For the officers of the Nigeria Customs Service, the life of an ordinary Nigerian has scant value. They demonstrated their morbid penchant for wasting innocent lives yet again in a rural Ogun State community recently by shooting a female teenager to death. During their operation in Agosasa, Ipokia Local Government Area, Sekinat Agbelade, 15, was slaughtered, her life snuffed out by stray bullets fired by Customs officers. Two others – Oluwole Oladosu and Saliu Babalola – sustained gunshot injuries during the mayhem. Such killings have become routine. This loss is unquantifiable and should provoke a wide range of reforms in the operations of the NCS.
Repeatedly, Customs officers have been needlessly shedding the blood of innocent Nigerians on the pretext of chasing smugglers. Apparently, because the NCS’ killer squads have been getting away without retribution, they went on the rampage again in Agosasa in broad daylight. After impounding the smugglers’ vehicle, they started shooting indiscriminately. What made this case peculiar beyond its brutality is that the victim was young and innocent. Agbelade was an SSS3 pupil preparing for her West African School Certificate Examinations. What a grave loss!
The killing has stirred a familiar debate: what is the value of life in Nigeria? To atone for this gruesome killing, the top hierarchy of the NCS, particularly the Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali, should order a thorough investigation. All those found wanting should be held to account in line with the law. Billions of naira in seized bags of rice cannot equate to one human life and too many have died on Ali’s watch.
The legitimate enforcement of anti-smuggling laws by Customs has caused much damage in the country, often ending in farce and bloodletting. Through incompetence and corruption, after allowing smugglers to move through the borders, officers wildly descend on minor suspects in the hinterland and on the highways. The border communities are the hardest hit in these gory episodes. In a grisly incident in October 2019, Customs officers gunned down three students in Ihunbo, also in Ipokia LGA, during an attempt to impound contraband vehicles.
As usual, there was no official censure or prosecution of the culprits. Consequently, officers persist in reckless conduct. In October 2017, Paul Ayomaya, 25, was brutally mowed down by Customs officers at a checkpoint in Ajilete, a border community. The incident was disgusting. On the said date – about two months to his wedding – Ayomaya met his untimely death when Customs officers lying in wait for smugglers retaliated an attack by criminals with gunshots. One of the bullets hit him on his motorcycle.
At the Sagamu Interchange on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway in February 2019, Customs officers shot a citizen returning from overseas to death. Although the NCS initially dismissed the incident, claiming that the victim was accidentally hit while struggling with an officer, a viral video of the event suggested otherwise. It caused the NCS to recant and state that it was investigating the incident.
In Abule-Egba, a densely populated Lagos suburb, Customs officers pursuing rice smugglers in February 2018 fired gunshots into an early morning crowd, killing one Toyeeb Olayiwola. In spite of this, the officers reportedly fired more shots to disperse the irate crowd. Vividly, this suggests that to the NCS personnel, rice has more value than the life of a Nigerian.
Regrettably, citizens live under the constant threat of intimidation, arrest, extortion and shootings by security agents. In an 18-month tally between November 2016 and June 2018, a national newspaper estimated that the police killed 47 Nigerians extrajudicially. Instead of arresting him, a soldier shot dead a man, who allegedly breached the ongoing lockdown in Delta State last week. Again, a petrol attendant, Chibuisi Okameme, was shot dead allegedly by a police inspector in Ukwa, Abia State on Sunday. Without a doubt, it is deficient leadership that sustains these unchecked extrajudicial killings in the country.
To stem the senseless killings, the affected communities should take the bull by the horns. With the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) at a loss on what to do, these communities should utilise the judicial process to bring the errant NCS officers to book. They should seek damages through individual and class action lawsuits against the NCS. Perhaps, if the NCS and its murderous officers are forced to cough up heavy financial damages to the families and the communities, it would introduce global best practices and efficiency in its operations. If the NCS had been effective at the borders and smugglers apprehended there, there would be no need to mow down innocent citizens in the hinterland.
Elsewhere, customs organisations adhere to strict rules of engagement. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recommends the utilisation of technology for customs operations. It recommends its Automated System for Customs Data that assists customs organisations in “facilitating trade efficiency and competitiveness by substantially reducing transaction time and costs; improving security by streamlining procedures of cargo control, transit of goods and clearance of goods and helping fight corruption by enhancing the transparency of transactions.”
To enhance efficiency in member states, the European Commission says its customs union promotes the use of technology, and through it, its customs organisations generated €20 billion and seized 36 million contraband articles worth €770 million in 2013. To attain such lofty heights, the NCS should rigorously re-examine its faulty operational structure.
The NCS should deepen technology and engage the business community. It should connect with the border communities – and sensitise them regularly to the dangers of patronising smuggled goods, which might often turn out to be fake – instead of alienating them by random killing of their members.
The aim of the customs is to facilitate legitimate trade. The President should stop overlooking these callous killings by the Customs. He should make Ali and his officers to account for the innocent lives being wasted in their operations. For justice to be served, this case should be diligently investigated and aggressively prosecuted.