Christy Anyanwu, Olakunle Olafioye and Agatha Emeadi
For the second consecutive year Christmas celebration in Nigeria is being threatened by a combination of factors. For the first time in a few years, Nigerians celebrated the 2019 Christmas behind closed borders, with many people forced to resort to low key celebrations as witnessed in several parts of the country.
The Federal Government had in August 2019, shut down the nation’s land borders with Benin and other neigbouring African countries thereby preventing the importation of goods from these countries. The development significantly affected prices of most food items, particularly rice, frozen food and groundnut oil. Also affected are imported clothing materials and foot wears. The government had claimed that the move was part of efforts aimed at tackling smuggling and associated corruption, as well as to spur the domestic agricultural industry.
However, with the market for smuggled food items restricted, prices of local items skyrocketed beyond the reach of many, forcing them to go low key with the year’s festivity amid the hope of better and a more fun filled celebration this year. But with less than a month to this year’s celebration, signs of a more austere celebration appear to have dimmed the hope of a more exciting festivity. Besides the harsh effect of shut borders, Nigerians have myriads of other challenges to contend with as the world gets set for yet another Christmas celebration.
Nigerians craving to enjoy this year’s Christmas celebration may have to spend more than they did last years as findings by Sunday Sun show further increase in prices of food items. Added to this, are the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic currently raging across the world, as well as the fallouts of the recent violence which trailed EndSARS protests in parts of the country. Traders who deal in goods that are also sourced outside the country said high exchange rate, inflation, recession and the combined effect of Coronavirus and the recent violent outbreak in the country may have dampened the prospect of better Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Although findings by Sunday Sun revealed that smugglers of food items such as rice, frozen foods and groundnut oil have been enjoying relative freedom in smuggling these items into the country, particularly from neighbouring Benin Republic since the end of the EndSARS protests, prices of these items remain high and still beyond the reach of the downtrodden.
Following the series of attacks on security outfits and personnel including the operatives of the Nigeria Customs, the hitherto heavily manned routes, findings show, have experienced some sort of laxity, giving smugglers respite and liberty to flood the country with contrabands.
“Since EndSARS protests, suppliers of commodities like rice, turkey and chicken have been having hitch free movements bringing goods from neighbouring countries compared to what it was in the time past where they had difficulty bringing in those commodities into Nigeria because of the presence of Customs personnel, “ Mrs. Loveth Mbachu, a dealer in frozen foods, told Sunday Sun.
Dealers blamed the high costs of these items, despite the relative ease with which they are being smuggled into Nigeria on a number of reasons, including the prohibitive prices of local substitutes.
Mrs Mbachu said a carton of Turkey is sold for N17,500 while that of chicken goes for N14,000. “The roads are a bit free now after the protests. Customs are now taking it easy on suppliers unlike before when it was so tight, the people are crossing over only that they have to settle (security operatives) to bring their goods in from the borders. Even the inflow of rice is far better than what it was before the EndSARS protests” she said amid optimism that things could get better for smugglers as the Yuletide approaches.
Some rice dealers who spoke to Sunday Sun said that the inability of the government to successfully crash the price of local rice and the crave by Nigerians for foreign rice are responsible for the high cost of the item.
Mr Paul Nwosisi, a rice dealer, said that Nigerians should not expect the price of foreign rice to be cheaper than the local substitute until the government is able to do the needful by crashing the price of local rice.
“The impression the government gave us at the beginning was that local rice would flood the country and sold at cheaper price, but that is not so. We still buy Nigerian rice from the market for as high as N20, 000 depending on the quality. So, if we buy locally produced rice as high as that we can’t expect smuggled foreign rice to be cheaper considering the stress and the extra costs incurred in bringing it into the country. So government must do everything within its powers to make local rice more affordable. It is only when this is done that we can succeed in bringing down the cost of foreign rice or discourage smuggling, “ he noted.
Besides the prohibitive cost of the local substitutes, high exchange rate, as Sunday Sun found out, also contribute to the exorbitant prices of these commodities. Mrs Chinwe Eberechukwu is a dealer in fairly used shoes. According to her, high exchange rate has not only taken her goods beyond the reach of many of her numerous customers, it has equally affected the growth of her business.
Her words: “Before now when the exchange rate was favourable. With the sum of N50,000 one was very sure of returning to Nigeria with loads of clothes and shoes because N50,000 could buy a complete bale of clothes and shoes. Now that the exchange rate is no longer favourable to us, this has become a major challenge to us, coupled with the closure of the land borders, traders are really groaning because of the difficult times we find ourselves. With such amount of money now, it can only buy a few handpicked shoes without clothes unlike when we started the business initially” as she pleaded to the government to look into the high exchange rate.
But not a few Nigerians are of the view that the problems facing the citizens now transcends how to celebrate the Christmas, noting that the nation has sunk it citizens deeper below the poverty line. A school proprietress, Mrs Rachael Arowolo, noted that most Nigerians are currently pre-occupied not with how to celebrate the Christmas, but about how to survive the next moments, adding that the government must address the problem of poverty in the land in order to avert what she termed as the looming catastrophe.
“We cannot be talking about the Xmas which is like a month away while millions of Nigerians do not know where their next meals are coming from. Coronavirus has dealt us a severe blow, just like many other countries of the world, but the question is that what has the government done for the impoverished citizens as a way of ameliorating the plights of the people. Many people have lost their jobs without the hope of getting employed any time soon. It’s in the midst of all this that the government introduced all manners of anti-people policies, including the recent hike in price of petrol. Until the government addresses the issue of poverty in Nigeria, the country will continue to remain an unexciting place for all even at periods when the people ought to be in celebratory mood. Although celebrating occasions such Christmas is an integral part of our national life here in Nigeria, the significance of such occasions can only be boosted when people have little or nothing to worry about,” she stated.
In the meantime the government, last week, hinted that the nation’s land borders which were shut since last year might be reopened soon. The Minister of Finance, Budget, and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, made the disclosure while speaking to State House correspondents last week. According to Ahmed, the presidential committee set up by President Buhari on the issue has recommended the reopening of the borders.
The Minister’s disclosure has indeed raised the hope of many who opined that the decision to shut the nation’s land borders since August 2019, had impacted negatively on their livelihood as they claimed the local producers, rather than use the window provided by the closure to impress the nation, capitalized on the opportunity to oppress the nation by hiking prices of the goods unreasonably at the detriment of the suffering masses.
“The government must have seen the logic of the argument of those who criticise the decision to shut down the nation’s land borders. Our local producers failed to impress the government for more than a year during which the borders were shut. Instead, they saw it as opportunity to rip Nigerians off. Or how do you justify the unreasonable hike in prices of items such as local rice, which has since been priced beyond the reach of the people?” Mrs Arowolo queried.
But while many Nigerians anxiously anticipate government’s declaration to throw the land borders open, some local farmers have kicked against the move, claiming that the development is dangerous for the survival of local industry at a time the prices of local food items are on the rise. They argued further that the gains of border closure and the sacrifices Nigerians had made in the last one year would be eroded, should the government concede to the pressure of reopening the nation’s land borders.