Loss of innocent lives and need to rein in the Customs

Loss of innocent lives and need to rein in the Customs

 

The frequent killings of innocent Nigerians by operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) have long passed an alarming proportion. Almost on weekly basis, the nation is treated with gory incidents of citizens dying in the hands of Nigeria Customs Service officials in one part of the country or the other. If it is not through “stray bullets” from the officials chasing smugglers into the markets and village squares, shooting indiscriminately in the process, it is organized clashes by Customs and smugglers leading to deaths of innocent people who are often caught in the crossfires. 

Worse still are deaths that have been recorded at Customs check points, often amidst allegations of bribery or motorists refusing to stop and “settle”. This often attracts reckless driving by Customs officials while in hot pursuit of such recalcitrant individuals, thereby endangering the lives of hapless bystanders.

This was the scenario that played out at the border town of Jibiya in Katsina State on Monday last August 9, 2021. In this latest incident of deaths of citizens in the hands of Customs officers, eight people were confirmed dead and 20 others seriously injured after a Hilux van belonging to the Service ran into some people standing by the roadside in Jibiya. 

Many eye-witnesses said officials of the NCS were pursuing a J5 Peugeot bus they suspected was involved in rice smuggling. While in reckless pursuit of the bus, the driver lost control of the vehicle and ran into people standing by the roadside, killing eight people and injuring many others. 

An eye-witness, a trader, who gave account of the accident, said the J5 Peugeot car usually conveys traders that buy maize from Dandume town to sell at Jibiya. Even though their business is not smuggling, they normally give money to Customs. But on that fateful morning, the bus could not stop at the Customs check point to perform the usual ritual, and was consequently pursued into the town where the unfortunate accident occurred.

One disturbing detail in the unfortunate trend of Customs killing innocent citizens is the usual efforts by Customs spokesmen to deny the truth.  In what has become a tradition, the Customs PRO in Katsina disputed the account that the officers were pursuing a vehicle. Rather, he came up with a flimsy explanation of the van developing brake fault after the officers had finished eating a meal and were returning to their checkpoint. 

Apparently, latching on to this explanation, the national Customs Public Relations Officer, Joseph Attah, in a statement, dismissed the accident as an “unfortunate operational accident” caused by brake failure.

Denials and flimsy excuses have become the common practice whenever the lives of citizens are snuffed out by Customs officers. The refusal to admit the truth and resolve to avert such ugly incidents, no doubt, contributes to the increasing loss of lives of Nigerian citizens, as it emboldens the Customs operatives who know that their bosses will always find an explanation.

Observably, this avoidable loss of lives through Customs operations became rampant under the present Customs management. Since the present management took charge at Customs headquarters, Nigeria has lost many citizens as customs officers have become so reckless and ruthless. They have become so lawless and insensitive in their quest to meet set revenue targets, and to make money for themselves.  

In the last five years that the administration of retired Col. Hameed Ali has been in control of Customs, no fewer than 30 people have lost their lives in the South West alone. These people lost their lives in their various communities in Lagos, Ogun and Oyo states between May 2016 and July 2021 when officials of Customs raided their communities. Available records indicate that apart from the deaths, scores of others were injured during such raids. 

Ogun State has the highest number of casualties as 16 people in its communities were killed by the Customs officials during the period under review. Oyo State recorded nine casualties while Lagos had five. A further breakdown or details of these killings is not necessary here. What is necessary is for the right things to be done to prevent further loss of lives of citizens in the hands of Customs operatives. 

It is noteworthy that at various times, the National Assembly and the states Houses of Assembly of affected states had brought up the matter on the floor of their various legislative chambers. Unfortunately, nothing ever came out of the interventions after the usual condemnations and outpouring of emotions. 

There is an absolute need for government to protect the lives of its citizens. The lawmakers should see the lives of their constituents as sacred and do something to protect them. Already, almost every community has become prone to, and has been suffering from attacks from terrorists, bandits and armed herdsmen. The Nigeria Customs Service should not be allowed to constitute a new face of terror under its present management. 

While we do not lose sight of the statement and disposition of the Customs management regarding the ugly incident in Jibiya last Monday, we believe that expression of condolences and promise of providing best medical attention to the injured and taking care of the survivors of the dead are not enough. The Customs management should commit to truth and strict implementation of the outcome of its proposed investigation of the accident with the view to preventing further loss of innocent lives.  

The investigation should not be a mere cover-up or a ploy to let tempers cool. We note, however, that investigation of crimes and accidents are not the responsibility of Customs, but the police. If the Customs management really wants to get to the truth, it should allow the police to handle the investigation, as Customs cannot be both the prosecutor and the judge in its case.

In the same vein, we deplore the apparent duplicity and bare-faced display of ethnicity and tribal sentiments by the Customs management in its handling of deaths caused by Customs officials in other parts of the country. The Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, in a statement through the Customs PRO, promptly reacted to the incident at Jibiya, expressing his condolences, and promising that Customs would take care of the survivors of the dead, and ensure adequate medical treatment for the injured. This is something Ali has never done regarding the killings in the South West, which has recorded the highest number of casualties and deaths from Customs operations. He had consistently turned blind eyes to the frequent killings of unarmed citizens in Lagos, Ogun and Oyo States.

For the sake of justice and equity, we call on the Customs management to extend the same gesture to all the survivors of those whose lives were cut short by Customs in the South West and other parts of the country. The Customs management should not carry on as if such lives do not matter, because what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.     

 



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