Ending the Cycle of Recurring Attacks on Customs Operatives (1)
BY EGUONO ODJEGBA
Today, let us look at 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.
Whereas clashes can be forgiven in the routine wrangling between customs operatives and citizens in violation of customs law, which in any case appears to be a universal phenomenon, mob attacks on customs operatives, which are occasionally lethal and often dispensed with a sense of righteous indignation, clearly stamp out those involved as pitiably ignorant.
The recent of such attacks at Owode (Yewa) Community in Ogun State in January this year, can safely be tagged an act of terrorism however we chose to look at it. Available evidences indicate that the attack was premeditated, going by the reported massive cooperation of criminal elements in the community.
Without mincing words, attacks on the customs operatives who are carrying out their legitimate customs enforcement duty against acts of smuggling, also amount to attacks on the federal government and people of Nigeria. And it is by no means a small offense, it is a crime against the state; with prospects of agonizing jail term for those found culpable.
Recall that this incident is following on the heel of earlier attacks at Asero Community of the state, where smugglers reportedly killed an operative identified as Customs Assistant 1 Hamisu Sani,and seriously injured another. The story is not so different at the Seme-Badagry axis, which also records intermittent economic violence.
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 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.
The import here is that the attackers were with fire arms, although no customs officers life was lost here, Maiwada said two were seriously injured with others sustaining 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 escalating atmosphere sought to avoid mortality 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.”
Although some of the community leaders attempted to play the victim game by explaining that they were ‘booked’ by some officers and ultimately ‘passed’ when they arrived with the smuggled items, our source became hostile when our reporter asked if he had any receipt to show for the said transaction. The claim that they ‘paid’ some officers following which, the said officers granted them passage of way, only to allegedly trail them afterwards, is as defective a defence as it is stupid. Such ranting is not only strange to law; it further emphasizes their culpability in compromising officers.
But that is story for another day. These attacks are unbecoming and perhaps, it is time the federal government take steps to look into the matter and seek an end to the hostilities and death.
Instructively, 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 through unlawful economic means. 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 in mutual economic activities, but whereas one is going 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 birthright trade, their livestock industry.
Birthright and a way of life in the sense that they were born into the smuggling trade and, wrong or right, the belief that it is the only official economic activity in the vast border fringe of the state. As if to state their conviction, the citizens say there are no industries and no enough 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 economic state function 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 slippery social justice.
But we are 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 halting these confrontations through purposeful and realistic dialogue.
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 to another national crisis.
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. The relevant departments of government including the customs service should convoke a national summit to discuss the damning issue of official neglect in these areas, while in the interim, the state and affected local government areas should establish a much more formidable purposeful intervention framework.