Governor Aminu Bello Masari of Katsina State, though soft-spoken and arguably unassuming, easily turns hard and harsh. His recent outcry over the real and perceived excesses of the personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in some parts of the state and the threat of a legal action against the agency over the alleged killing of some people around the Nigeria-Niger Republic border both of which are clear manifestations of a bottled-up anger are also indications that the man can be tough, even if not rough.
Complaints against the NCS personnel have been as persistent and widespread as the activities of smugglers as well as dealers and traders of illicit commodities. While the customs officers are continuously being accused of violation of the laws guiding their operations as a result of which they regularly indulge in extremely undue physical assault of sometimes even innocent people, the smugglers or those alleged to be them are considered by not only the personnel of the NCS but also all other law enforcement agents in the border areas as hardened criminals whose activities are terribly inimical to the security and economic development of the country.
It was, after all, the realization of the subversive implications of smuggling and other related activities for the country that necessitated the total land border closure at the beginning of this administration which was however relaxed much later. The closure was an action that tremendously emboldened the NCS as an agency of government that has the duty to ensure that all the established laws are fully observed before goods are imported into the country.
The total border closure was also enforced as a measure against the free flow of small arms as part of the effort towards the significant reduction of violent criminal activities in the country. There was the strong belief that the complete cut of the arms supply chain which the closure was meant to bring about would push the criminals out of business. Whether that objective was achieved or not is still a matter for debate with the defenders of the action insisting that the inflow of the arms was heavily curtailed and those opposed to it maintaining that the persistence of insecurity is an indication that no such achievement was recorded.
The current squabble between Governor Masari and the NCS is clearly not about the mandate of the agency or the illegality of smuggling. It is the killing [intentional or not] of the people [criminals or not] that is the basis of the governor’s anger which is now leading to some actions that are likely to re-define the relationship between the Katsina State Government and the NCS.
As the Chief Security Officer of a State where kidnappings, killings and some other violent crimes have become popular trades, Masari will always naturally react furiously to any conduct or approach that is likely to add to the prevailing insecurity in the State. The harsh reaction of the governor to the recent killing of eight persons in Jibia town by a customs officer while pursuing a suspected smuggler must therefore have been fully expected.
Extra-judicial killings by armed personnel, especially if they repeatedly carried out, signifies a total lack of respect for human lives and is offensive enough to cause anarchy in the land. They are incidents that weaken the foundations of the rule of law as much as they expose government as incapable of protecting the lives of the people which is its primary responsibility. Any concerned leader will unhesitatingly take decisive actions against the perpetrators of such crimes.
Somehow, the Masari’s outcry and the practical measures he has so far taken against the excesses of the NCS personnel in Katsina State is a particular version of the popular and widespread protests that were carried out in the southern part of the country and Abuja known as #ENDSARS which resulted in the abolition of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] of the Nigeria Police Force. It is even good that, in this case, it is the government and not the people of Katsina State that is so reacting thereby ruling out the possibility of violence as was the case with the #ENDSARS.
Both the demand for ransom for the lives lost and the declaration of intention to take legal action against the agency made by Governor Masari are quite reasonable which, if fully pursued, will bring about necessary changes in not only the conduct of the customs officers but also in the entire relationship between the Katsina State Government and the NCS. While the payment of the ransom will cushion the harsh effects of the killings on the bereaved families, proper adjudication by a court of competent jurisdiction will definitely bring out the truth about the matter and hopefully forestall recurrence of the incident.
There are obviously two matters of huge concern in this squabble that are in perpetual conflict with each other, which should however not be the case. While the governor seems to have the impression that the NCS personnel have no respect for the lives of the people of Katsina State, there appears to be a strong suspicion even at the level of the agency’s leadership that the governor protects smugglers; a suspicion that can not be accepted as a justification for the killing of anybody.
Now, the Jibia incident has provided another opportunity for a proper reflection on the nature and scope of the surveillance along the Nigeria’s borders by the customs officers and the other security agents. If, for example, the porous nature of the borders is one factor that makes the surveillance difficult, the compromising attitude of a lot of officers who have made money-making through indulgence in corrupt practices a topmost priority is another.
Suspected smugglers are killed mostly when they are being pursued after they cross the borders or even after they arrive their destinations. This means that the suspects usually either take advantage of the porous nature of the borders or get the co-operation of the officers at the entry points to be able to evade protocols and procedures for the importation of goods into the country.
Although it is not yet known how exactly this controversy will be resolved, there is however the hope that, considering the manner in which each of the two sides is addressing the specific issues that are critical to the restoration of normalcy, a way out will soon be found. The sympathy visit to Jibia by Governor Masari and the show of remorse by the NSC as indicated in the quick withdrawal of those multiples check-points that were being used mainly for extortion are necessary steps towards the resolution of the whole matter in such a way that the surveillance mechanism will be strengthened and the safety of the communities in the border areas adequately guaranteed.