Was Abeokuta Customs Shooting Avoidable?
Y EGUONO ODJEGBA
News outlets within and outside the country has been abuzz with reports of the shooting in Abeokuta, capital city of Ogun State since yesterday, following a video footage of the incident that went viral on the internet.
While it has become public knowledge that the shooting by officers of the Ogun 1 Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) was to prevent palpable attack on them; Nigerians and the people of Abeokuta and the state in general has also apprised that the unfortunate incident was in the cause of securing the evacuation of seized questionable items by operatives of the command.
To all intent and purposes, the NCS is statutorily saddled with the duty of intercepting and arresting suspicious and identified offensive imported goods; and also empowered to take summary and temporary possession of such goods, evacuate and deposit in its facility for the purpose of further investigation until possibly the matter is resolved in favour of the owner and immediately released; or is pronounced outright seizure and it becomes government property.
In the same vein, should its operatives suspicion that flagged items are in violation of the customs extant laws or prohibition order; and or, that such items has violated customs entry procedures, the NCS and its personnel has the powers to make arrests and detention of such goods.
Similarly, where such goods have been made outside the vicinity of the sea and air port or border station, it is the duty and obligation of the NCS to secure and evacuate such goods to its nearest facility or such facilities that can provide the required protection while in its custody.
It should be noted that while the NCS has never shied away from deploying utmost diligence in treating expeditiously all matters of suspicious seizures in view of determining their actual status, those with clear proofs to the contrary are released while others which are trade goods but in violation of clearance procedures are also released after fulfilling all extant requirements.
Despite this regime of open door administration, meticulous and timely official routine, the service and its officers and men are often target of unbecoming innuendoes, insults and attacks, some of which are believed to be sponsored. Needless to state that the operatives occasionally act in self defence, while some of the fracas often results ugly sights and fatality, either one side or on both sides.
From rough statistics, there is hardly any quarter news story of such attacks, some quite unprovoked, is not reported. In 2023 alone, the NCS has lost over five of its personnel to such attacks by smugglers, who often sponsor hoodlums to foil arrests and or frustrate the evacuation of impounded questionable goods.
Very often, through compromise and or unethical means, notorious smugglers succeed in breaking through most entry points with their unlawful imports, which they deposit in their warehouses and hideouts, including market shops or in private residences.
The NCS which operates with uncommon diligence and with the unlimited power of stop and search, and access and search, because it enjoys the power to undertake search without warrant, sooner or later through intelligence discovers leaked questionable goods and goes for them.
It must be stated loudly that overtime, owing to its tax collector nature and disposition, not many citizens have really liked the customs, and hence there has developed some sort of public phobia against our customs service and its personnel, which all tax collectors suffer in many societies, particularly in third world countries; Nigeria inclusive.
But the NCS will not on that account abdicate its responsibility, so, from time to time, the leadership and management has adopted ever fresh strategies to deal with issues of smuggling and violation of the customs procedures in the effort to curtail revenue losses through duty evasion, concealment and underpayment.
Much more than that, the NCS has been having an expanded role in national security matters, and thus heavily involved in combating the importation of dangerous items like arms and ammunition, explosives, illicit and controlled drugs to mention but a few.
From all fronts therefore, the NCS and its personnel are up against forces that does not mean well for the nation; and hence at every opportunity intensifies the conspiracy to undermine and or attack the reputation of the service.
The Abeokuta shooting from all indication was no more than such an attempt to obstruct the job of the customs service; through a single story angle to the shooting.
Those who uploaded the video released just a part of the story to suit their fantasy, in anticipation that the largely gullible society would fall for it. That was only a half of what transpired. Operatives of the Ogun 1 Command had successfully impounded some questionable items which they were evacuating to the city facility before they ran into resistance by hoodlums.
Apparently, the owners of the goods had contacted the hoodlums most of whom are believed to be in their pay roll, to act the spoiler. The hoodlums counter activities triggered tension and sensing far reaching threats to their lives and other far reaching consequences; the operatives went into the defensive mode and sought to ward off the attackers by shooting into the air.
It is also quite evident from the video footage that none of the shooting was targeted at anybody, and this self defence tactics is not at variance with security rule of engagement anywhere in the world. Even the audio footage captured conversation by some of the already harassed and tensed operatives saying “make una come now o, if them born una well, make una come”; simply translated “if you are bold enough, come and stop us.”
The conversation envision the unmistaken atmosphere under which the customs men were and their resort to the advertised shooting but which was a necessary line of action to preserve their lives, first, and possibly also, preserve the seized items. No security detachment worth its name abandon the combat zone; that is unacceptable.
Officers of the service are trained to be professionals and to engage the civil society with the utmost courtesy, but on no account are they supposed to succumb to threats; so however society view the questionable video footage of the shooting, we must remember that it did not provide us the full story; and hence it would be unfair to judge the officers based on half evidence of what happened.
Sentiments apart, the attack on them was an attack on the federal government, since the operatives were merely on official errand, and conducted themselves in line with the rule of engagement.
Reacting to the video of the incident that went viral, the Command Public Relations Officer, SC Hammed Oloyede faulted the false narrative it sought to engender by explaining the circumstances that led to the shooting which was captured in the video, noting that the narrative is inconclusive and hence unreliable.
But trust the huge sense of the empathy, and the affinity of accountability by the leadership and management of the NCS, as it stepped out timely to dispel the wrong narrative, and reassuring citizens of the high premium the customs service places on human lives.
According the PRO statement, the Customs Area Controller, Ahmadu Shuaibu values the lives of its host communities and frowns at the arbitrary use of firearms.
The statement reads, “I would like to state emphatically that the Command under the leadership of the Ag. Customs Area Controller Ahmadu Shuaibu values the lives of its host communities and frowns at the arbitrary use of firearms. However, in situations with a severe threat to life, the rules of engagement must be evoked for self-protection.
“The Command regrets the compelling and unfortunate situation that might have put the residents of the said axis and the general public in fear. While carrying out our lawful duty, we shall not renege in our effort to ensure the safety of the good people of Ogun State. Our operatives shall continue to operate within the ambit of the law and in conformity with the rules of engagement.”
The statement continues: “It is pertinent to inform you that the Nigeria Customs Service Act (NCSA) 2023 frowns at obstruction, molestation, or assaults of officers on lawful duty, with the infliction of punishment on offenders such as conviction to a fine of five million Naira, and imprisonment for 5 years or both.
“Also, Section 226 of the NCSA empowers Customs operatives to carry out patrols freely, which applies to our anti-smuggling operations in Ogun State.”
But he also took time to explain the situation that degenerated into the unfortunate but twisted shooting. “On Saturday, 16th of December, 2023, along the Lanfewa/Enugada axis of Ogun State, the operatives of Ogun 1 Area Command of the Nigeria Customs Service, while evacuating some smuggled goods from 2 faulty vehicles used as means of conveyance, came under attack by hoodlums who were suspected to have been mobilized by the smugglers of the unwholesome goods.
“The seriousness of the attack and the threat to officers’ lives led to a call for reinforcement. During the melee that ensued at about 0715 hours of that day, our operatives repelled the attack to safeguard their lives. They left the scene with the secured seizure and prevented the hoodlums from further attack till they finally exited the area. The seizure was successfully conveyed to the Government Warehouse at Customs House, Abeokuta, without any casualty.”
It will be recalled that last month, November 2023, while fielding questions from journalists about seizures and resistance during the brief on the command’s October scorecard, Shuaibu said he has directed a scale down in confrontation, just to avoid skirmishes.
Asked if he recorded arrest of suspects along with the seizures, he replied:
“Once you are fair and just in your dealings, chances are that your message will be accepted by majority because you are speaking from a mind that is neutral. We believe they also saw us as more business orientated when they heard that we have informed officers to scale down on physical combat when possible. We don’t want shooting or killing of anyone, we deploy intelligence to see where these items are taken…we go and evacuate.
“Once they are busy bringing out this contraband, they move on to supply to the owner, they are not the owners. So if you engage pigs in wrestling, you’ll be dirty, so we don’t want to do that, because officers are trained, they work based on instruction. We allow them to do the hard work, instead of engaging them in physical struggle or shooting because of rice, we go at our convenience to evacuate from wherever they are taking them.
“Talking about suspect we are now leveraging on technology in the discharge of our duty, if you kill, the pendulum will switch in their favor. Custom officers are been tried regularly for using the arms and ammunition given to us to defend our position, in maiming or fighting, sometimes resulting in fatality. We have moved away and have adopted a different strategy by trying our best to cause them economic hardship, monumental financial loss.
“We know those boys who are ferrying these goods are not the owners, the owners are in their lodge and homes. So the more they bring and the more we seize, they will run out of financial stability. That is why right now we don’t much care about bringing them or seizing them or arresting them. We want them to do the rigour, reach their region then we cause them financial loss.”
This is the new Nigeria Customs Service, manned by polished, well educated and highly capable and sensitive officers always strategizing and re-strategizing just to remain a step ahead of smugglers and economic saboteurs.
In October, the Command recorded a total of one hundred and twenty two (122) seizures and collected a total revenue of N30, 408,276.00 representing 400% increase over and above the figures recorded within the corresponding period of 2022.
Also on November 27th 2023, operatives of the command embarked on a professional and intelligence-based operation where they bursted a syndicate that specialized in the smuggling of ammunition through the Imeko axis of the State.
According to Shuaibu, his operatives intercepted a total of 975 rounds of live ammunition concealed inside five bags of locally produced rice.
Given the professional and ethical outlook of the present administration led by the Comptroller General of Customs, Bashir AdewaleAadeniy MFR, it is highly improbable that operatives of the service will engage in any disgraceful pastimme or misconduct.
Therefore, the Abeokuta shooting from all intent and purposes was guided by exigencies of the moment; unpremeditated and carried out under an atmosphere of uncertainty and avoidable impulse as is often the case in all theatre of war.