The Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, yesterday denied granting duty waivers or recommending exceptions for rice importers, as had been speculated in some quarters.
Rather, he said some smart import companies tried to abuse the Federal Government’s rice production policy by importing huge quantities of the commodity in excess of their approved quota.
Some of the affected importers owe the Federal Government duties in excess of N36bn.
“Nigeria is not a banana republic; we have laws here and the laws must work.
“All duties and levies must be paid to the last kobo. Importers must pay the appropriate duties,” the minister declared.
He explained that the policy was to cut imports and encourage local production of rice by allocating quotas to importers.
However, he said the policy specified that any importer who chose to import more than its allotted quota would pay 70 per cent of duties and levies to the Federal Government.
Adesina, who appeared before an ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives in Abuja, told lawmakers that some importers did not only breach their quotas, they also failed to pay the duties for the excess imports.
The committee, which is investigating alleged “fraud” and evasion of import duties and levies, is chaired by the House Deputy Leader, Leo Ogor.
The committee had on Monday summoned Adesina to respond to allegations that he gave directives for some of the importers to evade duty payment.
But the minister, who claimed that he had been “transparent so far” with the rice policy, told the committee that the companies simply went ahead to import rice in excess of their quota even before the approval.
According to him, he later got to know that the companies reached an understanding with the Nigerian Customs Service to pay the duties and levies applicable to the excess imports.
“Some imported 100,000 metric tonnes; 300,000 above their quotas. This is now the duty of the Customs; I set the policy but I don’t collect the money. They should have paid for the excess import even before taking the rice out of the ports,” Adesina added.
He expressed surprise that he was being given a bad name even when the applicable rules were quite explanatory.
Besides, Adesina informed the committee that when the abuses came to his knowledge, he immediately directed that all the outstanding levies must be paid.
He added, “I don’t know why the hunter has become the hunted. On January 2, 2015, I directed that companies must pay the N36bn. I told the Customs in a letter to apply the duties accordingly.”
He stated that rice importation still went on side-by-side local production because government’s desire was to close the national supply gap of 1.5 million metric tonnes.
The NCS, in a presentation to the committee, complained of having a running battle with some of the companies.
However, lawmakers directed the agency to ignore “pressures from persons, whether in government or anywhere,” to do its job.
“You have to do your job; taking verbal orders or coming under pressures could put the agency in trouble.
“If you are under any form of pressure, call us, we are the representatives of the people,” Ogor said.
A prominent rice miller and a former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, also testified before the committee.
Aondoakaa praised the rice policy, saying that local farmers and millers were making appreciable gains.
But he complained that the importers were against the policy and plotted to make it fail “by all means possible.”
Aondoakaa said one example was to import the commodity in excess and “dump it on the market, reduce prices and try to make nonsense of the local efforts.”
The former minister observed that the importers were afraid that if the progress being made continued “this way in the next two years, these companies fear that they will be out of business.”
Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.