Customs men becoming killer cops?

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The government and people of Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria are  seething with anger over the killing of ten persons by men of the Nigeria Customs Service while pursuing  alleged smugglers. The anger is palpable in the air, from the ordinary man/woman on the street to its number one citizen, Governor Aminu Masari. People in the border town of Jibia maintain that this is not the first time such an incident is happening. 

They say it occurs often. In fact their representative in the National Assembly, Hon.  Soda Soli revealed, “In the course of three years , we have the records, the customs killed 25 people in Jibia”. Some people may consider it an exaggeration when I  now 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 organisations whose primary responsibility is to secure our 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 (smuggling) of prohibited items and to ensure payment of appropriate  duties on various goods. 
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 his/her activities – farmers for instance.

It is in this light that one views as  disastrous, the intermittent clashes between customs officials and smugglers at our border towns, resulting in fatalities in course of the personnel chasing suspected smugglers into the city centre. It happens in Ogun and Katsina. 
However, the recent one  where no less than ten persons were crushed to death and several others injured by a customs vehicle chasing suspected rice smugglers on motorcycles is to say the least unbecoming.   

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 gone about their duty with a humane face, has outraged  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 lives of our people lost almost on a daily basis as a result of actions of customs officers on patrol in Katsina and other border communities of northern Nigeria”.  Signed by Comrade Jamilu Aliyu Charanchi, the NGO made the following observations, “This reckless behavior of the Customs personnel if not addresseddecisively will result to a breakdown of law and order which may consume more lives; the victims are from  poor family backgrounds 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  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 organisation then made the following demands, “We call for the immediate suspension of the activities of Border Drill across the state; we call on the Nigeria Customs Service to continue taking care of the injured until they are fully recovered; the Nigeria Customs Service should provide aid to the families of the victims, considering the fact that the victims cannot move to pursue  their daily bread; financial compensation should be paid to the families of the deceased with immediate effect; Nigeria Customs Service should be seriously warned against pursuing alleged smugglers in town; 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 Customs Service for their own personal benefits”. 
In his own reaction, the Controller-General of Customs, col. Hameed Ali (rtd)  in a press statement signed by the organisation’s Public Relations Officer, Deputy-Controller Joseph Attah expressed regret over the incident while condoling families of the victims, government and people of Katsina state.
He ordered an investigation, promising  that the Customs would ensure that the injured get good care and also  do whatever it can to lessen pain of families of the dead. 

The Customs boss explained, “As a responsible Government Agency, we are mindful of the duty of care imposed upon us to ensure the safety of our citizens. Unfortunately, our efficiency is sometimes undermined by unanticipated failures in our equipment as in this case which was caused by break failure resulting in the death of Eight fellow Nigerians and injuries to others at the border town of Jibiya, Katsina state”. 

 From the two statements, it can be seen that whereas Jibia people gave the number of the dead as ten, the Customs put the number at eight. Also while the town folks consider the incident as having been caused by “reckless driving” by the customs officials, the organisation itself viewed it as an “accident caused by brake failure”. If this is the case then it smacks of negligence on the part of the Customs because it should ensure that  its operational vehicles are in good condition always, especially those that are used to chase human beings. Governor Masari who reluctantly received a Customs delegation that came to further commiserate with the government and people of the state says his administration would sue the organisation over the deaths
 Nigeria customs Service should review its operations at the borders. It should endeavour to apprehend suspected smugglers before they cross  into the city centre. It can also use drones to locate their whereabouts when the smugglers run into town rather than dangerously chasing them about in  the town. I believe Customs’ primary objective is to retrieve the contraband.
While am not supporting smuggling, the offense should attract no more than a fine for pepertrators plus of course seizure of the product. And  considering the current harsh economic times, men of the Customs service should discharge their duties with some humaneness. No amount of money can equate human life. 

A bag or bags of rice or any other banned commodities, no matter its/their monetary cost,  should not be valued more than human life. Going forward the Customs as part of its corporate social responsibility should donate some of its seized contraband items to border communities. This will help engender cordial relationship  between both sides and cooperation from those communities.
Ikeano, a journalist, writes via vikeano@, 08033077519

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