Three years after the Federal Government banned importation of rice through the land borders; smuggling of the commodity has continued unabated. Personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service, who are saddled with the responsibility of tackling smuggling lack capacity to effectively police the borders, writes SHULAMMITE ‘FOYEKU.
In the wake of declining oil prices, the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 2015 placed a ban on importation of 41 items including rice from accessing forex in the official foreign exchange market, a measure it argued was to help conserve the nation’s foreign reserves and encourage local production.
Immediate past Controller, Apapa area command, of the Nigeria Customs Service, Comptroller Jubrin Musa confirmed to newsmen recently in Lagos that no single vessel of traded rice has berthed in Apapa port in the last two years.
He said, “Form ‘M’ issuance is not within the purview of the Nigeria Customs Service. It is a document that is sourced from CBN. If we see any consignment that has form ‘M’ we treat. All goods imported that are for commercial activities must have form ‘M’ whether valid for foreign exchange or not valid. CBN does that and we only treat when we see but throughout last year to date, no importation of rice has passed through Apapa. So we have not collected any duty on rice through the port.”
With this revelation from the Customs, it shows the Federal Government had technically banned rice importation through the ports as no rice importer could afford to source for forex at the black market at a discouraging 70 percent tariff, while it remained totally banned through the land border.
To showcase its effort towards self-sufficiency, Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, said rice importation into the country has dropped by 95 percent in the last two years.
True to this assertion, statistics obtained from the Thai Rice Exporters Association website shows that rice export from Thailand to Nigeria dropped from 1.23 million metric tonnes in 2014 to 23, 192mt as at November 2017.
Nigeria’s neighbour, Republic of Benin however recorded an increase in rice imports from Thailand, from 805,765mt in 2015 to 1, 647,387mt as at November 2017.
The claim by the government notwithstanding, this statistics should be a cause for concern as only Nigeria consumes parboiled rice while Benin prefers white rice, an indication that rice imported to Benin are being smuggled to Nigeria through the land borders.
While legal imports continue to decline, majority of rice in the Nigerian markets are imported smuggled rice for which the country loses huge duties that should have accrue to it.
Last year, the Nigeria Customs Service said it seized 497,279 bags of imported rice between 2015 and August, 2017 with a Duty Paid Value of N3.8 billion. The effort by customs notwithstanding, the figure only represents a fraction of smuggled rice into the country within the review period.
Despite the ban, smuggling of rice has continued to thrive as huge quantities of the commodity flood the local market daily. The situation is made worst as the festive period approaches.
When SHIPS & PORTS DAILY visited some of the local markets in Sango, Ogun State, recently, different brands of the imported smuggled rice were very visible including Royal Stallion, Thai Caprice, Tomato and Aroso among others while the very few locally produced rice were rarely visible.
What is more, the difference in price of smuggle rice being lower than the locally produced ones has made it the preferred choice for most consumers.
One of the residents at Idiroko border town, Seyi Agbokere accused some customs officers of the Ogun command of aiding and abetting smuggling of contraband items including rice through border.
“When you get to Sango, you see rice everywhere. How do they come in? It is through Idiroko. At night, you will see more than 300 cars going to Sango, mostly Mazda, Volvo, including Vento. Each of the vehicles carries more than 80 bags and this has become a daily activity. The smugglers have a way of negotiating within themselves because most of the smugglers are residents within the local government,” he told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.
According to industry players, it is safe to say that the ban on rice importation has not been effective since its implementation in 2016 due to the nation’s porous borders which spanned across well over 1,400 routes unmanned.
Immediate past Chairman, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Agric and Agro allied sector, Wale Oyekoya, said apart from the challenge of porous borders, the government has not done enough to encourage local farmers to boost local production.
He said, “The ban has not been effective because 80 percent of rice consumed by Nigerians is foreign rice smuggled through the borders and creeks. You can confirm that yourself if you go to the local market, will you see the local rice and at what rate?
“With our porous borders, you will be surprise how they use motor cycles (Okada) in some of these northern States to bring in bags of rice bits by bits. Until the government can man our borders, we will keep having the same problem, not only in the rice smuggling but in other produce as well.
“The local content have not been really encouraged and couple with the climate change and heavy down pour we have recently, rice producing States including Kebbi that is supposed to be our pride of rice production have been affected by the rain that wipe away some of their rice plantations. All the other states that say they are producing rice, it is nothing but lies. Do we have enough milling for our local farmers? The answer is no.
“Even the local rice we have, people are complaining that we still have stone in them. This is why some the consumers will rather go for the imported ones. We need modern equipment to sieve out the stones from the rice. The anchor borrowers’ scheme, how many farmers are really getting it? Some of the money is not getting to most of farmers and that is why we are not getting the effect of some of the funds released by the government.
Oyekoya, while reacting to President Muhammadu Buhari pronouncement in January 2018 that there will be a total ban on rice import by the end of this year described the announcement has a political statement.
According to him, “The production of local rice is not up to the level the government is portraying it. This is very obvious because if the production is high, it is going to bring down the price. The price of the local ones is still high than the foreign ones, because it is just the law of demand and supply. If the supply is in excess, the price will come down but if the supply is more than demand, definitely, the price will go up.
“The cost of bringing farm produce alone to the market with the level of infrastructure decay in the country is huge thus impeding production of local rice. What has the government put in place to achieve self sufficiently? Government should stop doing the business of agriculture in the pages of newspaper when necessary measures have not being put in place.”
President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria of Nigeria (AFAN), Architect Kabiru Ibrahim, who although acknowledged government’s effort at encouraging local farmers, said smuggling of rice has continued despite Customs effort to curb the menace.
He urged the government to be more proactive in curbing the menace of smuggling by putting in place measures to effectively police the borders.
“I know we have the enabling environment to produce rice in larger quantities than we are producing and for all we know, the government is putting in place measures that will make farming activities successful.
“If there is any policy on prohibition of an item in the country and the item still comes in illegally, then the government must put certain things in place to combat the smuggling. While customs is working on that, there is need for government to evolve a task force to man the border to restrict smuggling.
“Customs should be given more funds either to get aircraft for surveillance or get more personnel. If you look at what is happening in the United States, the Trump administration is threatening to build a wall around the Mexican border because of smuggling. So I expect that we too should do something very proactive to be able to curb that menace,” he told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.
Ibrahim, also kicked against the proposed total ban on rice import by the government saying it negates the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement, which Nigeria is signatory to.
“The World Trade Organization policy is that every country in the world should be able to compete freely with every other nation. So the total ban on anything including rice is inimical to the tenets of WTO. What every country does is to promote the domestic production. So I don’t encourage the government to place total ban on rice,” he said.