Tuesday Column By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
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Some people may consider it an exaggeration when I say that men of the Nigeria Customs Service are gradually joining the ignoble league of ‘killer cops”. In truth customs personnel are not cops in the strict sense of the word in that they are not among first line security outfits like the Police and military organizations whose primary responsibility is to secure lives from criminal elements that seek to kill/ harm us physically, destroy our property or forcefully eject us from our homelands. Still they are cops in that they police the country’s borders to prevent importation of prohibited goods. What is tagged a ‘prohibited item’ varies from time to time and from country to country.
Thus Customs personnel guard our borders against smugglers. But that is not their primary assignment per se, their main function is collection of excise and customs duties on goods; smuggling can be curbed through imposition of high tariff(tax) on affected items thereby making them generally unprofitable for marketers and hence discouraging their being smuggled. So, rather than outrightly banning importation of a particular good(s) high customs duty can be charged on them. The Customs Service is among agencies that rake in billions of naira into the federal government coffers, after the NNPC and the federal Inland Revenue service.
Between an armed robber/kidnapper/terrorist and a rice smuggler which is more dangerous? The former steals lives while the latter steals a product so to speak, although we may extrapolate to say that the smuggler hurts the economy with its other side effects. Whereas lives snuffed by the armed robber/terrorist /kidnapper cannot be replaced, the smuggler, a rice smuggler for example, can be made to make amends through hefty fines which can technically be used to compensate those that are directly hurt by the smuggler’s activities – farmers for instance. It is in this light that one views as unmitigated disaster, the intermittent clashes between customs officials and smugglers at our border posts resulting in fatalities on both sides; in the course of the personnel chasing suspected smugglers into town. It happens in Ogun and Katsina. However, the recent one in the border town of Jibia, Katsina State where no less than ten persons were killed and several others injured is to say the least unbecoming. They were crushed to death by a customs vehicle chasing a suspected rice smuggler. What is more, the victims were ordinary folks going about their ordinary business of trying to eke a living in a state that is grappling with the challenge of insecurity in the form of banditry. Expectedly, this dastardly occurrence which could have been avoided if the customs officials had undertaken their ‘duties’ with a humane face, has outraged both the government and people of Katsina state as well as right thinking Nigerians.
In a letter titled, ‘Continuous loss of lives caused by customs officials” addressed to the Controller General of the Nigeria Customs Service and other stakeholders, the Katsina State chapter of a nongovernmental organization expressed deep concern over the incident. Signed by Comrade Jamilu Aliyu Charanchi, the NGO made the following observations: “This reckless behavior of the Customs personnel if not addressed decisively will result to a breakdown of law and order which may consume more lives. The victims are from a poor family background, hence the need to come with aid to the families of the victims in order to calm nerves in the town. This is not the first time of having issues with the service similar to this, hence there is the need to investigate this matter urgently to avert future occurrences of this extra-judicial killings of innocent Nigerians by men of the Nigerian Custom service.The quick intervention of the special Adviser to the Katsina governor on Security Matters for the victims to have access to a special medical attention played a vital role in not only saving the lives of some of the victims, but also escalation of crisis across the state”.
The organization then made the following demands, “We call for the immediate suspension of the activities of Boarder Drill across the state.We call on the Nigerian Custom service to continue taking care of the injured until they are fully recovered.The Nigerian Custom service should provide aid to the family of the victims, considering the fact that the victims cannot move to pursue for their daily bread. Financial compensation should be paid to the families of the deceased with immediate effect. Nigerian Custom service should be seriously warned against pursuing alleged smugglers in town.We salute the spirit of patriotism and humanity shown by the special Adviser to his Excellency, the executive Governor of Katsina state on security Matters by his prompt action to ensure the intervention of state command of the Nigerian Custom service, for the victims to have access to medical facility. We urge the traditional rulers, religious leaders, elders, intellectuals, the cultured section of our politicians, the professionals, youth and students, business men and women, civil servants, civil society organisations and the general public to mobilize to resist this reckless activities of the men of Nigeria Custom service for their on personal benefits.Finally, while we remain vigilant over the direction and fate of our state, it should also be clear that the Youth are the major stakeholders in whatever happens in the state, and the Leaders will be making a terrible mistake if it assumes that were a mere pushovers to be turned into marginal elements in all calculations on the future of our dear state”.
Although the Customs authority sent a high powered delegation to commiserate with the government and people of Katsina state, the citizenry are still seething with anger. Governor Masari admitted that he relunctantly received the delegation, adding that the government would sue the Customs Service over the incident. The customs should review its operations at the borders. It should endeavour to apprehend suspected smugglers before they cross the border into the town. It can also use drones to locate their whereabouts when the smugglers run into town. No amount of money can equate human life. A bag or bags of rice or any other banned commodities, no matter its/their monetary value, should not be valued more than human life.