Buhari, Call off Customs’ Siege on Igbo Traders

A few days ago, a friend sent me a video of a choir made up of members of Nigeria’s security agencies singing “Feliz Navidad,” a popular Christmas song. The rendition was entirely inspiring, a thrilling combination of rousing singing, dancing and festive atmosphere. I was moved by the sheer cheeriness of the service singers, infected by their sunniness of spirit. The high professional quality of the performers was complemented by the outstanding videography.

In between the Christmas lyrics, members of Nigeria’s respective service arms took turns pitching messages. A female officer informed us that the police were our friends, that its officers serve and protect with integrity, and that they make Nigeria secure. Another officer, also female, touted the Nigerian Prisons Service as reformers, keeping society crime-free. A member of the Civil Defense Corps spoke about defending the defenseless.

It was, quite simply, a soaring performance, a tour de force, indeed the best rendition of “Feliz Navidad” I have ever seen or heard—and I have listened to quite a few. I couldn’t help replaying the video several times. Each time, I found myself riveted, beguiled, awe-struck, a dupe for the wholly upbeat service messages organically interjected into one of Christmas’s most captivating anthems.

Again and again, I surrendered myself to be transported by the winsome performance. Yet, I emerged from each session with an afterglow of sadness, brought rudely down to earth by the shattering awareness that there was little concordance between the reality of life in Nigeria and the mesmerizing vista projected by the video. The video vended a beatific vision to me; yet I knew that the reality of life in Nigeria was, for the most part and for the majority of Nigerians, awful if not hellish. The video was selling me a dummy, attempting to mask the sordidness of everyday life in my country, its enchanting performance no more than an effort to narcotize its audience, to rig reality.

That dominant sense of a discrepancy between performance and reality was reinforced for me in two recent conversations. In one, a writer friend who is an academic in Canada recounted his near-brush with death. Some assailants had cornered this guy and shot him on the leg. Terribly wounded, bleeding, he had limped away from his car to seek help. In some ways, his nightmare worsened once he found the police.

First, the police had no ambulance to drive him to a hospital. They brought him back to his car, which the armed gangsters had abandoned because it was demobilized, and got him to reactivate it. Then, instead of rushing him to the hospital, they took him to their station because Nigeria has this weird practice that hospitals should not treat anybody with a gunshot wound in the absence of a police report. Meanwhile, as the police busied themselves with observing the bizarre bureaucratic protocols of generating a report, the bleeding victim slipped in and out of consciousness, gripped by a sense of his imminent death.

No, he didn’t die in the end, in part because one of the police officers finally recognized him as a senior editor at a major newspaper. Once his quasi-privileged status was established, he was able to muster just enough strength to convince the officers—against what they said was policy—to take him to a private hospital where a relative of his was a medical chief. The drive there was harrowing, marked by a traffic gridlock that slowed the car, leaving the hapless editor bleeding profusely, racked by hideous pain.

The other conversation, with a friend who recently traveled by road from Lagos to Awka, the capital of Anambra State, concerned a broader problem. He spoke about the many checkpoints mounted by the police, customs and other security agencies. He described the trip as an excruciating experience. Each checkpoint taxed travelers’ nerves. The service officers harangued, harassed and cajoled travelers to “drop something,” Nigerian slang for offering a bribe.

He shared the impression that Nigerian customs and police seemed to target businessmen and women from the country’s southeast. This friend, who travels by road to different parts of Nigeria, felt there was an unwholesome intent behind the incessant checkpoints. He described them as part of a vast extortion scheme authorized by the Nigerian state, a veritable siege on (especially) Igbo-owned businesses.

That sentiment has increasing currency. A headline in the December 14, 2016 edition of the Punch newspaper told the story: “Customs, police extorting us – South East traders”. According to the paper, “The South-East Zone of the Amalgamated Market Traders Association has raised the alarm over the worsening cases of extortion by security officials on highways in the country.” The association’s president, Okwudili Ezenwankwo, “accused men of the Nigeria Customs Service and the police of barricading highways to extort motorists and traders.” The paper quoted him as stating that “the presence of customs men and police officers mounting road blocks to extort motorists and traders had made a mess of the anti-corruption campaign of the Federal Government.”

Mr. Ezenwankwo “wondered why containers, belonging to traders should be stopped and searched at various points from Lagos and to the South-East by customs men and the police after such containers had been cleared at the ports,” and demanded that the Federal Government move the officers in order to end their extortionist game. He argued, “It is only in Nigeria you see customs men on the roads. If they have anything to do with searching our goods, it should be at the ports or borders.”

The trader made a pertinent point: that President Muhammadu Buhari’s so-called anti-corruption campaign “would only have meaning when the government addressed low-level corruption by security officials.” He added: “Forcing hard working Nigerians to part with their hard-earned money every day by policemen, customs men and other security agents should not be happening in the current dispensation.”

It should not happen in this or any dispensation, period.

Another businessman, Chuma Eruchalu, echoed the growing dismay. “Even when you buy goods in the open market across the country, [customs and police officers] still extort money by seizing some of the vehicles in the hope that you settle them. You find [the] police doing the jobs of customs and asking you to provide customs documents used for clearing goods.”

The Nigerian economy is in a shambles, and many small business owners are buffeted by hard times. An administration that means well ought to take every measure to reduce, if not remove, impediments to the flowering of businesses. Instead, under President Buhari’s watch, police and customs fan the roads to importune traders and business owners who are doing their best to keep themselves and dependents afloat.

With the exception of the most privileged among us, Nigerians frequently experience their country as an affliction, a pestilence and a pain in the place where pain hurts most. How I wish that the image created in the rendition of “Feliz Navidad” corresponded with the reality. This is far from being the case. In many cases, the police, soldiers, customs and other security agents view themselves as armed intimidators of the populace they are supposed to defend and protect.

A little sense of history should instruct the president and those who head the various security agencies that it is time they stopped this practice of unleashing ravenous agents to prey on innocent Nigerians. And with the impression gaining ground that these agencies have launched a vicious assault on the enterprising spirit of the southeast, it is time the government rethought its strategy—or risk an unpredictable, possibly explosive, response.

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Written by
Okey Ndibe
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