City Life

Smugglers battle Customs

The Idi-Iroko border in Ipokia Local government area of Ogun State is one of the oldest borders in Nigeria and it is notorious for one thing – smuggling. Smuggling in this part of the State is a huge economic activity for the people.

Besides, the border area has been turned into a battle field of some sort where lives, mostly innocent people are lost on regular basis following ceaseless clashes between men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and smugglers.

Nearly everyone in this town engage in one smuggling activity or the other, bringing in contraband goods, from foreign rice, used vehicles, poultry products, secondhand clothes, exotic drinks and Indian hemp, among others.

On the other hand, petrol has become a profitable item to smuggle to the neighbouring Benin Republic since President Muhammadu Buhari announced the closure of Nigeria land borders last year. Despite the closure of the borders, smuggling still persist as some dared-devil smugglers engage in smuggling activities even at the expense of their lives. According to the Comptroller of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Ogun State Command 1, Mr. Michael Agbara, there are over 700 illegal routes and 30 creeks used by smugglers to smuggle contrabands into the country through the State.

To many people living on the border communities of Ogun State, smuggling has been a very lucrative business while it has brought sorrow, pain and untold anguish to others. These people in the second category are the ones whose lives, that of their relatives, friends have been cut down by bullets during clashes between customs officers and smugglers. The recent victim of these clashes is 50-year-old Atanda Moses who was killed by a stray bullet allegedly fired by men of the NCS while chasing suspected rice smugglers in Oja Odan, a border community in Yewa South local government area of the State.

Atanda, a father of 15 children and an artisan was working in his workshop when the stray bullet hit him in the head. The daughter of the deceased, Atanda Oluwaseun who spoke to New Telegraph, disclosed that her father who was the only surviving son of his aged mother died at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Abeokuta, the State capital. But the State Command of the Nigerian Customs Service (NSC) immediately denied killing Atanda, disclosing that the stray bullet that killed the man during a clash with smugglers was not fired by its men.

The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Command, Hameed Oloyede claimed that Atanda died from a gunshot allegedly fired by the smugglers during the clash with the Customs officers. The Customs PRO disclosed that some hoodlums, suspected to be smugglers had allegedly abducted an officer of the Command, A.K Usman with his rifle. According to him, operatives of the command had intercepted smuggled 18 bags of rice at Oja Odan, “but on their way back, the hoodlums laid an ambush and attacked the officers.”

During the clash, Oloyede said, the officer, an Assistant Superintendent of Customs II, was abducted, beaten to stupor, while the magazine of his rifle loaded with 19 rounds of ammunition was later found empty of the ammunition and was damaged. Atanda’s death is just one of the numerous that had occurred in the recent time.

No fewer than six people, including: students, police officer and customs officers have died during one clash or other with smugglers. A 20-year-old secondary school student, Odusinan Opeyemi, was killed by the customs in August last year.

Odusinan, a student of Ojumo Community High School in Ihunbo, a border community in the State, while on her way from school, was knocked down by a customs officer who was driving a confiscated vehicle. A15-year-oldgirl, SekinatAgbeladewasalso killed by a stray bullet allegedly fired by men of the Nigeria Customs Service while chasing suspected smugglers in March this year.

The victim, who was said to be on an errand, was hit by a stray bullet from the Customs officers, chasing a smuggled vehicle. Apart from the deceased, two other people, one, Oluwole Oladosu and Saliu Babalola, were also injured by the stray bullets.

In May, a farmer, Ogunji Kehinde was allegedly killed by men of the NSC at Agbo Ojodu, another border town in the State. Ogunji was killed by customs officers who were on the trail of some rice smugglers at Agbon Community in Yewa North Local Government area.

The deceased was alleged by the customs of smuggling rice. An Inspector of police attached to the joint National border team was in March killed by hoodlums, suspected to be smugglers during a violent clash with the customs at Imasayi, a border town in Yewa North Local Government Area of the State. The inspector with his team was on antismuggling operations when they were attacked by the smugglers. According to the Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Abimbola Oyeyemi, the hoodlums overpowered the inspector, seized his gun and hit him with a car before shooting him to death.

In retaliation, the officers went on rampage, burning vehicles and shooting sporadically. A common factor for these deaths is the hostility of residents of border communities to security agents, especially men of the Nigeria Customs Service. Since the border closure, there has been heavy presence of security personnel, including the Nigerian Army, Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Department of State Security Service (DSS) and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).

It is impossible to drive within a 100-metres distance without running into road blocks mounted by fiercely looking security personnel, armed to the teeth and checking vehicles not leaving motorcycles out of their scrutiny. In spite of the water-tight security around this area, smuggling still persist and the reason for this may not be too farfetched – proliferation of the borders and the difficult terrain of the area.

Smugglers bring in foreign rice into the country through numerous unmanned routes with motorcycles and canoes making it difficult for customs officers to track them down. A smuggler, Omotade Abdulrazaq who spoke with New Telegraph said, smuggling has become a profitable venture for youths to make quick money.

The 21-year-old student of Osun State College of Technology who specialises in smuggling petrol into Benin Republic through his motorcycle disclosed that he makes between N5,000 to N10,000 from smuggling per trip. Although, Omotade admitted that smuggling is a dangerous trade, he said the attractive reward is almost irresistible “because I use the proceeds from smuggling to feed myself and to also sponsor my education.” Recently, New Telegraph went with the leadership of the State chapter of the National Association Nigerian Students (NANS) and National Association of Ogun State Students (NAOSS) on an on-the-spot assessment tour of the border communities in the Idiro-Iroko.

The tour was facilitated by the Comptroller of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Ogun state Command 1, Mr. Michael Agbara. The Comptroller deployed a patrol unit to take the students around the border communities to have firsthand experience of how smugglers and customs operate. The communities visited included: Idi- Iroko, Ipokia, Ilara, Iwoye, Imeko and Ijofin.

On our way to the Ijofin outstation of the Idi- Iroko border, the patrol team foiled a smuggling attempt just few metres away from the Customs headquarters in Idi-Iroko. The smugglers were loading fuel into jerry cans to smuggle to Benin Republic.

But, on noticing that their game was up, the smugglers abandoned their goods and fled into nearby bushes. As the officers were confiscating the jerry cans and its content, the atmosphere became charged as a small crowd began to gather ready to confront the officers. On the creeks, smugglers make use of floaters, improvised boats to ferry smuggled goods loaded in vehicles across the water. Speaking on smuggling activities, the Comptroller attributed to hostility of residents of border areas to the negligence of the border communities by the government, explaining that, many residents of the border communities in the State see the border as their resource control.

The Customs boss exonerated his men from the alleged killings of people in the border communities by customs officers, explaining that smugglers usually mobilise themselves in large numbers to attack customs officers in the line of duty. Agbara said, “Customs, especially those at the border areas are on the firing line. The problems of customs officers posted to different border areas in the country are the same and can be summarised as the negligence of border communities by the government.

“The negligence of people living in border communities by the government at all levels account for the hostility they have against the men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). “Some residents of border communities feel proud to be part of Benin Republic, even in the North, some of them feel proud to be part of Cameron rather than being Nigerians. Why? Patriotism is not build on nothing it must be on something, they are citizens and government have totally neglected them, they won’t be happy with the government.

“Smugglers work in groups and that is why they can easily mobilise themselves to attack customs operatives. They are always ready to attack the customs anytime we go for arrests or seizures.

“Their (smugglers) attacks on customs officers are not acts of ignorance but they also feel that by pulling together in their large numbers, they can intimidate customs to stop the work we are doing but they forget that if we abandon what we are doing, none of them will be able to sleep in his or her house,” Agbara said.

Agbara who stressed the need for constant dialogue with members of border communities, charged community leaders, monarchs and politicians from the border communities to support the men of the Nigeria Customs Service in their efforts to rid the state of smugglers. He canvassed for youth empowerment, provision of social amenities and employment through agriculture as ways of tackling smuggling in the state.

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