Nigeria Customs of death
By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 19 July, 2021)
Grand ancestor of Nollywood, Ayinla Olumegbon’s ‘Wole Wole Arufin’ (The Lawless Sanitary Inspector) was very popular in the 1970s. The story was about a sanitary inspector who was consistent in searching soup and water pots for infractions. His method and diligence regularly paid off – he made arrests which also fetched him fat bribes. But every wise wine tapper knows which palm tree to climb and which one to avoid like death. This inspector enjoyed his job and the benefits so much that he forgot himself. One day, the hard-working enforcer of cleanliness peeped into an old woman’s pot and contracted insanity. He sang to his death. I recommend that play to whoever runs the Nigeria Customs Service and its invasive night operations.
Acting, in some way, is prophecy. I recollected the lawless sanitary inspector story at the weekend when I got details of an attack on a part of Oyo state by some uniformed gunmen. It happened in notorious Ibarapa which recently gave Mr. Sunday Igboho his ‘global’ fame. That area in Oyo State is used to attacks by pastoralist criminals who kidnapped, killed and melted away. Some months ago, a mix of very firm local and official measures broke the cycle of attacks there from killer herdsmen. The poor people were just settling down to peace when late on Friday, the area had another harvest of death. Three persons, including an Amotekun commander, were reportedly shot dead by a rampaging band of uniformed gunmen in fast moving vans. Amidst shocks, cries and counting of heads and limbs by the locals, the Nigeria Customs Service came out many hours later to take responsibility for the terror. The Customs said its officers, backed by soldiers, fired the fatal shots. One of the Customs spokespersons said the incident happened around 8:00 p.m. on Friday and that it was an operation against rice smugglers and their contraband. He said the “officers who are operatives of the Zone A, Federal Operations Unit, sighted eight trucks carrying smuggled foreign parboiled rice.” He said the smugglers’ “drivers and armed accompanying passengers launched attacks on the officers” and that one of the attackers was shot and disarmed while the others retreated with their smuggled wares. The Customs spoke of no death from its shots but vowed that the service would “never relent or be intimidated by unwarranted attacks by criminal elements unlawfully bearing arms and unleashing same on officers on legitimate duties.”
Certain Federal agencies in Nigeria have some very interesting defining features. One is that they are arrogant, clumsy and rude. Another is that they are shameless – they lack shame in exhibiting their cluelessness. Officers and men of our Customs Service are paid to guard our borders against unwanted goods. But that service and its men compete diligently with the Nigeria Police on metropolitan highways and in searching bedrooms and water pots for what they refused to stop at the borders. The borders have forever remained leaky even while closed. Customs officers are paid to ensure that the gates are shut to unwanted wares; yet, things happen. And when things happen, the ‘sanitary inspectors’ invade homes and warehouses in search of what they allowed in. I do not know of any other country on earth that leaves its borders porous and then fights smuggling of foreign goods in the hinterlands.
Nigerians are fighting wars of survival on many fronts. The Ibarapa area is too terrorized by privileged killers and pampered abductors to sleep without opening both eyes. They are too oppressed to receive with flutes and drumbeats yet another set of official attackers. When you push even a sheep to the wall, it will gird its clumsy robe and charge back. Except you were war-baiting, you won’t go to Ibarapa, Oyo State this tetchy times ostensibly hunting rice smugglers – and at night. But the Customs were there firing from all their cylinders and shattering the night for the death-weary villagers. It did not matter to the gunmen that the scenes of the shootings, Ibarapa’s Igangan, Igboora and Ayete are not border towns. The officers who did it were not even from the Oyo State command. They are an invading force called “Federal Operations unit” headed by a certain DC Usman Yahaya. Yet, from wherever they came, like the owl they are, they said they ‘sighted,’ that night, eight trucks of smuggled rice in a place hundreds of kilometers to the nearest international border. The distance from that place to Benin Republic is 204 kilometers. Check. If you like, ask the invaders what their real missions were. So, after the shooting and the killing, where are the “eight trucks of foreign parboiled rice”? The Customs service already answered that. It said the smugglers “retreated with their smuggled wares.” Retreated to where? To Benin Republic?
There is an old joke about a customs officer asking a traveller to please open his suitcase. “But I don’t have a suitcase,” the traveller told him. And the customs officer retorted: “It does not matter. The order is one for everyone.” Why did people have to die because of rice, foreign or local? One of those reportedly killed by the Customs men was an Amotekun operative on a motorcycle. Was he also a rice smuggler? The real loser in all this is Nigeria. In that man’s death and in the others’ death, and in the official excuse for their death, Nigeria has given their children and their other relations reasons to forever hate the country.
Did it have to happen? No. It should not have happened if we had a properly run federation. The gunmen stormed Ibarapa and misbehaved because Nigeria empowered them to kill even the innocent – and they knew it. At the last meeting of southern governors, they impressed it on the Federal Government to ask its security agencies to stop invading states on ‘special operations’ without, at least, informing governors, the chief security officers of the states. Now, with this latest from the Customs, what better way to tell the governors that their words carry no weight and therefore cannot be law? The truth is governors are as oppressed as their people. It is worse in the south of Nigeria. And it is not funny. I have heard some southern voices demanding why stories as Ibarapa’s are not heard from the north. They also ask: When was the last time the Customs raided ‘trucks’ and warehouses in Katsina, in Sokoto, in Gusau, in Kano and in Kaduna? Or the north is smuggling-free?
It doesn’t rain in Nigeria, it pours. As Customs officers killed in Ibarapa, Oyo, soldiers were doing their own shooting and killing in Ladipo Market in Lagos last week. And in Abuja, decency and credibility of elections were fatally wounded by those afraid of electronic transmission of vote scores. And those who did all these are not tired of doing more – even with open celebrations. You remember the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, Ahmed Idris Wase? He was that man who, one day in March this year, presided over the sitting of the House and stopped Hon Mark Terseer Gbillah from Benue State from presenting a petition on behalf of a group of Nigerians in the diaspora over herdsmen’s atrocious activities in Benue. Wase would not take that petition because the Nigerians who wrote and signed it were not Nigerians resident in the country. The same Wase last week presided over the final debates on and passage of the amendment bill on the Electoral Act. From the same Wase’s office, a message went out at the weekend celebrating the north’s uncommon blessings on the passage of that bill and the Petroleum Industry Bill. One of his aides, as reported by The Punch, wrote to lawmakers from the north: “On behalf of the Deputy Speaker, Rt. Hon. Ahmed Idris Wase and the Northern Caucus leader, Hon. Musa Sarki Adar, I am directed to write and formally congratulate and appreciate all the northern caucuses for standing firm through their wisdom and strength to ensure the Northern interest in both PIB and Electoral Act is adequately placed in a position of advantage. There is no doubt a house united will forever get whatever it wants, giving [sic] the advantage we have in size…”
A friend who read the above asked how southern lawmakers looked after reading the message. I told her if she expected them to lose face, she was wrong because they would not lose what they lacked. She asked again why they acted so disgracefully in capitulation to the north – especially on the PIB. Is it money? I volunteered no answer – because I had none.
One question I hear daily in Nigeria is: How did we get here and where do we go from here? Each time I hear that, I ask myself: Who is going to answer that question for these people? Can anyone beg a normal person to come and become a slave? American literary and social critic, Mark Caldwell, in January 2015 published his ‘A Short History of Rudeness.’ A reviewer describes the 302-page book as “a history of the demise of manners.” He says further that the book “charts the progress of an epidemic of rudeness.” There is a “death of civility” in power relations in Nigeria. A ceaseless rain of crude insults pours on the south from the north – and on the entire nation from the skies of Abuja. Yet, the people have no coherent answer or answers to the downpour. The rain won’t stop before the looming flood of armageddon. Caldwell insists his own society is a confused one; a country that does not know what it wants; a little hypocrisy here, some confusion there. He wrote: “We want to be free, but we long for restraint. We insist on openness – and cringe when we get it; we strain at trivial offences and swallow camels of iniquity.” Caldwell wrote as if the place he had in mind was Nigeria – a castrated colony of phlegm eaters.