Nigeria: The Big Rice Smuggling Debate
By Emmanuel Onwubiko
Prior to Nigeria's flag Independence, Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy even as the country ranked among the most respected agricultural products' exporters globally at that golden era of our agricultural prowess.
But as soon as crude oil was discovered in commercial quantities and the prospects of bumper yield of easy money became apparent, the then military regime of General Yakubu Gowon in the early 1970's and all other succeeding military dictators ad even the first democratically elected executive President of Nigeria in 1979-1983, all but abandoned the agricultural sector.
The immediate consequence of the abandonment by government of the agricultural sector was that Nigerians in their numbers imbibed the unquenchable and unproductive appetite for foreign products including foreign rice and other essential commodities that could easily be produced in Nigeria should the enabling environment be created and sustained at the highest level of government.
All hopes are however not lost since it is becoming evidently clear that the current administration has reportedly placed premium on reviving the moribund agricultural sector. The realization of the enormous employment potentials that may result logically from a well coordinated agricultural sector, may have informed the current policy posture of the President Goodluck Jonathan's government.
This positive resolve to reposition the agricultural sector to become much more productive and assume its rightful position as one of the largest employer of labour, was made manifest in the choice of a thorough bred professional Agricultural expert in the person of Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina as the cabinet level senior minister of Agriculture since the year 2011 that the current government got the mandate of the Nigerian people.
Speaking specifically on measures to boost local production of rice, the Agricultural ministry officials have said a lot regarding the practical measures they have put in place to achieve immediate, comprehensive and far-reaching result.
In April 2013, the ministry of Agriculture published a position paper which revealed the damaging fact that Nigeria spends an average of N365 Billion annually on the importation of 2million metric tones of milled rice.
The Nigerian government also informed Nigerians that Nigeria as at April 2013 was ranked as the World's largest importer of rice, a development that the current administration said has adversely affected the local production of this popular staple/product.
The Nigerian government therefore, in a bid to significantly cut down on the nation's import dependency, decided to raise tariff on imported brown rice and finished rice.
The Agric ministry also announced that because of a number of pro-farmers' measures put in place by the current administration, Nigerian private investors recently set up 13 new rice mills with total capacity of 240,000 metric tones.
The Director of policy, research and statistics in the ministry of Agriculture Dr. Umar Husseini was quoted in the media recently as saying that in the year 2013, the Federal Government produced 690,000 metric tones of rice in the main season, and predictably would have done 1.2 million metric tones by the end of the last dry season.
He further disclosed that already, the Nigerian government had approached the China's Exim Bank for $1.2 Billion loan facility for the setting up of 100 large scale rice processing plants with a total capacity of 2.1 million metric tones which in his estimation is enough to substitute imports.
Will these huge funds be appropriately deployed for the purpose for which they are now being sought? I am not too sure because in the past, government officials have stolen such loan facilities.
All the same, this agricultural ministry's top official poured encomiums on the current government by saying thus; “for the first time in our history, Nigeria will have the full industrial capacity to mill internationally competitive quality rice”.
The above statement is factual because the quality of rice coming out of Abakaliki, in Ebonyi State and a few other places including Arondizuogu in Imo State shows that with better and much more improved enabling environment, the sky is our limit.
But as has become usual with every positive development about to manifest in Nigeria, there are always reactionary and negative forces that will do all within their reach to frustrate the actualization of anything noble and rewarding for millions of Nigerians.
Sadly, the public funded Nigerian Customs Service has just been identified as the black sheep that is working actively to undermine the industrial growth of rice production in Nigeria. The men and officers of the Nigerian Customs are officially listed as collaborators with rice smugglers to deny Nigeria of huge revenue.
The Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, recently blamed the Nigeria Customs Service for the billions of naira the country was losing as a result of the Federal Government's 100 per cent tariff regime on the importation of rice.
A motion before the House of Representatives had indicated that Nigeria had been recording revenue losses since 2012 as rice importers reportedly subverted the government's policy by smuggling the produce into the country through the land borders.
The local media observed that the tariff hike was to discourage importation and encourage local production of rice by indigenous farmers.
However, the motion observed that importers were subverting the policy by engaging in massive smuggling.
The House, the media recalled, had resolved that its Committee on Customs and Excise should investigate the issue with a possibility of proposing a review of the policy.
But at a public hearing by the committee in Abuja, the minister argued that if the Customs [NCS] did its job, smugglers would not be having a free reign.
He said, “The NCS must do its job of policing the borders, while my job is to encourage local farming of rice. The rice that is being smuggled is not carried on the head or brought in by ghosts. The rice comes in trailers and in large quantities”.
“Our target is that we should have a enough rice to feed our people and ultimately become a net exporter of rice.”
Adesina advised against placing emphasis on revenue loss by the customs and losing sight of the “real intentions of the policy, which is to promote growth, create job opportunities and reduce poverty.”
Giving a breakdown of the impact of the policy, he recalled that in 2012, the country was producing only 1.4 million metric tonnes of paddy rice.
But, with the policy in place, he said paddy rice production rose to 2.9 million metric tonnes in 2013.
Any discerning Nigerian who has visited any of our international borders, be it land border or maritime, would have seen for himself/herself, the massive smuggling in broad day light of a range of products including rice and even small weapons and other sophisticated ammunitions which are currently in use by armed insurgents in their ongoing campaign of insurrection and instability.
But rather than face the facts and weed out all bad eggs from among them, the hierarchy of the Nigerian Customs Service has put up some flimsy excuses to exculpate themselves from the rampaging menace of smugglers of all types and shades.
The question is, who is constitutionally empowered to police our borders? The simple answer is – Nigerian Customs Service.
But in present day Nigeria whereby discipline has collapsed in most government agencies, the Nigerian Customs Service has engaged the minister of Agriculture in a media war.
In a widely circulated commercial placed in most leading newspapers the customs stated: “Despite the challenge of our porous borders, the reinvigorated anti-smuggling operations in the last one year (March 2013-February 2014) resulted in the seizure of 220,177 (two hundred and twenty thousand , one hundred and seventy seven) bags of rice across the country. It is instructive to note that this huge seizure of rice is an aggregation of all smuggled rice. Some of these are ferried in ones and twos on motorcycles, donkeys, some concealed among bags of millets and other forms. This is in view of the fact that the extant law on rice importation prohibits its entry through the land borders. To therefore suggest that rice is being smuggled in trucks and trailers across the border in broad daylight is misleading”.
This is pure sophistry lacking in substance on the part of the hierarchy of the Nigerian Customs who ought to go back to the drawing board to weed out the many bad eggs in their ranks who are indeed working with smugglers to undermine our domestic economy.
* Emmanuel Onwubiko; Head; HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA; [email protected]