or the southwestern border town of Seme next to Krake in Benin Republic, or any other international boundary area for that matter, the traveller won’t fail to notice barricades erected by officials of Nigerian Army, Police Highway Anti-crime Patrol, Police Mobile Force, International Joint Border Patrol, NIS, NCS, Port Health Service and NDLEA, among others. And, the closer one is to the border, the tighter these chackpoints become. But what really is a border?

A border normally refers to the line of demarcation between two countries, whereas boundary is more often associated with internal affairs. Simply put, a border is the defining line between two independent lands, states, territories, etc.
Since a border is synonymous with point of entry; therefore, each international airport and seaport is also seen as a frontier. However, a national frontier post is more than just another margin because, being the first point of contact between the international traveller and a nation, that post automatically also assumes the place of a principal public relations unit. Going by the “first cut is the deepest” maxim, the tourist’s encounter at a border is sure to leave a lasting impression on the mind of each visitor.

Therefore, each worker posted to the nation’s border must be given proper orientation after formal training. Additionally, such a staffer deserves to be equipped with adequate tools and given helpful conditions to carry out his/her duties. After all, is it not said that, “To whom much is given, much is expected”?

FG showing concern over borders
Shortly before his retirement, the immediate-past Comptroller General of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mr. John Chukwurah Udeh, had said security would be beefed up at Nigeria’s 147 entry points. “The process of reinforcing and guarding our borders have begun”, Udeh had declared.

Subsequently, Mr. Udeh had revealed that the NIS had government’s approval to build structured border control posts at those 147 designated entry points, where special equipment, such as mobile registration cameras, would be installed. “By the time we put these in place and install the digital cameras, with structured gates at entry points for proper passport and passenger control, there will be tremendous improvement to migration issues in the country”, he had added optimistically.

But, considering that Nigeria has “a land border of well over 4,000 square kilometres running from Malaville, North of the Republic of Benin, stretching through Kebbi State, Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno, and then to Cameroun, up till Mfon (Mfum) in Cross River State, bordering Cameroun”, the then NIS helmsman had forewarned that the proposed security fillip could not be achieved overnight.

However, it is worth pointing that Mr. Udeh’s concern was reported on June 18, 2007; four days after the premiere part of our A trip to Nigeria’s four corners series had been published. Issues that our story brought to public attention included the fact that many of the stations we visited lacked communication gadgets and other facilities, and that staff morale was also low because personnel worked under very trying circumstances. It was therefore heartwarming to read Mr. Udeh’s pronouncements.

But why it took the federal government so long to come to terms with the importance of the nation’s international boundary areas remains a mystery. A country cannot be secure, when its border is porous. And security is the government’s first responsibility to the nation, as was succinctly re-echoed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shortly after he assumed office.

It could be recalled that in mid-March, this year; Interior Minister, Mr. Abba Moro, revealed that some 1,479 irregular routes along Nigeria’s borders were being used by illegal immigrants to enter the country. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, in collaboration with the National Boundaries Commission (NBC), had identified 84 legal corridors along the country’s frontier, the minister had, reportedly, told State House correspondents.

Hear the minister: “We have, in conjunction with the National Boundary Commission, identified 84 routes, which travellers to Nigeria use and we are thinking as a starting point to build plazas in these 84 points”. According to the minister, “The plazas will help the government to properly secure the legal routes, after which attention will be shifted to the identified illegal routes”.

Speaking further, Moro; it would seem, merely re-echoed promises made by immediate-past Comptroller General of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mr. John Chukwurah Udeh; when he said the government planned to install electronic surveillance devices along border routes to reduce infiltration by foreign criminal elements. He also added that, given “the combination of the electronic system of surveillance with the human component of surveillance, we should be able to drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate border infiltration”.

But, when it came to the cost implications, the minister offered: “Proper costing has not been made yet as the project is still in the conception stage. At the moment, we are at the drawing board. So, without prejudice to when this issue will come to the Federal Executive Council, costing them is difficult because some of our plazas may be outside our jurisdiction; Seme border, for instance, is located in the Republic of Benin and so enforcement becomes a problem.

“For instance, if there is a breach of our law at Seme border, we will be unable to enforce Nigerian laws because that part of land is in the Republic of Benin. So, we are thinking of placing our plazas in our territories first, so that we can tackle any breach”, Moro concluded.

Evidently, three years down the road, since Mr. Udeh pointed out the need to make efforts at securing Nigeria’s border areas; and, even as bombs continue to explode in different settlements; relevant authorities are still foot-dragging on this matter as well as the fact that proper documentation and ID for every Nigerian would go a long way in improving the nation’s security situation; consequently leading to better economic and social standards for the citizenry.

Border akin to the human skin
Interestingly, a border or boundary can be likened to the human skin. The outer covering of the human skin, the epidermis, is the first point of contact with the outside world; therefore, a wart-infested skin could scare people and discourage them from coming close.

In the same vein, an unhealthy skin leaves an individual more vulnerable to infection and discomfitures. For example, an ailing skin makes the owner susceptible to various invasions, such as viral, bacterial and fungal infections.

The same goes for any country’s border, which; if not properly secured, becomes a route for smugglers and therefore illegal flow of arms, ammunitions, drugs and human trafficking. Evidently, just as a person’s health could suffer due to an unwholesome skin, which cannot keep out infestations; so also a nation’s security, where its borders are loose. Such is the state of Nigeria, today.

Pic 1: Daily Sun’s Maurice Archibong and Seriki Alaaru at the North-western Nigerian Sokoto State frontier settlement of Illela leading to Birnin Koni in Niger Republic.

Pic 2: CGC Abdullahi Dikko CFR during his investiture in 2009.

Pic 3: Alhaji Mahmud Aliyu.

Pic 4: A section of a route popular among smugglers linking Saki in South-western Nigeria to Kilibo in Benin Republic.

Pic 5: Still along the Saki-Kilibo road.

Pic 6: Chaotic: A regular scene around Seme border in Lagos State South-western Nigeria leading to Benin Republic.

Pic 7: From Seme, more of the same.

Pic 8: Regular sight at Nigeria’s frontier areas: The items being conveyed could be anything.

Pic 9: Stranded: A truck stuck in the mud on the road to Gamboru, a settlement in Borno State, North-eastern Nigeria leading to the Cameroons.

Pic 10: Another scene along Gamboru-Ngala route in Borno State.

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