Operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), few days ago, reportedly shot and killed a young man and injured two others suspected to be rice smugglers at Abule Egba on the outskirts of Lagos. The custom officers allegedly opened fire on a bus conveying the victims and some bags of rice in broad daylight at Abule Egba along the very busy Lagos –Abeokuta expressway that is usually characterised by heavy human and vehicular traffic. The prompt intervention of the police reportedly reined in the violence that attended the pandemonium which broke out in the aftermath of the shooting. However, the Federal Operation Unit of the NCS, Zone A, Ikeja, in an apparent admission that its officers were involved in the encounter, claimed that the smugglers and the driver of the bus mobilised hoodlums to attack its staff but denied that any life was lost in the confrontation.
The NCS nevertheless owned up, revealing that its operatives made use of firearms which, it claimed, they shot into the air to scare away the hoodlums who were already gathering, allegedly at the instance of the smugglers, to attack them. Yet, there was ample evidence that the bus was actually shot at by the NIS officials. Someone actually died at the scene of the incident while the body of the bus and some bags of rice in the bus were smeared with fresh human blood. This is analogous to the puzzle thrown up by the proverbial honey bees and wasps on the one hand and the farmer on the other. The wasp and the bees denied culpability but the face of the famer is filled with swellings and welts, which clear indications of insect stings.
To be sure, it is the statutory responsibility of the NCS to checkmate the nefarious activities of smugglers. The NCS is saddled with the mandate of preventing illegal entry of foreign goods into the country in order to boost local production and ensure effective collection of tariffs. However, this duty is expected to be carried out responsibly and largely at the country’s borders and not dangerously in the urban centres. Indeed, if the amount of energy and passion channeled into combating smuggling activities by the NCS officials in the cities and hinterlands had been deployed at the borders, the foreign goods would not have entered the country illegally in the first place.
For purposes of clarity, it is not being suggested that the smugglers can continue to have a field day once they have escaped scrutiny by compromising NSC officials at the borders or by taking unapproved routes in the country’s largely porous borders. Both instances constitute breaches of the law which should not be condoned. But the NCS has a duty to act more responsibly, especially in the use of firearms. The officials of the service are permitted to bear arms largely for self-defence, not to attack people or foment trouble. For the avoidance of doubt, the duty of the NCS operatives is to apprehend suspected smugglers, seize the smuggled goods and prosecute the suspects in the law court. It has no right to mete out its own version of justice by killing or maiming them.
The diminishing value placed on human life by many a Nigerian, especially the security and law enforcement agents, has assumed a dangerous dimension. Perhaps because aberrant officials are seldom held accountable for their actions that result in avoidable loss of lives, there seems to be a sense of impunity which emboldens them to continue to engage in acts of gross misconduct. While we condemn the killing of the suspected smuggler and call for an inquiry and justice in the matter, we also frown at the ease with which some Nigerians, especially the youths, resort to violent actions at the slightest opportunity. It surely amounted to a gross act of lawlessness for some miscreants to have blocked the Lagos–Abeokuta expressway with a bonfire and impeded free flow of traffic until the police intervened to restore normalcy shortly after the unfortunate incident.
No amount of provocation can justify mob action by or against any person and it is even worse to do that against any agent of the state. Anarchy and self-help should be abhorred in any decent and civilised society. And one way to do that is to apprehend the perpetrators and punish them according to the law. The law enforcement agents too are enjoined to refrain from actions that can provoke mob action by ignorant and uninformed citizens. In this season of collective outrage against bloodletting in some parts of the country, with the Federal Government being rightly accused of culpable negligence, officials of the state should be circumspect and avoid acts of omission and commission that could portray the government in bad light. They should respect the sanctity of human life.