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Knocks for Customs, police

…As Nigerians decry confiscation of bags of rice on highways

From Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha

For thousands of Nigerians that visited their home states in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country for the past Christmas and New Year celebrations, the ordeals that they suffered on the nation’s highways would remain indelible in their minds for long.

Following the ban on the importation of foreign rice into Nigeria by the Federal Government, operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) stormed the highways and major roads. Many commuters and motorists were harassed, and thousands of bags of imported rice were confiscated.

The situation attracted serious concern and outright condemnation from many of the victims as well as other motorists and commuters, including businessmen. Many raised questions on the powers of the NCS operatives to literally invade the highways to confiscate bags of rice that people were travelling with for their celebrations.

It was gathered that some travellers, who got the information that their bags of rice might be confiscated decided to leave such bags at home while they proceeded  on their journeys.

Former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, had on December 20, last year, raised the alarm over the alleged harassment of travellers and motorists by the Nigeria Customs along the Benin- Ore-Lagos highway.

Obi, who said he travelled by road to Lagos, lamented the hardship people travelling during the festive period were suffering in the hands of Customs officers on the highways. He expressed surprise that the officers were on the roads instead of the borders.

In his reaction, the President, South-East Amalgamated Market Traders Association (SEAMTA), Chief Okwudili Ezenwankwo, condemned the harassment of the travellers and the seizure of their bags of rice by the Customs officials along the highways.

He called on the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retd.) to withdraw his men and dismantle all the Customs checkpoints along the highways across the nation and relocate them to the borders, seaports and airports.

Ezenwankwo, who is also the President of Anambra State Amalgamated Market Traders Association, wondered why Customs men should establish checkpoints on the highways and be scanning vehicles for smuggled goods while the country’s borders remained porous.

He said: “Customs should leave the roads and go to the Nigerian borders, seaports and airports. Why should Customs now have checkpoints along the highways and be confiscating innocent citizens’ bags of rice that they were travelling with for Christmas and New Year celebrations, thereby creating unnecessary tension on the roads?

“The question we are asking the Customs is, where were they when those bags of rice were smuggled into the country? Why should they disturb the travellers,  who bought the rice in an open market for their domestic use? We are calling on the Customs authorities to immediately release those bags of rice seized from the travellers who laboured hard to buy rice to celebrate the Christmas and New Year with their families.

“The Customs officers should be going to people’s homes, offices and motor parks to confiscate bags of rice. They should stop creating more hardship for Nigerians who have been working hard to make both ends meet in this present economic recession.”

A commercial bus driver, Mr. Chimezie Okoye, alleged that Customs officers and policemen extorted him and others along the highways for allegedly carrying bags of foreign rice. He informed that on many occasions, the Customs officials ordered drivers to drop the bags of foreign rice in buses brought by the Customs men before allowing such travellers proceed on their journeys.

He told the reporter: “At every checkpoint from Lagos to Asaba, they stopped us and searched the vehicles. And if they found any foreign rice, they either carried it or they demanded a huge amount of money from the driver or the owners of the rice.

“They would tell you that foreign rice was contraband, and that nobody should be seen with such things. But my worry is, why were they seizing people’s rice and not the imported rice from the borders? They seized so many bags of foreign rice from passengers along the highway, which I think was illegal. But there is nothing we drivers could do because they said it was government directive.”

A commuter, Mrs. Angela Nweke, who travelled from Lagos to Anambra during the Yuletide season condemned the activities of the Customs men and the police on the road, wondering why they were seizing bags of rice of law-abiding citizens in the guise of enforcing the policy on the ban of importation of foreign rice.

“The question is, did government say that people should not eat foreign rice or travel with foreign rice? Does it mean that those selling foreign rice will not sell the old stock in their shops? I don’t know why our security agents always cash in on policy of government to harass and extort money from unsuspecting individuals.

“As I am talking to you, some travellers’ foreign rice were impounded and were not returned to them. After buying foreign rice at the cost N18, 000 or N20, 000, the police or Customs would carry it and the question is, where are the seized bags of foreign rice? Did they take them to the Customs office or where? Or did they take them to their different houses? The Federal Government should ensure that they recover those bags of foreign rice from the Customs officers on the road and return it to the owners,” Nweke stated.

Another passenger, Mr. Anthony Meluonwu, said it seemed as if the exercise was targeted at people from the South-east and South-south. According to him, no highways in other parts of the country witnessed such harassment from the Customs and the police.

He noted that the Federal Government did not ban the sale of foreign rice in the country, adding that what was banned was importation of foreign rice. He wondered why the Customs officials should be confiscating people’s rice on the highways.

“Why should security agents always maltreat and harass people from the Southern part of the country, especially the South-east? There is foreign rice in the markets and the Federal Government did not ban sale of foreign rice in the market. What was banned is the importation of foreign rice. Why should the police and Customs be harassing people on the highways, confiscating foreign rice that people were travelling with for the season’s celebration? And the rice was bought in the open market by the end users, the consumers.

“I expect the Customs operatives to be at the borders to arrest or impound importers with truckloads of foreign rice, coming into Nigeria, not blocking the major roads to forcefully collect people’s rice in the name of enforcing the ban on foreign rice. The Customs should also go to the markets, homes and street shops to confiscate foreign rice. It is wickedness, lawlessness, intimidation and harassment of the highest order by the Customs. The Federal Government should investigate the actions of the Customs officers and sanction those behind the unlawful action to serve as a deterrent to officers and men of other security agencies,” he fumed.

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