Thursday 20 May 2021: Comprehending the strange ways of government officials can be difficult at times. Frequently, the attitude they portray can be seen as anti-social. They give the impression that the sole purpose of government is to obstruct the people’s path to fulfilment and happiness. Their negative misuse of power cut across all sectors but more obvious in the lower rungs of the social ladder where market men and women are usually at the receiving end.
CEOAFRICA checks revealed that just few weeks ago, officers of the Nigeria Customs Service, (NCS), raided the Orita Merin and Oja’ba markets in Ibadan metropolis, carting away over 2,000 bags of 50 kilogramme rice in eight trucks. The raid was carried out in the dead of the night, when the owners of the goods had retired to their homes.
The Customs officials invaded the market in a ‘gung ho style’ and started firing shots into the air. According to Alhaji Jamiu, one of the traders, “They broke into our shops, took away rice, vegetable oil, garri, and yam flour. After breaking our padlocks, they put new ones and sealed the shop with a message that we should not tamper with it.”
Alhaja Kafayat Haruna, another affected trader, narrated her ordeal “They took away 164 bags of 50 kg rice from my shop; they took away 200 bags from my neighbour’s shop. But what still baffles me is the fact that they also took away bags of garri and yam flour. Are these also imported?”
Although, it is true that there is a ban on imported rice, however, Nigerians have been asking how such consignment could enter the country if not through the complicity of Customs officials. Traders often bribe Customs officials to bring in their goods and then have to contend with another gang of enforcers after the goods have reached the market. So, it is a case of subjection to trial twice for the same offence.
The inevitable questions are: why would Customs seize bags of garri, elubo (yam flour) and beans? Have the tripartite staples of eba, amala and beans been banned by the Federal Government of Nigeria? And why would they also cart away cash left in the shops? One trader said he lost N3.7 million cash in the raid.
Also, the importers of used vehicles are often subjected to the same unpleasant experience. After ‘settling’ Customs officials at the border or along the many illegal routes, the car dealers are often subjected to random raids by the Customs under the pretext of checking whether the correct duties were paid. In normal circumstances, the ports are where all checks are done. Unwarranted random checks leave too much room for dubiousness and corruption.
Another aggrieved trader, Alhaji Abdulrasheed Jamiu looked at the situation from an ethnic perspective: “What baffles me is that this kind of operation the Customs Service is carrying out in the South-Western part of the country is not applicable in the North.”
Some Legal practitioners in a chat with CEOAFRICA condemned in totality the action of the Customs officials, stating that they had take things too far. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Yomi Aliu, said it was an illegal act that should not be allowed to go unpunished. “Apart from being an act of brigandage, it is oppressive, provocative, unconscionable, and executive lawlessness,” he criticised.
“The traders should sue the life out of Customs to put an end to this. What they took bribe to allow into Nigeria, they are now using night to cover to seize in private shops. Shooting their preys from behind. Did they have any search warrant? And if they had, could same be executed behind the owners of the shops? This is a gross act of impunity”, argued Aliu.
Another lawyer, Toyese Owoade said, “Although the raid on shops is not ultra vires of their powers under the law, the brazen manner in which it was, however, done is questionable. The raid on people’s shops in a market should have been done in a more professional manner; the agency is liable because, although the law permits them, they have carried out their duties improperly”.
The traders wonder why a government that is faced with increasing youth unemployment rate will pursue a policy that is targeted at turning more people into paupers in an era of nationwide insecurities.
Speaking with CEOAFRICA, the Babaloja of Oyo State, Alhaji Sumaila Jimoh, noted that the raid had further worsened the sufferings of the masses and the traders who have been struggling to survive in these hard times.
He explained: “We buy and sell. When they bring rice from the North to us in the market, we buy. Do they label any bag of rice as smuggled rice? I pray that NCS will not push people to the wall, when they will fight back. You know how tense the situation is in the country. People are angry and they are charged. If you pursue a sheep to the wall, it may turn on you.
“We buy our wares in Nigeria here. We don’t know Cotonou. Why should they be disturbing us where we transact our own legitimate business? Nobody travels across borders to buy rice. We buy what Northern traders bring to us in the market here. They may write China or any country on a bag of rice, that is not our concern. We are buyers and sellers. In times past, we used to buy from Lagos. Since they stopped importation, it has been difficult for us to get our wares to buy.”
When the subject was brought up at a senate hearing, the upper legislative chamber ordered the Customs to return the seized goods to the traders.
Senator Francis Fadahunsi, a former Assistant Comptroller General of Customs who is now a legislator also voiced his displeasure on the raids, describing it as misuse of power. He beseeched the Customs to follow the law, which specifies that such operations should only be carried out within 40 kilometres of the border.
He wondered why NCS were carrying out such raids at a time when so many Nigerians are suffering because of insecurity, poverty, hunger, unemployment compounded by the fact that loans attract exorbitant interest rates. He noted that “if the Customs officers had done their jobs and manned the borders properly, the alleged contraband would not have found its way into markets.”
The Customs have since countered through its spokesmen. The Deputy Public Relations Officer, Timi Bomodi, who advised the Senate to focus on its crucial duty of lawmaking and not hijack the powers of other arms of government by interpreting the laws of the land, while his boss, Joseph Attah said: “Is it today that Customs has been raiding markets? Why is there so much noise about the Ibadan raid? When Customs raided markets in Mubi in Adamawa State and another notorious market in Kano, why wasn’t there any outrage?”
To a large extent, the actions of the marauding customs officers against these innocent market traders is more or less an act of anarchy set loose to exploit their helplessness. However, it is time to caution this unruly mob to quit their act of plundering and pillagery before the market traders begin to take law into their own hands.