Rice sellers in Sango Market, in the Ado Odo/ Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State on Wednesday blocked the Temidire end of the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway for over seven hours.
The traders were protesting against the alleged invasion of customs officials from the Federal Operation Unit (FOU ) of the Nigeria Customs Service, Ikeja, who allegedly broke several shops in the market around 12 am.
The operatives, who were reportedly accompanied by soldiers attached to OP MESSA, were said to have impounded about 4,550 bags of rice and 75 jerrycans of vegetable oil, estimated at millions of naira.
The traders also accused the officials of breaking their safes and taking money during the operation that lasted for about three hours .
It took the intervention of the Area Commander, Sango - Ota, ACP Fayoade Adegoke and a member of the Ogun State House of Assembly, Akinpelu Aina, before the expressway was opened at 2:15 pm.
But the customs stated that 1,870 bags of rice and 43 jerrycans of vegetable oil smuggled into the country were seized, adding that its officials did not break any shop.
It was learnt that the operatives engaged carriers to load the products into about 13 trailers out of the 15 they brought.
After the invasion, traders blocked the expressway at about 7am hindering vehicular movements in the Sango area.
One of the traders, Kudirat Fasinu, who spoke in Yoruba, showed Punch correspondent a receipt of vegetable oil worth N1.5m she bought on Saturday, saying that the item and 300 bags of rice were taken away.
''I just finished prayer around 1 am when I got a call that customs men were breaking shops and removing goods . They broke my shop and took away 75 jerrycans of 25 litres vegetable oil and 300 bags of rice. I got here around 1:30 am.'' Fasinu said.
Another trader, who gave her name only as Mrs. Egbasite, said 50 bags of rice in front of her shop were confiscated, adding that she bought the goods on credit.
Another rice seller in the market popularly known as Iya Okiki, said she just bought 125 jerrycans of vegetable oil worth N1,510,000, adding that all were taken away.
The Iyaloja of the market , Mrs. Deborah Bankole, said, ''I was informed about the incident around 1:15 am, that customs men were breaking our shops. By the time I got here, they had started packing rice and vegetable oil. They came with men of the OP MESSA.
''They also broke safes of some traders and went away with their money. We bought these goods in Sango. Most of us are widows; government should come to our aid . We bought these goods on credit.''
The Babaloja, Alhaji Shakirudeen Olasege, described the operation as contraband, adding that if goods were illegal, the shops were supposed to be sealed and their owners invited for questioning.
He said, ''We are going to Abeokuta tomorrow ( Thursday ) to meet with Governor Ibikunle Amosun and the state House of Assembly. Goods and cash worth about N700 m were seized during the raid by customs. I learnt that the men entered the market around 12 am. They came with 15 trailers and went with 13 trailer- load of rice. Each trailer contained 350 bags. Some of the officers wore masks.
''This is burglary, two customs officials, identified as Jude and Alawo Ekun, led the illegal operation.''
One of the drivers that transported bags of rice to the market, Semiu White, said he was disturbed that the officials could embark on such an operation after allegedly collecting money at the borders.
He said, ''If we load a car with bags of rice from Idiroko to Sango, we pay N1 , 000 at every customs checkpoint . There are more than 18 checkpoints between Idiroko and Ajilete. At times, some officials would insist on collecting extra before passing the vehicle .''
The Ado Odo/Ota LGA Chairman , Oladele Adeniji, told one of our correspondents that he had contacted the state controller of NCS and the state governor. He said, ''I have appealed to the rice sellers to remain calm. The matter will be resolved.''
The spokesperson for the customs FOU, Ikeja, Jerry Attah, said some smugglers had been trailed to the market. He explained that the officials swung into action the moment the items were offloaded and debunked the claims that the shops were broken.
He said, ''Our men, with the assistance of other security agencies, went to the scene around 4 am with seven trucks and packed some bags of rice in front of a warehouse and they were brought to the office around 6am. After physical examination, it was discovered that the trucks contained 1,870 bags of rice of 50 kg each and of different brands. Forty three jerrycans of vegetable oil were also seized . The value of the rice is N12 ,425,022.
''They were supposed to go back to the premises to pack the remaining quantity . But considering the volatility of the area, going back there would cause an attack and may lead to a shootout. No single shop was broken .
''The essence of this action is not to deter people from doing their businesses. But we are against economic saboteurs who have devised a means of sabotaging the economy by indulging in smuggling. People take advantage of our porous borders to perpetrate nefarious activities like this .''