If fate had not played a cruel one on Sekinat Agbelade, she would have joined the rest of her mates in the preparations for West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) scheduled to begin on August 17. But the 15-year-old girl, a Senior Secondary School 3 student of Agosasa Community High School, was allegedly shot dead on March 28, 2020, by customs men in Agosasa, Ipokia Local Area, Ogun State.
The customs officers were said to be chasing suspected rice smugglers when they fired the bullets that killed the hapless girl as she was returning home from an errand. No fewer than 15 other residents were said to have been injured while they were scampering into safety for fear of being hit by stray bullets.
Three weeks after, a pall of grief descended on Agbon village in Yewa North Local Government Area of the state, when a 25-year-old father of five, Kehinde Ogunji, was allegedly killed by some customs men in the village situated in Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State penultimate Saturday.
Like the gruesome death of Sekinat, the killing of Ogunji which happened at about 1 pm on Saturday, April 25, 2020, sparked a row between the family members of the victim, indigenes of the community and customs authorities in the state.
Speaking with The Nation, the deceased’s twin brother, Taiwo, who witnessed the gruesome killing, described the conduct of the customs officers as callous. He said the officers had no reason to shoot at them in the first place because they were not smugglers.
Taiwo said: “We left home around 6 am on that fateful day. We finished clearing the farm at about 1 pm and left on Kehinde’s motorcycle. I was seated behind him while he operated the motorbike.
“A few meters to our village, we started hearing gunshots and my twin brother (Kehinde) was hit by bullets fired by customs men.
“The customs men did not bother to look at Kehinde who was in a pool of his blood. I had to run home to inform our father about the incident.
“By the time I returned to the scene with my father, the customs men, in a bid to cover up their indiscretions, had pushed Kehinde’s motorbike to the bank of a river and covered his body with leaves.
“Sensing that we could make trouble with them, they called for reinforcement and their colleagues arrived to forcibly take Kehinde’s body to a morgue.
But few days after, pandemonium broke out in Owode, a community in Yewa South Local Government Area, when 17-year old Rilwan Bello was reportedly hit by stray bullets allegedly fired by Customs men on the trail of a consignment of smuggled rice and sugar suspected to have been stockpiled in some locked-up shops in the town.
Sources said Rilwan, who until his death was a student of Area Community High School, Owode, died in a pool of his blood. A number of nearby traders and bystanders were injured in the stampede that followed the incident.
A source who craved anonymity said: “The boy was a pupil of Area Community High School Owode. He was15 and not 17 as some people have claimed.
“On May 1, the customs men broke into shops and evacuated hundreds of bags of sugar and rice. They embarked on sporadic shooting to ward off reprisal attacks, and in the process, one of their bullets hit the boy in the head.”
But the immediate past Public Relations Officer for Ogun Area 1 Command of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Abdullahi Maiwada, reportedly said the victim was a member of the Eye cultists, some of who attacked officers of the Command deployed to evacuate contrabands from where they were hidden by suspected smugglers.
He said: “Some miscreants suspected to be cultists, popularly known as Eye Boys, violently confronted officers of NCS Ogun I Command’s anti-smuggling patrol team with assorted weapons at Owode, Yewa South LGA of Ogun State.
“The team came across such hostility while peacefully performing their lawful duty with vivid arrest of smuggled 47 bags of sugar, 13 bags of rice (50 kg each), and three cartons of sugar stocked at a residence located on Owode-Idiroko Road.
“In the melee that ensued, information available revealed that one among the suspected cultists died while officers, including the team leader, sustained various degrees of injury.
“The name of the deceased, who was well known among the ‘area boys’ is Owoeba. Other popular members of the notorious gang at large are Angaba, Wudor, Solomon (a.k.a K. Solo). We wish to use this opportunity to acknowledge the timely intervention of the Nigerian Army 192 Battalion Owode, Operatives of National Border Drill, the Nigeria Police Force, Owode.’’
Traditional ruler, indigenes react
The killing of Ogunji by customs men had sparked a row as family members, residents and the monarch of the town urged the police to bring the officers fingered in the killings to justice.
In a petition addressed to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), dated May 10, 2020, the Eselu of Iseluland, Oba Ebenezer Akintunde Akinyemi, Yewa-North Local Government Area of Ogun State, said the young farmer was dastardly killed by customs men while he was returning home from a communal farming with his twin brother at Agbon village.
The monarch said Ogunji was killed by a stray bullet fired by the customs men who were pursuing some rice smugglers in the community.
The petition reads: “On Sunday, 3rd May 2020, some Officers of Ogun Area Command 1 of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), who was on the trail of some rice smugglers at Agbon community in Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State, killed my subject, Kehinde Ogunji, through a stray bullet.
“The deceased Kehinde Ogunji was an innocent person because he was just a farmer, not a rice smuggler as alleged by the men of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).
“On that fateful day, Kehinde Ogunji, a husband of two wives and a father of five children, was returning home from his farm along with his twin brother.
“Apart from the fact that the deceased’s family and my humble self want justice and adequate care for the wives and children of the deceased, we also requested the customs officers to withdraw the statement in the media, where they claimed that the deceased was a rice smuggler. Amazingly, up till now, they have not withdrawn the malicious statement made against an innocent Kehinde Ogunji.’’
Oba Akinyemi urged the Inspector General of Police to bring the customs officers fingered in the gruesome killing of Ogunji to justice.
The bereaved 65-year-old father of the victim, Elder Emmanuel Ogunji, and his twin brother, had also condemned the gruesome killing, citing injustice.
He said: “I had just returned from an aaro (communal farming) when Taiwo rushed in to tell me that some customs men opened fire on him and Kehinde while they were returning from a farm owned by one Sanusi Akindele, where they had participated in communal farming exercise.
“I immediately asked him to lead me to the scene and I met the customs men there. The officers lied to me that some of their colleagues had used Kehinde’s motorbike to pursue some smugglers and that they were waiting for their return.
“I became curious when they could not clearly explain my son’s whereabouts. It was at that point that I decided to search the area only to find my son’s body covered with leaves and his motorbike parked near a river.”
Shocked by the discovery, Elder Ogunji said he raised the alarm and accused the customs men of deliberately killing his son and making attempts to cover up their complicity in his killing.
“When I raised the alarm and confronted the customs men, they could not say anything. I decided to report the matter at the Eggua Police Division from where I was directed to Oja Odan Division, which has the jurisdiction, to the incident the case.
“By the time we returned to the scene, the customs officers had called for reinforcement and forcibly took my son’s body away.
“The two customs men that pulled the trigger have confessed in their statement at Oja Odan Police Station that they actually opened fire on my son, Kehinde. The two officers were asked to report back to the station today (Monday) but we did not see them when we got to the station.
“I am calling on both the police and the Ogun State Government to wade into this matter by bringing the errant customs men to justice.”
But the Ogun 1 Customs Command, in a statement released by its spokesman, Abdullahi Maiwada, described the deceased Kehinde as a member of a smuggling gang who attacked its officers in their bid to intercept smuggled bags of foreign rice into the country.
Maiwada noted that the incident occurred at about 1 pm while officers of the command were on
“The smuggling gang, having been caught red-handed, resorted to unleashing a vicious attack on officers performing their duties with assorted dangerous weapons.
“The officers successfully repelled the attack launched by the smugglers, and at the end, one of the smugglers died and his corpse has since been deposited in the mortuary.”
It added: “Furthermore, the arrival of reinforcement teams enabled the evacuation of 44 bags of rice (50kg each) and two motorcycles abandoned by the smugglers to a government warehouse in Abeokuta for safekeeping and further investigation.
“It is instructive to note that Saturday, April 25, 2020, was a date set aside for total lockdown in Ogun State due to the surge of Covid-19 pandemic. However, the daredevil smugglers who have no regards for the law of the land or the disease ravaging the global community resorted to crossing the border through illegal routes to perpetuate their nefarious activities, in total disregard of the health and economic well-being of the country.’’
Spokesman of Ogun Police Command, Mr. Abimbola Oyeyemi, had said that those responsible for Kehinde’s death would face justice at the completion of the investigation.
“We are investigating the matter with a view to ensuring that justice is served.
“The case was initially handled by the Oja Odan Division, but CP Kenneth Ebrimson has ordered that the case be transferred to the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID), Eleweran, Abeokuta, for further investigation.
Outrage over delayed justice
An association of indigenes, Yewa condemned the incessant killing of indigenes by customs men, warning that the trend could trigger confrontations that may be difficult to stop in the future.
Spokesman of the group, Soji Ogundola, said: “This was how the Niger Delta agitation started after several years of inaction by Nigerian authorities. Several victims of mindless killings by customs have died in vain because no justice has been served.
“If this persists for a long time, it might lead to aggressive reactions by residents in the future, the result of which government may grapple with for a very long time.’’
Contacted for an explanation on the extent of investigation on Ogunji’s killing, Oyeyemi promised to get back to our reporter.
“Let me get to the office and check with the Homicide Section on the extent of the case. I will call you back,’’ he said. He, however, had not done so at press time.
Victims not targeted by our men — Customs
Speaking with The Nation, the Comptroller of Ogun 1 Area Command, Controller Michael Agbara, described the cases mentioned as more of unfortunate accidents than deliberate killing as they were being portrayed.
Agbara explained that the cases have been amicably resolved with the support of some stakeholders, especially community leaders, traditional rulers and local government authorities.
He said: “Contrary to what was reported by a section of the media, the victims of these incidents were neither deliberately aimed nor targeted for killing by men of Ogun Area 1 Command.
“In the case of Sekinat Agbelade, she was returning from an errand when some hoodlums attempted to free suspected rice smuggler who had been arrested by our officers.
“Honestly, the suspect was using the public address system in our vehicle to tell the hoodlums who are his friends not to attack our men, but they ignored his appeal.
“Unfortunately, my men shot into the sky to scare the boys, and normally, when a live bullet comes down, it can still cause fatality, hence, the bullet hit the poor girl on the leg.
“However, while attempts were made to take her to the hospital, the people refused and took her to a native doctor to remove the bullet, and she died in the process.
“We quickly engaged the community leaders, including the chairman of Ipokia Local Government Area, to help us reach out to the girl’s relations.
“However, the community demanded we release the suspect, promising they would take care of the girl’s bereaved family.
“We then granted the suspect administrative bail and they swore to an affidavit to back up their rapprochement.
“Concerning the case of the young farmer, he was said to be riding on a motorcycle but that he didn’t carry any rice. However, it was strange that he didn’t run for his safety or move out of the way while our officers fired shots to scare and apprehend rice smugglers who rode on motorcycles. He was probably hit in the process.
“We even engaged the monarch of the community, Oba of Iselu, and we reached out to the family for settlement before and during the burial of the said farmer.
“In the case of Ihunbo, our men had evacuated smuggled rice during an operation when the boy on the motorcycle was hit by our driver in a bid to avoid crashing into a vehicle.