We are Nigerians. We have moved on. After all only seven persons died from a stampede on February 23 in Lagos for the Customs and Excise cheap rice. Bit does the Nigerian Customs really have rice? Do they have a rice field? Are its workers farmers in the real sense of the word?

These questions are dumb. Are the questions really dumb in spite of what is advertised online as the duties of Nigerian Customs and Excise? This is Nigeria where government agencies, virtually all of them, are tax collectors and revenue generating centres. Even the Nigeria Police are also into taxing hapless citizens through official and unofficial means. In case you have forgotten, the recent online  based central motor registry certificate requirement for vehicle owners is a tax.

The Nigerian Bar Association [NBA] says it will contest the legality of this Police tax on vehicle owners. Meanwhile, the Police is plotting the return of tinted glass permit through an online mechanism that would include taxation.

Back to the Customs blood rice. About 11 days ago, this government agency which primary mandate should be trade facilitation and ensuring national security in Nigeria’s interface with other countries announced it was going to play Father Christmas with the tons of bags of rice it seized from dubious importers. And so it embarked on what turned out to be a blood sacrifice- of course it had to be the blood of ordinary folks.

Customs initially advertised that the rebagged 25kg rice would be sold to less privileged Nigerians [how many Nigerians can be said to be privileged today anyway?] at designated spots in parts of the country at N10,000 each. It chose Lagos, the former capital of the country for the pilot sales. Of all its facilities, Customs settled for the colonial era nondescript and space-constrained office on Harvey road in Yaba to host the sales.

As should be expected, the project failed, spectacularly, at the cost of lives- seven lives. As everything Nigerian, the Customs at a stage abandoned the N10,000 price tag and started handing out the bags of rice for free. That’s what it should have been from the onset. But because Customs sees itself more as a revenue generating agency, it could not resist the temptation to make some money on the backs of citizens who are already suffering from unimaginable state-induced privations. Customs is neither trained nor equipped with the skills and the tools to handle the distributions of food items to a crowd.

Certainly not to a crowd of starving and desperate people. That may have informed its invitation of the Police and other gun-totting security agents for crowd control.

To compound the matter, the Customs obviously grossly underestimated the number of Lagos residents who would mass at its feeding centre. The venue was besieged. The handouts were slow in coming in the estimation of the people.

As the day wore on those around feared that they would miss out on the free rice. They became impatient, triggering a stampede and suffocation and the trampling underfoot of the weak who fell in the rush to get their lot from the vanishing bags of free rice. And the rice actually finished.

The seven who died that sad day in Yaba, an old and seedy Lagos settlement, had no names except for their families and friends. The nearest to their identification was the claim in some news reports that one of the victims of that rice distribution stupidity was a member of the ruling [or ruining] All Progressives Congress [APC].

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Except for weird mischief, it was difficult to understand the rationale for disclosing the political party affiliation of one of the victims of the Lagos tragedy. It would certainly be in bad taste and indeed unAfrican to report that the dead person was a victim of his electoral choice in 2023. The reference to the party affiliation of the dead could also be a not too subtle message to others in the same boat that an electoral choice could be an open invitation to suffering and death.

But six others also perished in that rice queue stampede. Since their political party affiliations were neither established nor published in reports pertaining to deaths for rice, it would be safe to assume that they belonged to other political parties or that they were independents.

The important thing is that suffering among the poor does not discriminate on the basis of region or religion or party affiliations.

On its own the loss of seven Nigerians on a food queue arranged by an incompetent government agency was bad enough. And then it was further compounded by the energetic attempts by the agency to blame the dead for killing themselves.

Apparently to exonerate itself of any blame in that tragedy, the Customs said it provided armed guards to ensure orderliness at the venue and that the handouts were on course before the crowd became impatient and then caused a stampede. But there are questions for the leadership of Customs to answer. Are the officers of the Nigerian Customs and Excise trained to handle distribution of foods to crowds? Is that function part of their mandate? Does the Customs have expertise in managing crowds? Do Customs staff have the requisite training in predicting that a crowd is at the verge of becoming restive and what measures they could take to head off or at least mitigate any potential deleterious outcomes? Were there ambulances and medical professionals on standby at the distribution venue in the event of any emergency? Given its glaring incompetence and lack of requisite training and skills, must the Customs handle the distribution of what has turned out to be killer rice? Are there no longer relevant relief and humanitarian agencies in Nigeria such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent who could be called upon to handle such delicate exercise? Could it be that the Nigerian Customs and Excise was chasing clout and glory with the gift of bags of rice that do not belong to it ab initio? It will be unfair to tar everyone with the same brush, but Nigerians know very well the areas where the Nigerian  Customs has exceptional expertise. It’s in generating humongous revenue- remit some to the coffers of the federal government and steal the rest. No evidence is needed to prove the abiding corruption in that agency. However, if any evidence is needed, you are invited to search and read a recent and yet to be refuted detailed report with names of significant Customs officers and their stations who amassed over N12 billion in bribe money in a short space of time.

Premium Times reported that some of the Customs officers had returned tiny portions of the bribe money they took from smugglers. They are still donning their uniforms. They are still in service.

And there has been no indication that they will be prosecuted. The established expertise of the Customs is in stealing, not in the distribution of relief materials and food aid.

After killing seven innocent Nigerians and attempting to turn the victims into villains, the Customs then proceeded to suspend the exercise. Now Customs should be stopped in its tracks. Seven wasted lives are already too many. There is no guarantee that more Nigerians will not be killed if Customs is allowed to resume the rice distribution. They do not have the training. They do not have the expertise. They do not have the skills. And the rice is not even their own in spite of their posturing. The only urgent thing that is needed right away is for the government to set up a panel of knowledgeable and independent Nigerians to establish how and why the Customs murdered those seven Nigerians.

And to recommend punishment for those who are found culpable. The in-house panel by Customs should be disbanded immediately. That agency cannot be a judge in a matter that it is deeply and  solely involved in. That is immoral. Even in Biafra when Nigeria used starvation as an instrument of war, deaths on relief queues were unheard off. Nigeria is supposed to be in a peace time, yet its citizens are being killed on food queues by a government agency.

About 10 years ago during the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party [PDP], another agency superintended the murder of about 20 job seekers. That agency, the Nigerian Immigration Service [NIS], connived with a private consultant to orchestrate a recruitment exercise. They extorted applicants N1000 each which amounted to over N500,000,000. After a protracted application designed to maximize the proceeds, the NIS and its consultants directed the applicants to assemble at specified locations in parts of the country including the Moshood Abiola National Stadium in Abuja. As usual a stampede ensued. Many applicants were suffocated.

Many were trampled upon. Some died. At the last count about 20 corpses were picked up from various centres with the Abuja deaths accounting for about onethird of the fatalities. Nobody was held to account. And we moved on because the corpse of a stranger is treated like a log of wood. For how long will the blood of innocent Nigerians be used to cleanse the perfidy of the ruling elite?