When I write I try to refrain from being too personal. But it was Leo Buscaglia, American author and motivational speaker who said, “it’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something”. I chose to be personal today because continuing being silent in the face of clear wrongs worsen the situation and negatively affect the society. Also speaking out is cathartic, I hope.
Indeed, it was the Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka who said, “The man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”. The story I want to tell is about my younger half-brother, a Custom Assistant II officer, Abdulsalam Rasheed who has gone missing since April 14, 2018. He was on official duty when the incident occurred.
I have decided to use this medium because the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) seems to have taken the occurrence in its stride and has not shown due concern. Soon, it would be two years in the next few months. No information has gone to the family or next of kin since the incident occurred, except the information gathered in the course of visiting the Customs’ office and personal investigation that the family conducted. There had not even been a visit to the family to empathize. Neither has there been any effort to find out how his immediate family has been coping since the family’s breadwinner went missing. As at the time he got missing, he was in his late 30s. He had five children, twins twice. The last of his children, twin boys were a few days old when he went missing. The only time he saw the twins was during their naming ceremony before he went back to his station. He was then attached to the Federal Operations Unit, Ikeja, Lagos.
What really happened? From available information to the family, he and his colleagues left the office in the early hours of April 14. Their plan was to intercept some smugglers entering Lagos with busloads of rice. Shortly after the toll gate along the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway, they saw the smugglers parked at the other side of the road. Curiously, the customs officers parked their Hilux and crossed to meet with the smugglers, indicative of a chummy relationship. The Hilux was driven by Abdulsalam (my younger half-brother) who initially sat in the vehicle, to await the return of his colleagues.
No one could ascertain what happened except that there was an altercation between the Customs officers and the smugglers. The issue degenerated that the smugglers began to attack the Customs officers who had to retreat towards the toll gate on foot. Meanwhile, Abdulsalam who was in the vehicle at the other side decided to reposition the vehicle to meet his colleagues at the other side, oblivious of the fact that a fight had broken out. He fell into the hands of the smugglers who dragged him out of the vehicle and took him away.
Expectedly, one thought his colleagues would request for reinforcement to rescue their operatives, this was not done. They also did not mount any rescue effort until the following day when information got to the family. Till date, no official information on the missing operative. The Customs went to pick their damaged Hilux and the busload of rice abandoned by the smugglers. At a time some people were arrested and charged to court by the police. The Customs did not follow up on the matter after attending a few court sessions. The family had also attended the court session, but since the customs never showed much interest, the case petered out.
Many concerns were raised by the family on the matter. Why were the smugglers waiting for the customs officers along the road? Would it be that there was an “arrangement” which went awry? If there was an arrangement, who arranged it on the side of the Customs? The person would know who was in charge on the part of the smugglers, why then did he not volunteer information that could help unravel the situation? Obviously, there is a cover up somewhere. Would the Customs’ hierarchy at the Federal Operations Unit claim ignorance of the incident? What effort did they make to unravel the circumstances? What became of the official that sent the officers out? What has he got to say about the entire situation? What happened to the team that went on that operations? What have they got to say? Most importantly, is it the practice in the Customs to be mute when an operative is missing? As said earlier, no effort has been made to contact the family, the wife and the children to know how they are faring. Who takes responsibility for the education of the children left behind? The extended family? Even at that, is there no provision to at least offer succor to the family of a missing officer? A few months after he got missing, his salary was stopped. The one in his bank account remained inaccessible to his immediate family because the Customs kept saying that he is only missing and cannot be declared dead. Is there no time limit to declare an officer dead after he had not been at his duty post for nearly two years?
In all these, it is important for the family to have a closure. My 74-year old mother has been unable to move on, believing he would still appear someday. Constantly, she inundates me with calls about where she had gone to pray and was informed that her son would still come back. Other days, she would dissolve into tears, lamenting and soliloquizing on whether she would ever see her son again. What story would his wife tell his children? Where would she say their father was buried? Yoruba will say it is better to say my child is dead than that he is missing. Abdulsalam has been missing these past few months, the family is interested in efforts made by his employers to give the family a closure.
It is also important for the Customs service to be seen to be standing by its men, their family. How do you encourage the other operatives? Should the full weight of the law not be visited on the smugglers to act as deterrent. In the words of John Donne,” any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Today, it may be our turn, we never know where the pendulum will swing tomorrow. But for us as a family, we will not accept he is dead until the Customs says otherwise. We are waiting.