Trade and economy watchers have admitted that smuggling of foreign rice into the country has been on the increase from the inception of the Mohammadu Buhari administration.
Although, he has taken several measures to curb the influx of the commodity into the country the problem is yet to abate.
In 2015, Central Bank of Nigeria issued a circular number TED/FEM/ FPC/GEN/10/010 and dated June 23, 2015 which restricted 41 items from accessing the foreign exchange for importation. Among the restricted items is rice.
Also, on March 23, 2016, Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) banned rice importation through the land borders with effect from Friday, March 25, 2016. The order which was given by the Comptroller-General of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd), was part of measures to block the identified loopholes in the nation’s finance sector and to stimulate local rice production.
As if that was not enough, on June 19, 2018, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, announced the total closure of Nigeria’s borders to rice smuggling and importation. According to the Minister, the decision to shut the borders was to consolidate on the gains by the government policies which had reduced rice importation from South East Asia by more than 95 per cent in the past two years, and had seen the number of local rice farmers grow from 5 million to 30 million.
Unfortunately the Minister did not mention the border areas to be closed, but it was clearly indicated that he might be referring to Seme Border where 75 per cent of smuggled rice enter the country. Seme Border, according to reports, has over 1000 unapproved routes through which smuggling take place.
However, in spite of government’s efforts to discourage rice importation, Nigeria’s markets are still awash with cheap and better-packaged foreign parboiled rice to the amazement of the authorities.
The question is, how does these banned items enter the markets?
A maritime lecturer in Lagos Business School, Lagos, Dr Frank Ojadi submitted that the closure of the border will not help matters because there is a high level collaboration between the officers and the smugglers. Besides, apart from the normal rice for everybody, there are specific brands for the diabetics which are imported. The Nigerian rice producers do not have the technology to produce such special commodity.
“Our people have developed liking for foreign foods of which rice is one. If we are able to produce the rice locally and it is cheaper than the ones imported, then Nigerians can cope with. But we have a situation where the foreign rice is far cheaper than the local ones. Closing the border is not going to help because rice smuggling is a big racket at the borders between the enforcement agencies and importers.
The rice that comes in are pretty cheaper. The rice you bring in from abroad are different kinds of rice – rice for the diabetics and other species. Then you ask, where are they bringing them from? Generally speaking, banning rice or closing the border because of rice is not going to work. The ones produced locally cannot compete with the ones coming from abroad. The infrastructure required is not adequate to produce the quantity of rice needed by the Nigerian consumers. So, you are bound to have rice coming in.
“You know most of the time the rice comes in bulk and there are three hubs through which rice comes in. The locally-produced rice is not enough for Nigerian consumers because the imported rice appears better and cheaper because they don’t pay a duty and they import it in bulk” he said.
In his remarks, President, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), and Managing Director, Eyis Resources, Lucky Amiwero, suggested that instead of closing the border, the Federal Government should negotiate with the ECOWAS country.
“Rice is not our staple food. Rice was introduced to us as a Christmas food. But today we have taken it as our staple food. But if Nigeria wants to exercise the ban on this food, there is a mutual administrative assistance under the ECOWAS country to go and negotiate with other countries within our borders. That does not mean that you will close the border.
Tell them and say look, for the importation of rice and crime across the border, we don’t want our country to be used.
“If the border is closed, it will have economic implication. We are not under emergency. There is need for government in power to sit down and see how we can address that issue because the issue has to do with the demand of foreign rice. If we have rice that is locally produced in large quantity, nobody will like to bring rice into the country. But the government should do a lot of things to be able to stem the tide of smuggling” he explained.
The Public Relations of Seme Border Customs where over 75 per cent rice are smuggled into the country, Seidu Nurudeen, admitted that the closure of the border will negatively affect the revenue of Nigeria but the security of the country is more important.
“I believe the government is interested in securing the economy of the country first. That is its primary consideration. The type of activity (smuggling) is seriously affecting the security of the country. The economy is not as primary as the security of the country. When you secure the border it will definitely affect the economy of the country positively. All the other activities (trades) are ongoing. When a policy directive is given by the federal government, the border enforces it, even though there will be an initial pain.
The closure will definitely affect the revenue negatively. That is why it has been going down. Last year Seme collected a revenue of over N6 billion but I cannot estimate this year’s revenue. It depends on the policy of the government,” he disclosed.