Allegations of increased harassment of Igbo travellers by Nigeria Customs Service personnel on Benin-Ore Road has provoked protests across the country by Igbo youths and added a new dimension to the perceived marginalisation of the ethnic group. Anayo Okolie reports

If there is anything most Igbos both at home and abroad love to experience every year, it is travelling home to celebrate Christmas and New Year with their kith and kin. The period enables them to hook up with their relatives and friends who come back for the celebration from different parts of the country and beyond.

Harassment-for-Bribe
Most Igbos even shut down their businesses for weeks in order to be part of the Yuletide festivities. But the joy of Mr. Okwy Okafor, who left Lagos happily penultimate weekend with his luxurious SUV to join family and friends in the celebration, was altered by the harassment of officials of the Nigeria Customs Service. When Okafor was given a parking sign by some customs officers at the Benin-Ore highway, he thought it was going be normal stop-and-check-particulars of the vehicle but little did he know that his obedience will cost him about a million naira after his long meeting with the officers.
Okafor, who called on the federal government to intervene and stop customs officers from incessant harassment of Igbo travellers, regretted travelling by road.

He said, “It is a clear indication by the customs that they have failed in the discharge of their official duties and require urgent action by the presidency. All over the world, the activities of customs and excise officials are restricted to the borders and entry points; the airports and the seaports, as agents of border control.”

Ordinarily, Okafor said there was no case of anybody impounding goods within a country, as “you seize banned goods at the point of entry into any country; but the Nigerian Customs men would rather mount a roadblock and be collecting bribes from Nigerians, especially Igbos.

Also reacting to the issue, the former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, blamed the Nigeria Customs Service for subjecting Igbo travellers to hardship by seizing rice meant for household consumption. Obi said in order to have first-hand information on the issue he had to travel by road from Lagos to Onitsha. He described the situation as worrisome and counter-productive, wondering if the roads in Nigeria have become wharfs or borders to warrant many customs checkpoints.

According to him, “We know that customs police our borders to, among other things, guard against smuggling of banned goods. But if they do this effectively at the borders, as is obtainable in other countries, there would not be need for customs checkpoints all over the place.

“I observed over 10 checkpoints from Ore to Onitsha and added that, in this time of recession, what was more worrisome was that they stopped travellers and demanded customs papers, clearance papers for vehicles, including those bought several years ago.

“Even families going home for Christmas were stopped and the rice they were given as gifts in their offices or bought in the open market was confiscated under the pretext that they were foreign rice.”
Obi appealed to the customs Comptroller General, Col. Hameed Ali (retd), “to look with interest” at what was happening and “completely overhaul their mode of operations by targeting those importing banned goods at the borders and not innocent Nigerians trying painfully to eke out a living.”

Victimisation
On his part, Dr. Kennedy Okonkwo, who is an indigene of Anambra State, said, “I think the president should call the men of the customs to order. The zonal commander of the customs should call his men to order; it is a deliberate act to victimise people of the Igbo race.

“It is a deliberate act to make us feel like we are not part of Nigeria, and I think the Senate should actually investigate it because I know that it would definitely be an illegal act. I don’t think that it is happening in any part of the country today. You don’t find a situation where they will be blocking roads leading towards a particular part of Nigeria, and they will be insisting on seeing custom papers; it does not happen when you are going to Ondo State, Ife, Ekiti or even the northern part of the country. It only happens when you are going to the south-eastern part of Nigeria.”

He added, “So I think this incident should be investigated, because it is not the first or second time this is happening; and if these men are not probed properly, this may go on and on and on. So there is need for us to tackle the issue immediately. The Igbo are law abiding people, and the protests that you hear about are protests to enlighten the people and they are non-violent protests. I think the south-eastern governors have a role to play, they are the elected leaders. I think it is important that the south-eastern come out in unity and take our protests to the Presidency and the Senate.
“What we are talking about here is very sensitive, for the customs to be extorting a particular race. I know that our president is a president of Nigeria; he is a president that loves the unity of Nigeria and will not single out the Igbo race for this victimisation. I think some people are doing this to sabotage and discredit this government.”

Customs Reaction
But a customs officer on Benin-Ore expressway, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, tried to defend the action of the officers. He said most of the people whose cars were seized or money was collected from were people who smuggled their vehicles into the country in order to avoid paying full import duties. He also declared that the customs officers were only doing their jobs, saying that nobody is being harassed marginalised. “The only reason this issue is rampant along Benin-Ore highway is because most people from the South would prefer to smuggle in their cars instead of paying full duty.”

Assurance Deficit
According to the co-convener of Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution (CDNDC), Mr. Ariyo-Dare Atoye, “The avalanche of roadblocks mounted on the southern corridors of the country has become a monumental siege to the people, and this is only seen in a war torn areas. It has gone beyond an operation targeted at protecting these corridors from armed robbery and kidnapping.

“I think it is a sign that Abuja is either jittery and no longer enjoys the confidence of some federating parts of southern Nigeria or an insensitive operation to showcase the tyranny of the centre, irrespective of the feelings of commuters and economic interest.”

Atoye stated further, “We have to question the thinking of the Buhari regime and the strategy of its security and operational advisers. This is not how to hold a country together forcefully or prove your might. I urge them to read through history and act with sound intelligence and knowledge.
“Aside the reckless acts of security operatives causing us enormous pain by extorting we, the travellers, wasting our countless human hours and sometimes brutalising commuters, I also want to believe there is a specific standing instruction to monitor if there is a suspicious movement of people planning some kind of action against the state.

“There is certainly more to these roadblocks. There is also an economic angle to it in the process. If some bad eggs in the custom and other border patrol agencies had sabotaged operations to stop contraband from entering the country, it is therefore disingenuous to visit such misdemeanour on innocent Nigerians and retailers/consumers by confiscating the items.

“It is just an act of wickedness to make the people suffer from your own shortcomings. Some persons travelling home to the South-east from Lagos went to the market to buy 10 or less bags of rice and other things to sell back home or distribute to families, but you have now made it a passage of hell to deliver good to humanity. It is most unfair and painful.”

During the Yuletide, Atoye said, sometimes food is of more value than money back home, especially now that things are very expensive. Rice shared to family members is worth more than N500 to each. A government that lacks empathy and is insensitive to the plight of the people is doomed, he said. “I will like to urge President Buhari to toe the path of dialogue, peaceful negotiation, embrace the principle of impartiality and also see all parts of Nigeria as his constituency with a show of love. He must also change his economic policies and make his government friendly to the South of Nigeria.”

The president should note that no amount of force or military operation can forcefully unite the people except peace and truth, Atoye cautioned, saying, “The country is becoming increasingly divided, but it is not beyond remedy if the president is willing to apply the wisdom of using dialogue and doing justice to governance.”