State-sponsored rice smuggling

Rice smugglers

Three Cameroonians were last week arrested with 16 Nigerian accomplices, trying to smuggle in 834 bags of parboiled rice worth N13 million in Calabar, Cross Rivers State. The Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Victory had made the arrest and its Acting Commander, Navy Captain Ajomabi Oride, acknowledged an upsurge in smuggling activities in Nigerian waters due to the approaching yuletide. What was left unsaid however, was a corresponding influx of foreigners in smuggling activities.

Regional interest in smuggling rice into Nigeria did not begin today. History has shown that the import policies its immediate West African neighbours are often determined and influenced by Nigeria’s policies. In 2014, in a bid to discourage rice importation and grow the local market, Nigeria increased customs duty and levy payable on imported rice to 110%. Soon after, Benin Republic crashed its tariff on rice from 35% to 7% while Cameroon dropped theirs from 10% to zero duty policy. Meanwhile it is a well-known fact that Nigeria is the only West African country that consumes parboiled rice.

Since Nigeria began its war on imported rice, the quantity of the commodity passing through other West African has grown in leaps and bounds. For instance, the Port of Cotonou handled 650,000 metric tonnes of rice in 2012 but by 2013, the amount had tripled to 2.2 million metric tonnes. A cargo consolidator at Cotonou Port, Didier Kouandete had in a report, said the excess of 1.6 million metric tonnes of rice must have found its way into Nigeria, as it was impossible for Benin Republic to have consumed that amount in one year. Probably frustrated by this trend, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, a few months ago announced plans to close the country’s borders with Benin Republic. Unfortunately, the threat was not followed through by the Nigerian government. Still rice smuggling thrives with more and more of the banned product finding its way into the country through all conceivable channels.

In the last few years, the Nigerian Navy has captured increasing number of foreigners, majorly Cameroonians who now smuggle goods into Nigeria. Nine Cameroonians have been arrested in December alone.

An April 2016 report showed that eight Cameroonians were arrested with their Nigerian counterparts for rice smuggling. The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), under whose purview it is to tackle the menace of smuggling, already overwhelmed by the menace at the land borders, appears incapable of tackling the problem on the waters.

Commendably, there has been numerous engagement with the government of these West African countries as regards the illicit trade being perpetrated by the citizens. However, this problem is Nigeria’s alone to solve and no amount of inter-regional collaboration will help. With a coastline measuring 853km, only a huge investment in manpower and the relevant anti-smuggling tools can stem the tide of economic crime being perpetrated by these foreign elements.

Officials of the Nigeria Customs Service must be properly trained on modern practices as regards combating smuggling on Nigeria’s waterways and through illegal land routes. Until such a time when this happens, Nigeria will continue to lose billions of Naira in to West African smugglers, who appear to enjoy the support of their governments.