By Daud Olatunji
ABEOKUTA – Rice sellers in Sango-Ota market in Ado Odo/Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State yesterday, alleged that men of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, broke into their shops and carted away 18,000 bags of rice in the wee hours of the day.
The traders, alongside youth in the area because of that, blocked the Ota-end of the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway for over 12 hours to protest what they called invasion of their shops.
The traders who betrayed emotions said the men of the NCS damaged the padlocks and doors of over 60 shops located inside Sango-Ota motor park, and carted away 18,000 bags of rice and jerry cans of vegetable oil.
The Customs operatives were said to have invaded the market around 1.00 am with about 15 trucks to cart away the bags of rice and jerry cans of vegetable oil.
But, in a swift reaction, the NCS dismissed the figures being bandied by the traders.
Both the Public Relations Officers, Nigeria Customs Service, Ogun Area Command Usman Abubakar and Federal Operating Unit, FOU, Ikeja, Lagos, Jerome Attah, who spoke with Vanguard on phone denied the allegation of seizure of 18,000 bags of rice, stating that the operatives only took away 1,870 bags of rice.
They also said their operatives did not break into anyone’s shop in the market but only went into a warehouse where those contraband goods were kept.
They said they only took away 1,870 bags of rice and not 18,000 bags as claimed.
Vanguard learned that the incident led to a protest by some angry youths and rice sellers who barricaded both sides of the Lagos-Abeokuta Express way shortly before the overhead bridge at Ota with disused tyres and planks, and disrupted vehicular movement.
Motorists were not allowed to move into or outside Sango-Ota, from Lagos-end, Abeokuta-end, and Iju-Winners-Oju Ore end.
Motorists were forced to make use of alternative routes via Toll-gate and Joju area.
Efforts by policemen from the Sango-Ota Division of the state police command to disperse the protesters were futile.
An eyewitness told Vanguard at the scene yesterday that the operation lasted for about one hour, adding that the Customs operatives were joined by men of OP Mesa, a military security outfit.
An eye witness told Vanguard that some of the security men wore hoods, to conceal their identities.
Leader of the rice sellers in the market, Alhaja Wosilat Salako, put the value of the 18,000 bags of rice carted away at N378million.
She lamented that many of them took loans to buy these goods and had run into debts with the seizure.
She said in Yoruba, “Around 1am on Wednesday, some operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service in company with some men from the OP Mesa invaded over 60 shops where we kept bags of rice and vegetable oil.
“They carted away no fewer than 18,000 bags of rice and jerry cans of vegetable oil worth N378million.
“They broke into these shops by destroying the padlocks, the burglary proofs and steel doors, before removing the bags of rice and vegetable oil. Some of our members who kept money inside lockers in their shops had the money stolen by the ‘invaders’.”
Salako appealed to the Comptroller- General of Nigeria Customs Service, Col. Hameed Ali (retd) to intervene in their case and ensure that their goods were returned to them, because they bought the goods in the market and were not involved in smuggling.
“We bought these goods with our money, I believe if they have issues, it should be at the border and not coming inside the market to cart away our goods. “ One of the traders, Okunola Raufu while lamenting the losses, said her shop was broken into and 150 bags of rice taken away.
“I got to the vicinity of the market around 1am on Wednesday, I saw the NCS operatives and some soldiers supervising the loading of the bags of rice into waiting trucks which they brought. “They left around 2am, with some of them wearing masks to conceal their identity. We are traders doing genuine business, we are not smugglers. This is where we get money to train our children.”
Another rice seller in the market Kudirat Fasinu, popularly known as Iya Okiki, who spoke with Vanguard, fighting back tears, said she just bought 125 jerry cans of vegetable oil, in both 10 and 25 litres worth N1.5million and all were carted away.
She lamented, “I borrowed the money to buy these goods, from this receipt you can see that I bought the goods inside this market, I don’t engage in smuggling. I appeal to the state government to help me retrieve my goods, if they want me to survive.
The Ado Odo/Ota Local Government Area Local Government chairman, Prince Oladele Adeniji, who also visited the scene, told Vanguard that he was told that operatives of the NCS came to the market inside the Sango-Ota motor park and took away bags of rice and jerrycans of vegetable oils.
He said he had contacted the state Controller of NCS, and the state Police Commissioner over the matter. Adeniji said he had also contacted the state government.
He said, “I have appealed to the rice sellers to remain calm and that the matter will be resolved.
“I have contacted the state Controller of the Nigeria Customs Service, state Commissioner of Police and the state government over the crisis. I believe everything will soon be resolved.”
When contacted , the Public Relations Officer, FOU, Ikeja, Lagos, Jerome Attah explained that the unit had been monitoring the activities of smugglers in that axis before they struck.
He said suspected smugglers had been using motorcycles to ferry smuggled bags of rice into the market, and their operatives had traced them to the warehouse.
He said, “Our men have been monitoring the activities of the smugglers who smuggled bags of rice to the warehouse. They normally chained smuggled bags of rice to motorcycles and ferried them to the warehouse on top speed.
“We hired seven trucks to evacuate the smuggled bags of rice. Our men could have taken everything met at the warehouse, but the number of trucks hired could not contain the consignment met on ground. “Our men did not break into any shop. What we have done is not contrary to the Constitution.”
Also speaking on the incident, the Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Customs Service, Ogun Area Command, Usman Abubakar, said those who went to raid the Sango-Ota rice market were from the Federal Operations Unit, Lagos.
He said their action was based on information they received that contraband goods had been smuggled into the market.
He said, “The operatives that went to raid the Sango-Ota rice market were not from Ogun State command. They were officials of Nigeria Customs Service attached to Federal Operations Unit, Lagos.
“They went on official patrol as enshrined in Section 158 of Customs and Excise management Act Cap 645 Laws of Federal Republic of Nigeria 2004. “They got information that some contraband were brought to the market, so they went there to evacuate 1,870 of 50Kg bags of rice and 43 kegs of vegetable oil from the warehouse.
“The value of the bags of rice taken away is N12,445,250. There was no casualty and no shop was broken into by Customs officials. If any shop was broken into, it must be by the miscreants who might have taken advantage of the incident.” Abubakar said some miscreants waylaid them when the seven trucks in which the bags of rice and vegetable oil were loaded were being driven to their Ikeja, Lagos headquarters. Meanwhile, as at 3.30pm when this story was filed, the protesting market women were yet to vacate the highway. They said they were waiting for the state governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, to address them.