Tobacco Smuggling: The Seme And Cotonou Connections

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

Fazed by mounting pressures locally and internationally, British American tobacco, BAT, now somewhat relies on smugglers to continue to flood the market with their wares.

(pronounced Whydah), in southern Benin Republic, was once an auspicious town on the route to the Togolese capital, Lome. It still is. History has it that the Alafin of Oyo, and King Agadja of Dahomey fought several internecine wars over this town, probably because of its strategic location as the main port of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, Danish, British, and Americans all vied for a share of the slave and palm oil trade made available through Ouidah. Eventually, the town came under French control. Some of the old forts, a cathedral, and a temple of the Abomey traditional religion remain as relics of a town that gave the English language the word, Amazons – diehard women soldiers who were the king’s wives and members of his private bodyguard. Before the French left Dahomey, they had built a factory for the production of safety matches and cigarettes in Ouidah, just 40 kilometres from Cotonou.

With their exit, the Dahomey government, now Republic of Benin was not keen to keep the factory and plans were made to sell it. Once again, there was a scramble, by every one of the colonial debutantes to control the factory. Whether or not the British and American teamed up to gain control of that cigarette factory was not ascertained, but there were speculations that Benin refused an outright sale of the factory. Sources reveal that the Benin government was aware of the implications of selling that property to a former colonial power, the British, who were always in a rat race with France for colonial territories in Africa. Impeccable sources in Cotonou told the magazine that British American Tobacco, BAT, eventually succeeded in getting in their hand on the giant factory as a production site. With their plant in Iseyin Village in Ogun State, Nigeria, ostensibly taking care of the Anglophone end of cigarette business, the Ouidah BAT is in charge of the Lome axis. Nearly everyday, BAT trucks loaded with Yes! Brand of cigarettes are driven off the premises to Lome, even though speculations are rife that the trucks are loaded with disguised Marlboro brands.

Investigations by TELL reporter in Cotonou reveal however, that the heavy-duty trucks that left the Ouidah BAT plant Wednesday, April 30 are hardly headed for Lome. At some point, powerful interests divert them from their original route. Sources finger Issa Salifou, a legislator in the Beninoise national assembly as one ‘powerful interest’ in the diversion of the BAT trucks to the Seme border, en-route Africa’s largest market, Nigeria. The Beninoise national assembly where Salifou is a key player is firm concerning members of parliament, MPs owning businesses. However, the business magnate controls strategic business concerns like a TV station (Canal 3 TV), a radio station, (Fraternite Radio) in Parakou, a prominent daily, Fraternite, and communications company, BELL Benin. Known to have swallowed his business rival, Kasmal, for business space, Salifou is the kingpin of a large-scale smuggling and exportation of contrabands like cars and cigarettes. My contact in Cotonou said that what might be responsible for the decision to smuggle CB via the Seme border are two factors. One, he said that nobody understands the temperament of the Beninoise President and the reasons he has placed heavily armed soldiers at the Cotonou port. Two, Seme is allegedly porous.

At the Seme border, some of the heavy-duty trucks from the Ouidah plant are driven into Nigeria in the dead of night. TELL source at Seme, Anthony Dike (not real name) said that the heavy-duty trucks could not drive in normally because they are likely to be impounded as contraband, CB. ‘So what we do is that we break the cartons of cigar into small units to those interested in buying them. Breaking them down into smaller units means that we enlist women and children to carry them on trays as wares and walk into the Nigerian end of the Seme border. Before that, we would have settled everybody, and we move in’, he said.

World Tobacco File has said that the trade in contraband sales of cigarette across borders grew by more than 110 percent from 1990 to 1997. ‘Smuggling remains an important feature of the cigarette market and is likely to depress legitimate sales for the foreseeable future. Moreover, worldwide, an estimated 355 billion cigarettes were smuggled; 6.5 percent of all cigarettes sold. In the United Kingdom, UK, a single smuggled container-load of 8.5 million cigarettes sold for 1.5 million pounds. Even though the volume of smuggled cigarettes across the Seme-Cotonou border cannot be accounted for at once probably because of the presence of a network that has nearly perfected the fine art of their game, there is a level of distribution that the BAT is happy to keep quiet about. A World Health Organization, WHO, report of 1999, said that the tobacco industry ‘has consistently hidden product information on the ill-effects of smoking, using the power of advertising dollars to dissuade lay journals from reporting on smoke’s health effects, and resorted to other methods to decrease information available to smokers’. Nevertheless, from 1979, several court cases involving BAT officials reveal their degree of culpability in the smuggling racket. A Hong Kong Court found a BAT executive guilty for his role in an operation that smuggled cigarettes in China in 1997. The following year, an affiliate of RJ Reynolds International pleaded guilty to charges of helping smugglers illegally re-route export cigarettes into Canada. That same year in 1998 saw a flurry of lawsuits against tobacco companies secretly assisting smugglers in their illicit business. In fact, BAT is now under investigation by the UK government department of Trade and Industry with regard to tobacco smuggling.

Experts suggest that cigarette smuggling can be nipped in the bud if BAT is compelled to place ‘tax-paid’ markings on tobacco products to distinguish between legal and illegal goods, making it easy to identify contraband tobacco. The authorities may also want to eliminate duty-free sales, particularly with respect to tobacco. Acting fast may dampen the kind of enthusiasm expressed by BAT in 1990, from one of their internally generated documents to the effect that, ‘within the total market, there are areas of strong growth, particularly in Asia and Africa…it is an exciting prospect’.

Despite the anticipated effect, that this may have on cigarette smuggling at the borders, the WHO, in its Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2008, said that the global tobacco control funding is inadequate. According to the report, ’89 countries that provided estimated tobacco control budgets spent US$343 million per year – with 95 percent of this amount spent by high-income countries’. That is not all. Luk Joossens, Europe-based anti-smuggling sociologist who does consultancy jobs for WHO and the International Union Against Cancer, UICC, said that ‘countries with high level of cigarette smuggling (more than 30 percent of total sales) are not those with the highest taxes or prices, but rather those with a high corruption score, such as Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Colombia, Pakistan and Nigeria’.

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1 comment

philippe October 14, 2008 - 7:04 pm

very interesting :0

if you have other articles focusing on cigarettes smuggling this is the right time while INB2 is going to start.


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