Laide Raheem, Abeokuta
For the families of Alhaji Aminu Isiaka and Bankole Isaiah Adeniran, the tragic incident of May 12, 2018, will forever linger on in their memory. That was the day men and officers of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Ogun State command, accompanied by some soldiers, invaded the border town of Ilara in Imeko-Afon Local Government, to allegedly unleash terror on the residents of the town.
By the time the dust settled down after the skirmish, the households of Isiaka and Adeniran, had had their sons, aged 18 and 21, felled by the bullets of the law enforcement agents. The incident, which allegedly left at least four dead and scores injured, was said to have occurred as a result of a face-off between the Customs officers and suspected smugglers.
Like other towns that border the Republic of Benin in the state, Ilara, thrives in cross-border trading and business, particularly rice business. Hence, crossing of goods from neighbouring Benin, is a common activity in the town. And often times, Customs raid some locations suspected of dealing in contraband.
So it was in this mission of preventing prohibited items, particularly rice and vegetable oil, that Customs, with the help of soldiers, invaded the town. But the exercise eventually turned bloody as innocent residents bore the brunt, instead of the targeted smugglers.
Initial report on the incident
According to sources, trouble started when the smugglers in a bid to move smuggled bags of rice in a convoy of vehicles to Abeokuta, the state capital, encountered a joint anti-smuggling patrol team made up of the operatives of the NCS and soldiers attached to the security outfit, OP MESA. The incident was said to have occurred around 8:30 in the morning.
The patrol team had tried to impound the contraband goods when the smugglers put up a stiff resistance, and this resulted into a gun duel. At the end, four persons were feared dead, while six others were injured.
When contacted, the NCS state command Public Relations Officer, Abdullahi Maiwada, confirmed the incident: “I learnt there was an interdiction between our men (Customs) and smugglers in Ilara border town when the smugglers wanted to move bags of rice in their vehicles out of the town to their receivers. But, I don’t have details of the incident. I will get back to you as soon as I am fully kept abreast.”
New twist to the incident
The news of the smugglers/Customs clash had hardly taken in by the populace, when the member representing Imeko/Afon State Constituency in the state House of Assembly, Jemili Akingbade, faulted the Customs’ claim that its men engaged smugglers in gun a duel:
“That report which stated that smugglers engaged in a gun battle with the Customs is a blatant lie. The incident, which claimed four innocent lives could have been avoided, if the Customs operatives were not hell bent on evacuating bags of rice, which were stored in a warehouse on the Republic of Benin soil.
“That morning, men of the Nigerian Customs and about 10 soldiers, who we later learnt were from Owode Barracks, stormed Kanga, Republic of Benin, a town just after Ilara, with obvious intention to evacuate bags of rice from a warehouse located in another country. They were determined to carry out the evacuation by any means possible as they came with two empty trucks.
“But their mission was cut short by the gendarmes and police of Benin Republic, who impressed it upon them that they had crossed the pillar which separated Nigerian territory and that of Benin. All this time, our Customs operatives were busy offloading bags of rice in trucks on the Benin side. They even came with mechanics in case of any breakdown. But when the gendarmes called for reinforcement from Ketou, Customs and the soldiers retreated into Nigeria with less than 200 bags of rice.
“Perhaps frustrated by their inability to carry out their mission fully, both the Customs and the soldiers having entered Ilara in Nigeria, started to shoot sporadically and in the process, four innocent Ilara residents were killed, while scores sustained serious injuries.
“What the Customs did that day had nothing to do with battling with any smuggler, rather, they shot and killed and maimed innocent people. And the matter would have been worse if the battalion of soldiers that later came from Ketou met the Customs and the soldiers on their land. To me, that is international embarrassment for Nigeria.”
Akingbade, who vowed to raise the incident at the floor of the house, however, disclosed that he, member representing Yewa-North/Imeko-Afon Federal Constituency at the House of Representatives, Kayode Oladele and the chairman of Imeko-Afon LG, Tosin Adeluyi, visited the town shortly after the incident for on-the-spot assessment.
He added that they met with the Inspector General of Benin police as well as the head of the country’s gendarmes, to appraise the incident. He called on the Federal Government to call the NCS, Ogun State command, particularly Idi Iroko axis, to order to forestall such occurrence in the future.
At its plenary sitting two days after the incident, the state Assembly, cautioned operatives of the NCS to be more civil while apprehending smugglers in border towns so as to avoid killing of innocent citizens.
The Speaker, Suraju Ishola Adekunbi, made the appeal while responding to the submission of Akingbade, who spoke under personal explanation. He stated that the state government had waded into the matter to prevent reoccurrence, saying there was need for the men of the NCS to always exercise restraint in the use of firearms to prevent avoidable deaths.
Condoling with the families of those who lost their lives, the speaker called on the paramilitary agencies to carry out their operations with utmost professionalism.
Visit to Ilara
To have a first-hand assessment of the incident, our correspondent embarked on a journey to Ilara. The town, located shortly after Idofa, an agrarian town is the last settlement on the Nigerian side of Nigeria/Benin Republic border. As a result of the partition of the West Africa, the borderline between Ilara in Nigeria and Kanga in Benin Republic is a thin demarcation, separated by a conspicuous pillar.
Meanwhile people from both sides, who are homogenous in language and culture, relate and mingle freely with one another. In fact, if not for a signpost, which reads “Goodbye to Nigeria”, a first time visitor would not be able to spot the demarcation.
On arriving at Ilara, the residence of Isiaka, whose 18-year-old son, Ganiyu, was felled by a stray bullet, was the first port of call. The twin one-storey building in a large compound was quiet except for bleating of goats and sheep roaming inside it. After knocking the gate of the compound for few seconds without answer, the correspondent pushed the gate and entered. He met people under a mango tree wearing mournful looks.
After a brief introduction and explaining his mission, our correspondent was told that the father of the deceased went to Ketou in Republic of Benin to thank the cleric who performed the Islamic burial rites of Ganiyu. A member of the family, Alhaji Salam Adekunbi, however, offered to narrate what transpired that day.
He said Ganiyu, an SSS 1 student of Muslim High School, Agbongi, had left home in the morning hale and hearty, for Ilara Market where his mother has a shop. He added that the town was suddenly drowned in sporadic gunshots, which made the residents scamper to safety. An inquiry into the incident later made him to discover that Customs operatives in about eight Hilux vans had invaded the town and crossed into Benin, to evacuate bags of rice.
He explained that nobody knew that Ganiyu had left his mum’s shop and moved close to the trouble spot, probably to see what was happening: “It was later that we heard that Ganiyu, while sitting at a mechanic workshop around Kanga area, was hit by bullet in the head and his brain splattered on the floor.”
It was at this moment Ganiyu’s dad walked into the compound and narrated the same story as Adekunbi. He added that though youths in the town had made a bonfire very close to his filling station in protest, the killing of defenceless residents was unnecessary. He said another boy from Idofa, who was on a motorcycle, was equally hit by bullet and died on the spot. Similarly, a 75-year-old woman was hit by bullet on her leg where she was preparing fufu.
Isiaka disclosed that the mother of the deceased, Monsurat, was seriously devastated and was taken to her family in Idofa. He appealed to the federal government to caution the NCS in the state to desist from using lethal force when operating within the town, to prevent unwarranted death of the populace.
At the Oloruntele residence of Adeniran, who lost his 21-year-old son, Oluwole, in the incident, the Customs operatives were blamed for the mayhem. He narrated his story:
“Oluwole was already learning cosmetics business from my younger sister who is residing in Port Novo in Benin Republic, after he finished secondary school here in Nigeria. I had personally invited him home to discuss how he would further his education, but I never knew he arrived and stayed in his mother’s place at Kanga area.
“When Customs men came into the town and crossed to Kanga in a bid to evacuate bags of rice, both in the warehouse and in trucks, there was serious pandemonium which resulted into people being shot dead and wounded. I never had it in my wildest imagination that my son would be caught up in the incident.
“Therefore, when I was informed later that day that Oluwole was hit in the chest by bullet and died instantly, I found it difficult to believe. But when I went and saw his lifeless body covered in blood, I shivered and part of me felt guilty that I had invited him to his death.
“But what can I do? What has happened has happened. It is only unfortunate that security agencies that are supposed to ensure security of lives and property of the citizens are the ones taken them, all in the name of chasing bags of rice.”
For 44-year-old Ibrahim Bisiriyu, a loader at soya beans market in Ilara, his narrow escape from being cut down by bullets, could only be God’s doing. He narrated his experience at a traditional bone specialist in Oke Sokia, Ilara, where he was recuperating:
“I was running towards a compound to escape being hit by stray bullet. I almost got to safety when a bullet hit me on the left leg and came out to graze the right one. I became immobile instantly and my body was enveloped in excruciating pains.
“I was taken to this place for treatment, but the pain has been unbearable. I can’t sleep in the daytime and at night. But I still thank God that I am alive, though injured. My wife even gave birth to a bouncing baby boy the following day I was hit by bullet.”
Oloola of Ilara speaks
From Oke Sokia, our correspondent visited the Palace of the Oloola of Ilara, Oba Samuel Alabi Adeluyi, who berated the Customs operatives for “arbitrary use of force” on the people of Ilara. He said he was slightly indisposed and indoor when he started hearing sporadic gunshots, which later turned out to be from the Customs accompanied by soldiers, who wanted to forcefully evacuate rice, even in the territory of another country:
“I want to passionately appeal to the Customs command in the state that killing and maiming of our people should stop henceforth. Imagine how catastrophic it could have been if the military of Republic of Benin, had engaged our Customs and soldiers who had invaded their territory.
“They should be a bit civil and humane in carrying out their official duties. I can authoritatively tell you that those smugglers and their sponsors are well known by the Customs. They work together to perpetuate smuggling, so why killing the innocents then? If they can’t wait for them at their checkpoints, they should identify the smugglers’ routes and block them and impound the contrabands. Wasting lives of people who have nothing to do with smuggling, should not be condoned and it must stop immediately.”
We encountered smugglers, NCS insists
The NCS, however, absolved its men of any wrongdoing and insisted that smugglers waylaid them in Ilara. Maiwada told Daily Sun that contrary to the allegation that Customs operatives entered the Republic of Benin to evacuate bags of rice, the operatives carried out the seizure within the Nigerian side:
“Nigeria Customs Service has its laid down rules and regulations on how to carry out its duties. Our men did not enter into another country this is because there is a protocol to follow, even if we will do so. And the claim that our men shot sporadically to kill and maim innocent residents is not correct. I want to categorically tell you that our men were waylaid and engaged by smugglers at Ilara and we responded appropriately, in order to secure the lives of the men and the seizure.
“I don’t know whether you are aware that recently, our men while on a routine patrol in Abeokuta, were pelted with stones and chased away by hoodlums? That is what we encounter regularly from these smugglers who are ready to go to any length to ensure they bring in contraband into the country.
“I want to assure members of the public that NCS in Ogun State will never engage in arbitrary shooting whatsoever. Our duty is to ensure that the Federal Government’s policy as regards smuggling is carried out according to the law.”