Like troubled grasses on an elephant pathway, residents of communities close to Nigeria’s border crossing points with the Republic of Benin are often victims of bloody clashes between Customs officers and smugglers.
The smugglers import foreign parboiled rice, groundnut oil, and other contraband goods from Benin into Nigeria, usually through illegal routes. Operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), in carrying out their duty of fighting smuggling, often engage these smugglers in gun duels.
While residents in the affected areas have lambasted the NCS for failing to stop the smugglers at border points before they enter residential towns and cause civilian casualties, the NCS says the residents are aiding the criminals.
Earlier this year, HumAngle reported how Customs officers knocked on these communities with ‘sorrow, tears and death.’ As noted, Juwon Mumuni was a betting agent and part-time motorcyclist in the Obafemi Owode Local Government Area of Ogun State before he was killed by officers of the federal agency during a chase of suspected smugglers.
Like 35-year-old Juwon, innocent residents are often hit by stray bullets when state officers engage smugglers in gun battles. Last Friday, residents of Ayetoro town set three vehicles of the NCS on fire, following another shoot-out between smugglers and operatives of NCS.
“They turned Ayetoro into a war zone. We are fed up with the excesses of these Customs officers. They just enter our town and start shooting anyhow,” said Nojeem, a resident of Ayetoro. Nojeem stated that a resident was “badly injured” and was receiving treatment at a traditional medical centre.
A smuggler, who resides in the town and prefers to be anonymous, narrated the incident to HumAngle. He denied being involved in the incident but claimed he had first-hand information from “the guys involved”.
Smugglers make bookings with officers?
According to the source, “they ‘booked’ in Olorunda, when they were coming. Another set of officers who were not there when they booked, stopped them but they did not stop.” Booking is a term for bribes paid for safe passage. “ The officers chased them with three Hilux vehicles. The guys had already got to their destination in Ayetoro before the Customs got to town. Those officers entered Ayetoro and started shooting into the air.”
He added that, after some minutes, “four guys [smugglers] wearing masks came out fully armed to face the officers. When the officers finished their bullets, they ran away leaving their vehicles behind.”
Akinsanya Afeez, who lives in the town, corroborated the smuggler’s claims in his own account. He said the residents, who had been terrified by the gunfight, came out and burnt the vehicles of the officers.
“It may be the same guys that they were chasing that came out wearing masks. Ayetoro was their destination and they know the town better than the officers,” he said.
“We do not support smuggling. Personally, I usually tell the smugglers that the law will soon catch up with them. But the Nigerian customs should stop them at the border point, instead of turning our town into a war zone.”
He suggested that vehicles carrying smuggled goods that could not be caught at the border should be left one, “instead of putting innocent lives at risk.”
“If they kill any smuggler at the border point, even if the smuggler is my sibling, I won’t care, but we want peace in Ayetoro town. So, I am not supporting smuggling,” Afeez added.
Lawmaker berates Nigeria Customs
Adegoke Adeyanju, the lawmaker representing Yewa North Local Government Area in the Ogun State House of Assembly, condemned the action of the Customs officers. He also alleged that one resident of the Yewa town was killed in the clash.
“I called the PRO of Customs to register my displeasure over the incident. We do not hear such issues in the Northern part of this country, even though their borders are more porous than ours here,” he alleged.
“Ayetoro, Igbogila: These places are more than 30 kilometres to the border point. How can you go into communities and be shooting and innocent people will be killed? That is barbaric. I can never be in support of that.”
‘Stop smugglers at the border’
Adeyanju wondered why the smugglers could not be engaged at border points, which are kilometres from residential communities.
He frowned at smuggling activities but condemned the invasion of residential communities by Customs officers.
“I am not in support of smuggling. In fact, we do our best to discourage smuggling, but I do not support customs officers engaging smugglers in communities,” he said. “I have made several efforts; I have spoken with Mr. Governor concerning this. He said he has spoken with the Customs leaders. Even the senator from Oyo has said it. How can you be raiding shops, markets? It is not ideal.”
When contacted, Hameed Oloyede, the Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Ogun State Command 1, said the service had commenced investigation into the matter. He, however, argued that the officers had done nothing wrong by going into the town to arrest smugglers.
“There is nothing like violence or invasion. When carrying out an operation and officers are being attacked, are they to allow smugglers or hoodlums to kill them?” he asked.
“Before now, there has been relative peace; there had been no altercation due to our mode of operation. We deploy more of intelligence. But these smugglers are daredevils; they want to carry out their smuggling activities at all costs.
“They always do everything possible to get the sympathy of members of the communities. The way they carry out their operation is such a way that they put our operatives into a mess.”
‘Why we can’t stop all smugglers at border points’
Oloyede blamed the porousness of Nigeria’s borders for the NCS’s inability to always stop smugglers at border points.
“One thing I want you to understand is that our borders are porous, and we are making concerted efforts to make sure that we police all the borders. But the unapproved routes that we have – that these daredevil-smugglers make use of across the states – are much more than the approved routes,” he noted.
Confronted with the allegation that smugglers make bookings with Customs officers before bringing in smuggled goods, he dismissed it as impossible.
“How can that be possible? That is not part of our operation. The question you are asking me is not part of our operations,” he replied.
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