Ending the Cycle of Attacks on Customs Operatives
The spate of clashes between officers and men of the Nigeria Customs Service and ‘indigenes’ of border communities at the Seme-Badagry, Idiroko-Owode axis in Lagos and Ogun state has in recent past become most volatile, one shudders to think what this may lead into, if not tackled timely, carefully and purposefully.
Although there has been occasional rumour of such conflicts in the North Western states of katsina and Jigawa, the Idiroko-Seme axis economic conflict represents the official heartbeat of customs operations; and therefore an official scale of reference, rightly or wrongly.
Whereas clashes between customs and citizenry is a universal phenomenon, what appears a bit peculiar in our situation is the worrisome trend of increasing mob attacks on customs operatives, which are occasionally lethal and often dispensed with a sense of righteous indignation. This however clearly stamp out those involved as either pitiably ignorant, or else portray the attackers as those under the illusion of oppression and sees the customs as an arm of official oppression; as a people under siege are wont to reasoning.
In reality, the customs is merely discharging its official duty within the limit of the law setting it up. Therefore, in the context off the prevailing hostilities, perhaps, what need to be done is to examine both the root causes of these clashes and the critical social nexus. It is also important to factor in certain fundamental facts, especially the distance between the conflict communities and the customs borderline.
An impartial observer would want to know what the territorial customs command has done in terms of effective and purposeful blockades of the leakages of illegal imports at the border line before embarking on recurring raids on civilian communities and settlements, which have often become spectacle for convoluted conspiracy, aggravated and often savage physical and mental assaults, leading to bloodletting and sometimes, death.
The recent of such attacks at Owode (Yewa) and Papalanto Community in Ogun State this year, can safely be tagged a serious affront and or acts of banditry, however we chose to look at it. Available evidences indicate that whereas some of these attacks are spontaneous, others appear premeditated, going by the reported massive involvement of hoodlums in some of the communities.
Without mincing words, attacks on the customs operatives who are carrying out their legitimate duty also amount to attacks on the federal government and people of Nigeria. And it is by no means a small offense which can be regarded as crime against the state.
But there have also been allegations by the so-called smugglers of collusion by men of the customs command said to have facilitated the passage of the offensive items upon collection of bribe, and who allegedly turns blind eyes at the border line while the goods passed through, only to turn around pretty much later to chase after same goods to locations they know the goods will be taken, in the name of recovering smuggled items.
How does society and government treat such double standard? Recall that this incident is following on the heel of an earlier encounter at Asero Community of the state, where smugglers reportedly killed an operative identified as Customs Assistant 1 Hamisu Sani, with another reportedly seriously injured. The story is not so different at the Seme-Badagry axis, which use to record intermittent volatility, until much recently that there appeared to have been some appreciable level of calm; courtesy of the strategic customs-host community relations effort of the customs area controller, Comptroller Mohammed Garba Uba.
This time the customs operatives had embarked on a sting operation at a hideout in Yewa community, where vehicles laden with suspected smuggled rice had reportedly taken temporary cover. The Ogun Customs Command Public Relations Officer, Abdullahi Maiwada in a statement said the smugglers and their accomplices engaged the customs operatives in confrontation which reportedly led to exchange of fire.
If the customs account is correct, it goes without saying that the civilian attackers cum smugglers were with fire arms, even though no customs officers’ life was lost here. Maiwada said two were seriously injured with others sustained various degrees of injuries. According to him, the hoodlums also destroyed official patrol vehicles. The spokesman further explained that even though his men upon noticing the hostile atmosphere sought to avoid further escalation of the situation by attempting to beat a retreat, “the hoodlums took law into their hands by barricading the main road leading to Idiroko, scouting for Customs Officers to attack”, the spokesman lamented.
Curiously, some of the community leaders have argued that they are victims of collective bargaining, explaining that after duly been ‘booked’ by some officers and ultimately ‘passed’, the same customs trail them to their homes and hideouts. When our reporter asked if they had receipts to show for the said transactions, they expressed indignation and wondered aloud if our reporter was new in town or a visitor to Nigeria not to know that un-receipted official transaction has become a norm.
Although the claim of settling officers who granted them passage of way only to allegedly trail them afterwards appears as defective a defense as it is stupid, especially in relation to the law, in reality, it would appear that official compromise has reached a frightening level, such that the line between acts of economic sabotage and compromise has become much shorter in the present circumstances.
Border smuggling is also very high at other parts of the country; an example is the Jibya-Katsina Border in Kaduna/Katsina Customs Area Command. There is far less cases of hostilities and bloodletting, despite reports of high heel level smuggling going on there.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, officials almost always get away riding on the power of the law and the rot in the political system. There has been no means of bringing law enforcers known to have broken the law to book, so the citizen remains at the receiving end of this vicious circle. But that is matter for another day.
The Idiroko/Seme attacks are unbecoming and perhaps, it is time the federal government takes step to look into the matter and seek an end to the hostilities and largely unwarranted death at both sides. The Seme/Idiroko smuggling crisis should not be allowed to become another vexed Zamfara illegal mining catastrophe.
Expectedly, during the annual International Customs Day (ICD) held at Abuja January this year, the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (Retired), had cause to express disappointment at the continued attacks, and warned that henceforth, the federal government would no longer take kindly to such. He further warned that henceforth, government will label communities that side with criminals as criminal communities, and be so treated.
Ali was quoted as saying, “Enough is enough. We won’t take it anymore. If host communities decide to side with criminals, then, it means they are all criminals and we will treat them as such. These killings have to stop. Border communities, parents, guardians, traditional rulers, and other stakeholders should call their wards to order.”
Obviously agitated, Ali reportedly said the service may be forced to take up arms to defend its operatives. “We will take up arms to protect our officers and men.”
Before and after Ali’s outburst however, a top class Ogun traditional ruler has raised the alarm over alleged wanton killing of his people by men of the Nigeria Customs Service. He claimed that each time the Customs reports attack on its operatives, that the move is usually a decoy to cover up official acts of aggression by men of the service, who according to him carry out questionable raids and acts of oppression on defenseless communities and its people.
No doubt, this case between customs and citizens is purely economic. While the customs officer in keeping with his mandate strive to safeguard the national economy from saboteurs in the guise of smugglers, the citizens strives to eke out a living, albeit through unlawful economic means.
Put differently, while the affected citizen engages in smuggling, the customs officer tries to stop and recover the smuggled items, and at the very worst, recover the items and arrest the smuggler. Both are mutual economic activities, whereas one runs against the law, the other tries to enforce the law.
They both operate between thin lines. Border community people in the state have for a long time already, assumed that smuggling is their birthright; their mineral resources and oil field, their contract allocation offices, their port system, their mining fields, their birthright trade, their livestock industry; as most ethnic and geopolitical zones across the country are wont to making claims.
From Ogoni crusade against environmental degradation to Niger Delta economic resource control, IPOB political agitations through religious zealotry in the garb of Sharia enthronement war that swept through the North West and North East, and recently to the Zamfara mining war. Each of the agitations are hinged on claims of birthright, any less the Ogun border community people have had reasons to lay claim to crossing imported stuffs, nonetheless classified as smuggling by government.
Birthright and a way of life in the sense that they were born into the so-called smuggling business; and wrong or right, the belief that it is the only official economic activity in the vast border fringe of their part of the country. As if to state their conviction, the citizens say there are neither industries nor civil service employment to absorb even one tenth of the productive population. Of farming, they have sad tales to tell, ranging from increasing non availability of fertile farmlands, to lack of government support and encouragement.
Here we are confronted with a tricky and dicey situation about our apparent state economic default system and citizens resort to economic self help. We are confronted with the dictate of law which is sacrosanct and the allure of survival within the framework of objective state provision or welfare schemes or socialism, and of law and the interplay of slippery social justice.
And we are also seriously talking about the sanctity of lives, which these confrontations engender. The customs is recording death, so are the border communities; the urgent and critical intervention needed at this point is to halt these confrontations through purposeful and realistic approach.
There is absolutely no space to grandstand, neither by government or the border community people. Every single customs officer fell on the field of duty is a national loss. It is no less a pain when citizens die wrongfully in avoidable confrontation with the law.
Life is sacrosanct and above every other consideration. The presidency should show more interest in what is happening at the border communities South West, before it degenerates into another regional economic struggle. There are people who believe that a number of these confrontations are avoidable, and therefore presupposes that deaths recorded there from could also be avoided.
No sane government is interested in the death of its citizens, least of all through unlawful economic engagement. It is perhaps in this wise that the customs boss exasperation to take up arm in self defense is seen as a bit hasty and unhelpful.
Whereas force is often deployed as a last resort, history has also clearly shown that force rarely brings forth sustained solution to pathological and endemic issues such as we are confronted with.
The relevant departments of government including the customs service should convoke a national summit to discuss the damning issue of official neglect in the border communities and regions nationwide, while in the interim, the Ogun state and affected local government areas should establish a much more purposeful intervention initiative.