On Thursday, April 1, rice traders at Bodija market, Ibadan, Oyo State, protested an overnight invasion of their shops by men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). The raid carried out by men of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of the agency was said to have been part of the clampdown on the smuggling of foreign rice into the country. The traders at the Akala, Iwo Road car park and Mondesuya sections of the market had arrived at the market on that fateful morning only to discover that men of the NCS had raided their shops and carted away thousands of bags of rice. As the protesters marched from Bodija market to the State Secretariat and through the Secretariat-University of Ibadan road, they lamented that no fewer than 88 shops were broken into, with each shop containing bags of rice ranging from 400 to 900. The protest had in fact been reportedly preceded by a melee at Bodija market involving security agencies and some traders, with one person allegedly shot. According to the victims, who equated the action of the Customs with burglary, the Customs officers did not only cart away bags of rice; they also carted away large sums of money, bags of gari, and cartons of noodles.
Reacting to the incident, the Public Relations Officer, Oyo/Osun command of the NCS, Wey Kayode, claimed that the FOU men acted within their statutory rights and in compliance with the mandate of the Federal Government to ensure that no foreign rice was allowed into the country. Said Kayode: “The officers and men from the FOU operate anywhere within the country once they have the intelligence. It is a process by which they are trying to stop smuggling; if they have information that some goods have been smuggled in, they can raid. I wasn’t there and can’t answer on whether bags of local rice were carted away alongside imported rice. Nobody shot anybody. The traders should understand that we are just trying to enforce a law that has been put down by the Federal Government. It is a critical policy that smuggling must not be done; rice must not be brought in. The traders should source for local rice and sell because the Federal Government has made a law that foreign rice should not be allowed in the country.”
To be sure, we are not against the seizure of contraband goods. Regardless of whether or not the government policy dictating such seizures are right, it is binding on Nigerians unless vacated by the court of law. To that extent, the traders at Bodija or any other market in the country would have no genuine complaints if found in possession of contraband rice or any other items. However, it is an elementary principle of natural justice that accused persons should be confronted with the allegations against them and should have an opportunity to defend themselves. In that case, the State and its officials are not expected to fish for or obtain evidence through patently unjust and provocative means.
Against this backdrop, the NCS’ raid on Bodija market leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It is doubtful that a raid of that magnitude and with a potentiality for very grave consequences should have been carried out without a subsisting court order. Assuming but not conceding that it was legal, it was clearly not expedient. As it is, the raid leaves open the question whether it was dictated by the rule of law and the need to curb smuggling, or some other extraneous factors. Since the NCS personnel carted away the “offending” bags of rice in the dead of night and in the absence of the traders, how do they intend to prove that they did not commit illegality in the process? How can they prove that the rice they carted away was actually contraband? How can the men of the FOU validly clear themselves of the allegations of theft of traders’ money, bags of gari and cartons of noodles in the affected shops? Since the traders stay in their shops beyond banking hours, there is nothing wrong in them keeping their money in the shops until the next day when they can take it to the bank. That being the case, what evidence do the Customs men in question have to quash the allegation that they carted away money? Why couldn’t they have carried out the raid during the day, which would give the accused the opportunity to be confronted with the allegations against them?
Besides, does the NCS not need to prosecute the sellers of contraband items in the court of law? And how do you prosecute in this situation? In any case, if the traders indeed sold contraband rice, that must have been with the sub-text of NCS connivance. Why and how did such rice get to the market with all the Customs checkpoints at the borders, and around the country? And why do such raids appear to be limited to markets in the southern part of the country? Is there more to this story than meets the eye? We frown on a situation where, under the pretext of legality, state officials conduct their affairs in gangsterish fashion, subjecting citizens to a reign of terror. The NCS having failed at the borders should not turn civil space into a theatre of the absurd. We are unimpressed by the logic behind that raid on Bodija market. It is a travesty, and the Bodija market traders are deserving of relief.
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