Days after the Federal Government unfolded a policy to stop rice importation into Nigeria in the next four years, the tempo of rice smuggling in the country has taken a different dimension.
This was evident in the extra-ordinary seizure made, as officers of Oyo/Osun Command of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) cracked down on smugglers in a convoy of 40 assorted vehicles inside Agbaja forest, off Igbeti axis of Oyo State. The smugglers, fully armed with their own escorts, on sensing the superiority of Customs operatives, abandoned their vehicles along with the items and escaped into the forest.
The Customs Area Controller (CAC), Oyo/Osun Command of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Mr. Oteri Richard, in front leading other Customs officers into Agbaja forest, during inspection of the seizures of 40 vehicles loaded with rice, intercepted in the forest by his Command.
Though the Command has recorded massive seizures of rice since last year at various operations, the situation surrounding this particular seizure was astonishing and it attracted the attention of top military personnel, Nigeria Police and other security agencies in Oyo State.
The operation was carried out by 3.30am in a thick forest, a terrain where nobody would ever imagine such activity could take place. The forest is over four hours drive from Ibadan. Inside the bush were few houses like ancient pyramid structures. A part of the area has a massive volcanic rock similar to the popular Olumo Rock in Abeokuta.
Gaining access to the forest require driving through a narrow isolated bush path with long trees for a distance of over 600kilometers.
Sunday Vanguard at the scene of crime in Agbaja forest during official inspection of the items, gathered that Customs officers, after weeks of due diligence and effective surveillance, discovered the place to be an illegal route for smuggling.
It was also observed that smugglers had perfected the act of re-fabricating vehicles in such a manner that one car meant for just four persons could carry as much as 50kg bags of rice with all the inner seats completely removed. Also, the shock absorbers were re-fabricated while the top of vehicles were well padded and re-built with extra-iron carriers.
The 11 hours assignment in Agbaja forest was led by the fearless Customs Area Controller (CAC) of the Command, Mr. Oteri Richard, who drove in a white Toyota Hilux ahead of journalists into the forest. Even the female Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Command, Ijeoma Nwala, whose primary duty involves administration, was not left out of the task, as she walked side by side the Customs Controller, leading the way into the forest.
Speaking, the CAC said, “The Command has again recorded another significant breakthrough over those saboteurs who do not have the interest of our economy at heart. It is worrisome that some Nigerians remain unrepentant even as they continue to lose. Not even government’s visible efforts in transforming agriculture, especially in the area of rice production have touched their conscience to stop rice smuggling.
Our resolve to deal with this remains unshaken, more so that the current management has boosted our capacity by deliberate re-training and re-tooling. The seizures you see here were intercepted by combined anti-smuggling teams of NCS after weeks of effective monitoring and intelligence driven efforts. The quantity of the rice is estimated at over 2.000 bags and a Duty Paid Value (DPV) of about N20million”.
He went on, “Already the Comptroller General of Customs, Dikko Inde Abdullahi, has directed thorough investigation into the issue, with a view to prosecuting those who would be found connected to this act of illegality and economic sabotage. The Command remains poised to keeping its resolve to arrest these saboteurs and make them face the full weight of the law.”
“In the face of Dikko’s zero tolerance for rice smuggling through the borders, the Service has continued to intensify efforts at border policing to keep the recalcitrant unpatriotic Nigerians off this unwholesome business. It is worthy of note to recollect that the Command made a similar seizure of 21 assorted vehicles also loaded with rice early last month.
We would continue to engage in aggressive patrol activities in all areas of the Command to ensure effective blockage of the entry of illicit goods. We sincerely appreciate the support of Nigerian Army, Policy, Civil Defence, the Directorate of States Security Services and other security agencies in the State. The public should see the synergy and cooperation with these government agencies as our resolve to stamp out smuggling.”
On if the recent government policy on rice production has any kind of multiplier effect on duty payment for rice, he said, “The rice policy is a good initiative and must be supported. The intention of government is not just to boost food production in the country, but to enhance growth in agricultural sector, create jobs for the citizens, encourage local farmers and industrial development. We should support government efforts in expanding agriculture. It is a matter of looking inward to build our nation, supporting our economy to thrive and appreciating what we have as a country, instead of smuggling contra-band items to the detriment of our local industries and the entire economy. For unrepentant smugglers who do not want to desist and allow sanity in our economic environment, prosecution waits them”.
Also, a security operative, who spoke with Sunday Vanguard on the condition of anonymity in the forest, said the ingenuity of the Customs in uncovering such a crime was laudable. “This area is within Olorunsogbo local government, and could take up to seven hours drive to get to the next community from Oyo town. Even many people in Ibadan do not know that a place like Agbaja forest exists in Oyo State. The Customs officers demonstrated selfless service, even putting their lives on the line of duty to carry out that operation in such a dangerous terrain. For instance, some of the officers you see here have been in the forest for days mapping out strategies for the operation to be carried out successfully”, he stated.