LIMBE, CAMEROON - Cameroonian authorities say smuggling from Nigeria is increasing, five months after Abuja banned land border trade to crack down on the illegal business.
At the Limbe market in southwestern Cameroon, both local and Nigerian traders say their businesses are suffering with Abuja's ban. Traders say they regularly run short of supplies from both countries, leading to price increases of up to 15 percent.
Nigerian Miracle Ademola, 35, sells dresses to Cameroon and buys rice to sell back home. But she said she can't afford to pay the high shipping costs to take the goods back and forth by boat.
"It has drastically affected the economy of Nigeria and the economy of Cameroon," she said. "Smuggling things as it is now is actually not beneficial and we find it risky. We just look forward and hope for the borders to be opened any moment from now so businesses can go on as they used to."
Cameroon depends on goods from Nigeria for 70 percent of its basic commodities.
Cameroon's National Institute of Statistics says about 15,000 Cameroonians trade across the 2,000-kilometer-long border with Nigeria. Nigerians also buy agricultural produce including cattle, rice, onions and cotton from Cameroon for its booming market of some 190 million people.
But in October 2019, Nigeria closed its land borders to all trade to end rampant smuggling.
In Cameroon, the move seems to be having the opposite effect.
Cameroonian police and customs in the southwestern town of Buea burned a huge pile of smuggled medicines from Nigeria on Sunday. Police seized the unregulated pills and tonics, which included anti-malarial and anti-inflammatories, as they were being delivered to pharmacies.
Cameroonian health official Victor Mbome said authorities are seizing more of such smuggled shipments of drugs since Nigeria closed its border.
"Each time the security forces apprehend somebody who has contraband medication, the security forces seize them. In about six months, we have destroyed contraband medication to the tune of about 50 million [CFA]," Mbome said, which is about $85,000 worth of smuggled medicine in a town of about 300,000 people.
Cameroonian customs officials say it's not just medicine coming from Nigeria. Smuggling of most basic goods, electronic appliances, and engine parts have all increased in the past few months.
A senior customs official for the southwest, Pierre Engamba, said customs revenue dropped 2 percent a month from October to December because of the smuggling.
"We have more than 100 entrances in the sea. More than one hundred. We can [control] about 50, but the other 50 is a problem," he said. "We take major strategies like night patrols with police and gendarme teams. Even [the navy]. Another strategy is to sensitize the traditional rulers, to sensitize the population. To tell them that those activities are killing our economy."
Critics argue Nigeria's closed border pours doubt on Africa's continent-wide free trade agreement signed in July 2018. But Nigeria says the country is still open to trade through its ports and that the land border closure means it's simply better regulated.
Officials at Nigeria's embassy in Yaounde were not available for comment.