Can we truly curb rice smuggling by closing the borders?

Customs seizes N1.4bn contraband, 10 truck load of smuggled rice

As part of the 2017 Democracy Day celebrations, the Minister for Agriculture, Audu Ogbe after reeling out the achievements of his ministry before the press gave a stern warning that the government could be forced to permanently close the nation’s land borders due to the unabated increase in rice smuggling. In his words, “We will like to advise our neighbours who believe that the ECOWAS Treaty means that Nigeria is a volunteer nation for economic suicide. We have no such plans of destroying our own economy to make any neighbour happy. “The ECOWAS Treaty number two does not suggest that any country can be an avenue of smuggling foreign goods not produced in that country for dumping in his neighbour’s territory. If they insist, I do not think that government is far away from considering permanently closing certain borders very near us and when we do, nothing will make us change our minds on the issue, ECOWAS Treaty or not.” The minister further pointed that it appears rice smugglers are determined to sabotage the nation’s economic growth by perpetuating their illicit trade through the land borders. One year after that declaration, the minister has again warned of imminent closure of our land borders due to rice smuggling.

Delivering a speech at a leadership clinic organised by the Guardians of the Nation International (GOTNI), the minister stated “Our other problem is smuggling. As we speak, a neighbour of ours is importing more rice than China is importing.” “They do not eat parboiled rice, they eat white rice, they use their ports to try and damage our economy. “I am telling you now because in a few days, you will hear the border has been shut, we are going to shut it to protect you, us and protect our economy.” The latest pronouncement by the minister is clearly sterner that the warning issued in 2017 and it appears the government has already come to a conclusion that the borders must be closed. Expectedly, the statement has been greeted with reactions from various sections, especially businessmen who do legitimate business through the land borders. Whereas some observers are fully in support of any strategy to curb smuggling, others are mindful of the implication of the border closure on continuing legitimate trade through the land borders. The National President of Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, RIFAN, Aminu Goronyo, has commended the decision for its potential to save the country of billions of naira that is spent on rice importation. On the contrary, Senator Shehu Sani representing Kaduna Central has advised against the closure. The senator on his Twitter handle noted that “It’s wrong to shut down the land borders ‘because of rice smuggling’. “Our layers of security operatives should be able to combat or prevent smuggling without suffocating legitimate businesses and stifling border communities.” However, the federal government appears resolute in its conviction and will be forging ahead with the decision.

Undoubtedly the grouse of the minister is well placed and justifiable considering government’s effort at ensuring self-sufficiency in rice production. There has been consistent investment in local rice sufficiency since 2012 with the introduction of different programmes. As at December 2017, the federal government had acquired 200 rice mills, some of which could mill as little as 10-20 tonnes daily, and others that could mill more. In the same vein, the Anchor Borrowers Programme by the Central Bank of Nigeria has been commended for its effectiveness by beneficiaries and professionals. The Head of Development Finance Department of the CBN, Mr. Chukwudum Nzelu last year listed the successes recorded with the scheme. He said: “we did an experiment with rice through what we called the Anchor Borrowers Programme, where a rice miller comes as an off taker for small holder farmers who would produce for him and then he takes from them and mills. “Factories that were operating at 30 per cent now are operating at 70 per cent production capacity after the experiment. With this increase we have created jobs. That is why between 2016 and 2017, we have a lot of local rice in the market. So many local factories that were dormant became active again.” Essentially, the Anchor Borrowers Programme has triggered 70 per cent increase in local rice production. Earlier in 2018, NIRSAL, which was appointed project implementation partner by the CBN, announced the deployment of a new structure known as the Project Monitoring Reporting and Remediation Office, PMRO, to support about 225,000 farmers across the country under the ABP. Although there have alleged cases of irregularities with the programme, its contribution to agricultural growth and development in Nigeria cannot be ignored.

The government has also smartly engaged state governments to encourage state investments in local rice production. Some states have subsequently developed programmes that are already yielding visible result. The collaboration between Lagos and Kebbi states has led to the emergence of Lake Rice, which was massively patronised during the festive season last year. Aside the joint venture between the two states, the Lagos state government also has plans to encourage home grown rice that will be spearheaded by the state government. There is a similar development in Sokoto state. The Dangote Rice Processing Mill in the State, which has an enviable production capacity of 250,000 metric tonnes per annum, is scheduled for completion this year. The Director of Agriculture at the Kano office of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Muhammad Adamu put the figure of states in rice production at 34 out of 37 including FCT. There is no gainsaying that considerable progress has been recorded in local rice production self-sufficiency.

In pointing out government giant strides in the sector, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed made reference to a report by Thailand Rice Exporters Association, which indicates that rice exports from Thailand to Nigeria dropped from 1.23 million metric tonnes in 2014 to 23,192mt as at November 2017. However, whilst rice exports to Nigeria has been on a decline, exports to the Republic of Benin has been on the increase in the same period, which logically suggests that the rice exported to Benin are likely ending up in Nigeria. In essence the country may have successfully reduced the legal importation of rice by as high as 90% but the illegitimate importation of the staple food has also been on the increase. This exasperating occurrence has informed the pronouncement of the minister who is clearly frustrated at the situation. Closing land borders to curb rice smuggling may appear daring and well-intended, at least to protect local producers.  However, the question of practicability has not been answered by the government.

Nigerian shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Whereas the minister did not expressly state the borders that will be closed, it is easy to conjecture the country that will bear the brunt of the impending closure. But how efficient will this closure be in arresting rice smuggling? In 2014, Comptroller General of Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, David Parradang addressing the National Conference Committee on Immigration revealed a mindboggling data. He stated that although the country has only 84 approved land border control posts, there are more than 1,400 illegal borders in the country. He went further to reveal that the number of illegal routes in the country is 100 times more than the number of approved routes. Yet the immigration service at the time only had 22,300 immigration officers, which is grossly inadequate to carry out the Service’s mandate. Hence, the CG recommended the recruitment of 5,000 personnel on an annual basis for the next five years to be able to reasonably patrol our borders. The current Comptroller-General, Martin Abeshi recently corroborated the figures that there are 1,400 unmanned illegal entry points into the country. The reality before us therefore is that for every legal land border that is closed, there are 100 illegal ones that are open for illegal trade. In other words closing land borders simply means closing legitimate borders to legitimate business. The unmanned illegal borders will naturally become alternative routes for smugglers who have mastered the art of identifying and using the routes. In the end the policy may not reduce smuggling; rather it will stifle trade for genuine businessmen that conduct legitimate trade through the land borders.

In effect, whilst the move by the government is indisputably audacious and truly nationalistic, its implementation and impact on illegal rice smuggling may be unrealistic until the country is able to recruit sufficient personnel to man the borders. More so, rice smuggling has been on the increase because there is a shortfall between what is produced locally and the local consumption level. Rice is a staple food in Nigeria and until we produce sufficiently to meet local demands there will be a thriving market for imported and smuggled products. Perhaps, there are better ways to deal with rice smuggling than closing the land borders.