The Nigerian Customs Service is a revenue collection agency of the federal government domiciled in the Federal Ministry of Finance. The Act of Parliament that established the agency considers it a paramilitary organisation, which means its members are trained and organised in a similar manner to the professional military forces. This also permits officers of the NCS to carry firearms in the discharge of their duty. The exception however is that Customs cannot be listed as part of the armed forces of the nation. The primary responsibility of the agency is to collect and account for revenue from Customs duties, excise duties, other taxes, charges, fees and special assessments as may be assigned to it by the Government from time to time. Since its establishment, the NCS has remained a major revenue earner for the nation. Nevertheless, the body has been enmeshed in various scandalous events with the most pronounced being corruption. In a rather disturbing manner the men of the Service are gradually becoming notorious for irresponsible use of firearms that has resulted in the death of harmless civilians.
It is sad and awfully lugubrious that within 24 hours, Customs officials were fingered in the death of one innocent civilian and the hospitalisation of several others. This is not a new phenomenon in the operations of Customs in Nigeria; in fact, it is gradually becoming a consistent occurrence. This act of recklessness has claimed lives of both civilians and officials of the Service. A quick flashback, in 2014 a Deputy Superintendent of Customs, Tunde Oseni, was reported to have accidentally shot dead a colleague during an operation on the Seme-Badagry Expressway in Lagos State. The then Public Relations Officer, Federal Operation Unit Zone “A” of the Nigeria Customs Service, Mr. Uche Ejesieme, in a statement, described the death as a result of an “accidental discharge” which occurred while the officers were attempting to intercept two vehicles loaded with items suspected to be smuggled and prohibited. In another instance, Customs officials were confirmed to have shot a driver in Mushin area of Lagos State because he was suspected to be carrying smuggled items.
The most recent events occurred last week when officials of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), attached to the Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Zone A, Ikeja, Lagos, shot dead a man at Abule-Egba. In a manner similar to past occurrences, the officers were reportedly chasing a danfo bus containing suspected rice smugglers and opened fire, resulting in the death of unharmed civilian. It took the intervention of the Police to arrest a brewing riot by inhabitants of the community who witnessed the horrible scene. Less than 24 hours after the Abule-Egba incident, a pregnant woman, Olugunna Bukola, was shot by officials of the service at Iyana Iyesi, Ota in Ado-Odo/Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State. Again this occurred when the Customs officials were in pursuit of rice smugglers in the area. This clearly shows a pattern; officers result to shooting whenever they notice a vehicle suspected to be carrying smuggled or prohibited items.
The preponderance of unguarded shootings by the Customs officers is indicative of the weak training they possess. No one should be allowed to carry firearms without adequate training on its handling. It is appreciable that the task the officers are confronted with on a daily basis is enormously dangerous. Some of these smugglers wield sophisticated weapons and will do anything to ensure that smuggled goods are delivered to their paymasters. Curbing the menace clearly requires a commensurate approach. But we cannot put the lives of innocent citizens at risk in our quest to fight and eradicate smuggling. It is disheartening to see anyone die from stray bullet or any form of unintended shooting.
What the foregoing advises is the urgent need for the training and re-training of the officers of the Customs on the handling of firearms. The status they are gradually assuming was synonymous with the officers of the Nigerian Police who were notorious for accidental discharge years ago. The police force has since addressed the matter and now accidental discharge is no longer as common as it used to be. If Customs officials must carry firearms then they must be well-trained in order to ensure the safety of the society. It is not the duty of Customs to shoot innocent Nigerians in the name of impounding smuggled goods. The responsibility of Customs to the society is to prevent Nigerians from consuming dangerous goods that are smuggled into the country. With the increase in the spate of accidental discharge, how can Customs rely on Nigerians to support its anti-smuggling drive with useful information? How can they be friendly to Customs when they are afraid of a possible accidental discharge with the presence of Customs officers?
The Comptroller-General must see this as an issue that requires exigent attention. Programmes must be immediately introduced to protect Nigerians from becoming daily victims in their land. Perhaps punishing officers for reckless discharge will also serve as a motivation for responsible behaviour.
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