Following the ban on importation of rice – a major staple in Nigeria – the officials of Nigerian Customs have intensified their anti-smuggling efforts. Since the declaration of the ban through land borders by the federal government, smuggling of rice has been on the increase. News of Customs impounding trucks of rice is commonplace now due to this reality. The reason for the increase in rice smuggling can be explainable logically. Rice is a staple food that is eaten in virtually every Nigerian home. The government has banned importation of rice through land border as a strategy to encourage local production and consumption, discourage importation, and increase government revenue when importation is done via the seaports. However, the current local capacity cannot commensurately meet the swelling local demands, thereby leaving a shortfall that must be filled by some means. Yet, importers are not really encouraged to import through the seaports because of the high duty. In order to take advantage of the shortfall in supply, importers now divert their cargoes to neighbouring countries from where they bring their goods into the country in trickles. Their business thrives on the existing huge market in the country. Essentially, banning importation of rice through land borders in the midst of high import duty, whilst there is no sufficient local supply increases the rate of smuggling.
In a bid to arrest the tide, Customs have elected to, in addition to their regular border patrol, explore an archaic strategy of raiding markets to cart away bags of rice that may have been smuggled. Traders in different rice markets especially in Ogun State have become victims of this crude act by men of the Nigerian Customs. It is even cruder that the raids are mostly done in the night when traders have retired to their various homes. It was so devastating that the traders once embarked on a peaceful protest to the office of the Governor of Ogun State, Sen. Ibikunle Amosun, to register their displeasure. In one instance the traders alleged that 4,200 bags of rice and 478 kegs of vegetable oil were taken away by Customs operatives from the Federal Operation Unit, Ikeja, Lagos. Billions of naira have been lost to this inhumane raid by officials of Customs.
No one can fault Customs for confronting rice smuggling, but resorting to market raids clearly typifies inefficiency and dearth of innovation. The responsibility of Customs is to ensure that smugglers are not successful in their quest to smuggle contrabands into the country and this must be arrested at the borders. To do otherwise is tantamount to oppression and intimidation of harmless civilians. Apart from the destruction of people’s means of livelihood, the raid is also dangerous considering that the Customs officials wield firearms that could result in another fatal accidental or deliberate discharge.
It is elating that the federal government has approved the sum of N1.12billion for the acquisition of vehicles tagged “anti-rice smuggling” dedicated to checking the persistent smuggling of rice into the country. The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun succinctly captured the shortcoming of Customs in her remarks: “We felt that it is important we don’t want customs going to seize rice in the markets. Customs should actually act to stop rice coming in at the border posts and Customs indicated that they need additional vehicles, additional resources as well as of course other more information-driven strategies to stop it.”
Bearing in mind the kind of system we run in this country, one cannot entirely bestow commendation until the vehicles are actually purchased. Nevertheless, we hope that this will truly discourage Customs officials from employing this guerrilla style of fighting rice smuggling. Beyond the purchase of vehicles, the government needs to further empower Customs to deploy latest technology in their anti-smuggling drive. The perpetrators of this act are advancing in their strategy by the day and to catch up with them requires innovative tactics and not the antiquated style of raiding markets. The crude way of doing things in this age is simply unacceptable.
Moreover, this further reinforces the need for government to reconsider the high import duty on rice. Importers are not encouraged to use the seaports owing to the import duty. Reviewing the import tariff is just the right thing to do economically judging by the report from the Comptroller-General of NCS, Col. Hammed Ali (Rtd). According to the CG, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) seized 497,279 bags of imported rice between 2015 and August, 2017 with a Duty Paid Value (DPV) of N3.8 billion. Clearly the government could have generated a lot if importers were encouraged to bring in these goods via the seaports.
More importantly the government needs to intensify effort in local rice production. Until there is sufficient supply of this staple and a review of the import duty, we may be spending more funds in checking smuggling. The funds we are channelling to acquire vehicles for anti-rice smuggling can actually be used to support local production, if only we can encourage importers to use the seaports.
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