Trackers, Guts And Money: Inside The Life Of A Nigerian Car Smuggler

It’s a dark, moonless night on the sandy stretch of land in the Benin republic end of the Nigeria-Benin border at Seme, Badagry. The skies are cloudier than the previous night and the stars are barely visible. It may even rain.

“How far, sho ti ready?”, asks Shanko through his walkie talkie. “Ehn, shebi ibi ta gba ni last week noni?”, the person retorts on the other end. “Ogbeni, just follow me for back. Ma lo go’ra e o! Emi ma shi e le ni mio raye oriburuku. Na work you dey,” barked Shanko back at his compadre. “JJC,” he mutters, shaking his head.

Shanko is worried. He doesn’t like change – especially if the method being changed works well enough. This new walkie talkie thing his boss has imposed on he and his colleagues makes him uneasy. Hopefully, his boss is right and this does help them reduce the amount of cars and people they lose to customs officers each trip they go on a job.

They are now 45 minutes into the journey and there has been no incident, slowly crossing the sandy paths of their chosen smuggling route in a 14-car convoy. Maybe this will be one of the easier gigs, Shanko thinks to himself, a smile forming on the corner of his lips. Then, out of his peripheral vision, he sees something. He’s not sure what it is, or if it is even anything at all. But he’s almost certain he saw something. Could it be a customs ambush? A rival crew?

Before he could finish the thought, the first set of lights came on, blinding him for a second. “Away! Away! Gbera! Awon customs ni”, he yelled into the walkie talkie, not sure himself who these assailants were. As the cars behind him started to split up, the first shot rang.

***

You know absolutely nothing about car smuggling in Nigeria. Neither did I too, till I met Shanko (not his real name). I’d gone to my mechanic’s workshop because yet another thing had broken and there he was. Short, dark skinned with a chiselled face, a long scar running underneath his right eye and life bubbling out of him, seemingly. His voice was hoarse – it reminded me of the many agberos you inevitably encounter if you use public transport in Lagos – but calm at the same time. There was a measured kind of intelligence to it when he spoke.

Now 37-years-old, Shanko has been smuggling cars for the past nine years. In that time, he’s made lots of money, broken a few bones and cheated death many, many times. In the story above, he got shot in the leg and two of his comrades died in that operation. It could have gone worse if they didn’t have walkie talkies, according to Shanko.  

I’ve been immersing myself in the African transport and logistics space for the past month and Shanko’s story piqued my interest. Which tech tools do these people use to make their ‘jobs’ easier? What is the level of sophistication of these technologies? How do they apply them in an increasingly dangerous trade? All of these and more informed my sit-down with Shanko and in the three hours I spent with him in the ghettos of Mushin, Lagos (amidst lots of alcohol, cigarette and marijuana smoke), we touched on what drove him into the trade, the role of technology in their operations and more.

Overview of car smuggling in Nigeria

Car smuggling has always been big business in Nigeria. Even the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) admits that about 90% of imported cars in Nigeria are smuggled into the country. In August and September 2017, the NCS seized 283 illegally imported vehicles. In February 2018, the NCS also arrested 10 suspected car smugglers and seized cars valued at over N1.4 billion.

It’s been that way because successive Nigerian governments have continuously increased tariffs on imported cars (the current tariff is 70%). These high tariffs and near non-existent local car manufacturing capacity meant that importers and consumers alike looked toward neighbouring Benin’s ports, where tariffs were much lower (38.1% lower post Nigeria ban). They would then smuggle these cars into Nigeria (the Cotonou harbor is 30 minutes away from the Nigerian border) and resell.

More recently, the Nigerian government banned the importation of new and used cars through its land borders, sending imported car prices sky high – the forex troubles of the recession era didn’t help – and giving a boon to the illicit car smuggling trade – Shanko’s turf.

Why are these people risking their lives so much?

“Baba, if to say I go school do everything, I for still never chop the kain money wey I don chop since I start dey run this level,” said Shanko, responding to my question about the risk vs reward of his chosen line of work. “Na survival carry me enter this hustle and God don help me do am, I don sabi the work. Wetin con remain again?”

It’s more money for his boss (who he says makes at least 5x more than him) but good enough money for him. He makes anywhere between N100 – N450K depending on the nature of job – and he goes on 2 – 3 runs monthly, sometimes more. The more dangerous the gig, the more he gets paid.

“If the waka get fishbone for neck, like if dem no settle custom or dem no get soldier, na plenty money be that,” said Shanko. “Some people fit get soldier and dem go still pay us better money.”

Some of his boss’ clients include Nigerian politicians who send their military attaches or paid soldiers to accompany Shanko and his gang members to smuggle in exotic cars. “You know those senator dem ehn, after dem don tiff money, dem go ship all those big-big moto – Benz, Range Rover dem – enter cotonou, then dem go call my oga. Na those ones I like pass because I no need to do plenty. Dem fit even give us reach 5 soldier,” said Shanko.

There are also the car dealers, regular businessmen who are using the smuggling trade to keep profits decent enough to remain in business. “People usually talk to other car owners before they buy cars in Nigeria. If they think it should be cheaper than the price you quote, they will probably not buy and somebody else could be willing to undersell out of desperation,” said Debo (not his real name), a car dealer based in Lagos. “Besides, there aren’t many people that can afford the legal cost of these vehicles and I have to feed my family.”

According to Shanko, politicians and car dealers bring the most business because they require these trips more often with dealers sometimes bringing in as much as 10-12 cars at a time.

The Border Hacking Starter Pack

Shanko only gave consent to some aspects of this conversation so I’ll only share as much as he gave consent to (one of the big men in the Mushin ghetto we were at actually threatened me).

The most common tool Shanko and his crew use is the walkie talkie. On runs that involve rough terrain, a few cars or heavy security/customs presence, the walkie talkie is one of their favorite means of communication. Shanko says it helps him give orders to the other drivers quickly if they need to make complex maneuvers to avoid detection (since they typically move at night).

Next to walkie talkies are trackers and a location app he refused to let me see. According to Shanko, there is a high level of distrust in the smuggling game and on heavy paying jobs, his boss may mandate that the cars being smuggled be fitted with trackers as a measure of protection against internal betrayal and attacks by rival crews. His boss gets his car tracking devices from China – Chinese e-commerce sites to be exact – and ships them to Nigeria (or Benin sometimes) for use, according to Shanko.

There are many others like Shanko who live under the radar (he only carries the smartphone he owns if he needs it for a job) and thrive off an unchecked criminal enterprise like car smuggling and Shanko assures me that there is no telling the level of sophistication of the technologies other crews might be using.

“This work ehn, na person wey get mind dey do am – and I get mind full ground. But I no fit continue this kain hustle till I die na. Wetin I wan tell my pikin?,” said Shanko, as we rounded up the last of the beer in our glasses. “Dem don shoot me, chook me bottle, nearly comot my eye but I never still die. I no wan challenge God. As my people dey talk, ‘Elemi lo ma last’ (only the strongest survive).” As for him, he’s about to be a father for the first time. He said he has been saving to send his girlfriend to the US to have their child and plans to ‘retire’ when he’s forty and start a car workshop and dealership.

In the time it will take you to question Shanko’s morality, he’ll be plotting his next mission. Because every crackle of his walkie talkie, is another step closer to his dreams.