The protesting traders…yesterday
• Seize 1,870 bags of rice, 43 kegs of vegetable oil
• Traders lock down Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway
For several hours, human and vehicular traffic along Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway was yesterday paralysed as rioting youths and rice sellers in Sango-Ota market protested against alleged invasion of the market by customs officials.
The protest, which led to the blockade of the main road before the bridge at Sango-Ota in Ado-Odo/Ota Local Council of Ogun State, was blamed on the customs officials who invaded the market in the early hours of Wednesday, broke into stalls and forcefully carted away bags of rice into their vehicles.
Angry traders and hoodlums barricaded the ever-busy expressway for more than nine hours. The rampage left many motorists and commuters stranded, while some made efforts to ply alternative routes.
The atmosphere was tense as men of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of Nigerian customs swooped on the popular market and confiscated about seven truckload of rice and 43 kegs of vegetable oil allegedly smuggled into the country.
The action got the traders angry and they immediately mobilised en masse to barricade the busy Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, leaving motorists trapped in the ensuing confrontation between policemen and the traders. According to the customs, estimated value of duties payable on the items was N12,445,250.
Eyewitnesses reports claimed about four people were severely injured in the fracas, which saw hundreds of businesses grind to a halt in the area, but the customs insist there was no attack or any casualty recorded during the operation.
The aggrieved traders, who displayed placards containing several abusive inscriptions against the agency, alleged that the officers arrived the market in the early hours of yesterday and forcefully broke into shops and warehouses, carting away about 15 truckloads of rice, including money and personal belongings.
According to an eyewitness, the customs officers came in five Toyota Hilux fully armed and masked soldiers to carry out the operation.
A policeman was injured in the melee that followed the seizure. The unidentified policeman had attempted to remove the barricade in the middle of the road, when the irate youths stoned him repeatedly, resulting in a severe injury.
The injured policeman corked his gun and attempted to shoot at the crowd but he was prevailed upon by a senior police officer. It was gathered that the customs officers, who were accompanied by masked soldiers, shot repeatedly as they broke into over one hundred shops.
Some of the traders accused the customs officers of not only breaking into their shops to cart away bags of rice, but also made away with millions of naira, which were reportedly kept in some of the shops’ safe.
The leader of the market women, Alhaja W. Salako, popularly known as Iya Oloye, stated that many of the traders had been rendered bankrupt by the customs’ operation. The rice merchant also noted that many of the traders took loans and had just replenished their stocks, when the customs men broke into their shops.
“This is very unfair. The customs came into the market at midnight and broke into our shops. We are not happy, and that is why you see people protesting. We will make sure that we resolve this issue with customs, because the harassment is getting too much,” she said.
Not even the intervention of the Area Commander of Police, Sango Command, Fayoade Adegoke, with heavy presence of policemen, and the pleas of the chairman, Ado Odo/Ota Local Council, Prince Oladele Adeniji, could calm the aggrieved traders, who parked trucks to block the expressway. Commuters were left stranded and forced to trek from Sango to the Tollgate end of the highway before they could get buses to their workplaces.
Spokesperson of the FOU of customs, Jerry Attah, told The Guardian that the officers did not break into the shops, but only packed nearly half of the bags of rice stacked outside in their thousands.
“After physical examination, we counted 1,870 50kg bags of different brands of foreign parboiled rice, and 43 kegs of 25 litres foreign vegetable oil. As at when they left there, there was no crossfire or any casualty. It was a peaceful operation,” he said.
On the stolen monies, Attah said “miscreants always take advantage of such scenario. It is possible that some people might have used the opportunity to break into the shops and steal their money. For us, no shop was broken or invaded.”