By Vincent Ukpong Kalu and Chioma Igbokwe
Cashing in on the immunity enjoyed by cars with diplomatic registration number plates, cross-border criminals are making brisk business, using the plates to bring in exotic cars from the west coast into as well as ferrying stolen vehicles to those countries. In Chad, Benin Republic and Niger, there abound their version of Nigeria’s Oluwole, where one can readily obtain fake diplomatic car number plates at a price ranging from C50000 (N175, 000).
Even embassy letterheads, rubber stamps and other forged documents are available for a fee. Recently, the Nigeria Police busted one of such syndicates. The Apapa Division, Lagos Command, paraded the leader of the syndicate. According to the Divisional Police Officer, CSP Usman Ndanbabo, nemesis caught up with the gang recently when it snatched a Toyota Yaris car equipped with tracking system at Maroko. Police from Maroko trailed the gang until the car got to Apapa where the engine packed up.
However, the gang succeeded in pushing it to a well-fenced compound, at 16 Borno Crescent, and was about fixing the diplomatic plate number when the police from Apapa led by Ndanbabo stormed the compound. Two members of the gang, on sighting the police, scaled the fence and escaped. The police recovered the car and arrested two men and a lady. The police said they were stunned by what they discovered following a search conducted – Diplomatic number plates, Chadian embassy letterheads and rubber stamps.
One of the two men arrested was the leader of the gang, Mohammed Dugi, from N’djamena, capital of Chad. He claimed to be a diplomat, working with Chadian embassy in Burkina Faso. The other man, Hassan Gamboru, was the security man of the compound. There was also a lady, Mrs. Hauwa Ramat, wife of one of the two suspects who escaped.
Speaking in French through an interpreter, Dugi said he got the diplomatic car plate numbers from Secretary to Chadian embassy in Abuja and he uses the plate number because of immunity that covers it to bring in cars into Nigeria from Benin Republic and other countries and that whatever the money he makes is shared equally with the embassy’s secretary in Abuja.
According to Dugi, with the plate number, and connivance with Nigeria Immigration and Nigeria Customs, he would pass every checkpoint unhindered. “Security agencies – customs, immigration … give way on sighting a car with diplomatic number plate because they are aware of the racket and make money from it. So we are not questioned and some other people in the business bring in other incriminating contraband.”
On how much he makes per trip, Dugi said it is a function of the brand of car. He said he charged average of C1.5million (N525,000) to bring a car from Cotonou to Lagos, including the amount with which to settle Customs and Immigration officers. Dugi told Saturday Sun that the diplomatic plate numbers he used were original, but added that the fake ones could be obtained for about C500,000 (N175, 000), while forged embassy letterheads and rubber stamps could be got for C3, 000 (N1,050) as well as forged Nigeria’s drivers licence in Benin, Chad and Niger. On what led him to the crime, Dugi told Saturday Sun it was poverty.
He said and other embassy staff had not been paid for four months and he has a large family to take care of. “I have not received salaries for the past four months. I’m not the only one; other staff of the embassy have not been paid. I have been doing this to take care of my large family. I have 12 children and they are all in Chad.”
He said that he has Toyota Highlander SUV as a personal car, which is in Chad. On the stolen Toyota car, he said he was not involved and named the two that escaped as the ones that brought the car. His responsibility was to fix the diplomatic number plate for onward movement to Chad. When the police questioned Mr. Adeleye Olarewaju, the owner of the house where Dugi and others were arrested, he denied harbouring criminals in the house. He said he was a tenant and later bought the property from the landlord and invariably inherited Hassan, the security man from Chad.
According to him, Chadians, Nigeriens and Malians seem to have so much in common, which is why, once any of them gets a security job, others start milling around the place. He said he knows only Hassan. When contacted, NIS spokesperson, Joachim Olumba said that they intend to investigate the travel document of the Chadian to be able to secure accurate information regarding his travel history.
“If we are able to establish the culpability of any immigration officer in this case, there will be no option than to bring the person to book. “Our interest actually lies with his travel documents as that will reveal his true status and movement. Other issues relating to vehicles and plate numbers do not fall within the responsibility of NIS. We are prepared to cooperate with Nigeria Police in the course of their investigation into the matter.”
Nigeria Customs Public Relations Officer, Seme Border, Ernest Ollata, said he was away on course and when he comes back by next week, he would react appropriately. By then, too, he would have got full details about his men’s involvement in the alleged crime.