By Olakunle Olafioye and Ayo Alonge
The time was 6.17 am. Early as it was, the heavy mist that enveloped the morning, and significantly reduced visibility, posed no difficulty to men and women who took cover under the dark condition to engage in their business.
Armed with different gadgets, which provided illumination, their haggling lasted a few minutes after which porters were beckoned to convey the goods into the awaiting vehicles for onward transportation to other parts of the country. The atmosphere under which the transactions took place was laced with trappings of illegality as every activity was conducted with utmost dispatch, perhaps as the article of the transactions – bags of rice were suspected to have come into the country through illegal routes. Welcome to Sango Market, one of Nigeria’s most notorious markets for smuggled rice. Sango Market is believed to be one of the destinations of rice smuggled into Nigeria from Republic of Benin. Nigeria shares borders with Benin Republic at Seme (Lagos), Idiroko (Ogun State), Shaki (Oyo State) and Chikanda (Kwara State). Like Sango Market, Kuto in Abeokuta is another commercial hub for rice smuggled into the country from Idiroko routes, while Iyana-Ipaja, Mile 2, Iddo, Badagry and Daleko Market are other major destinations for contraband rice through Seme border.
Since March 25, when the Nigeria Customs Service announced the ban on importation of rice through land borders, smuggling of the staple food through these routes has assumed a worrisome dimension with men of the Customs having torrid times checkmating the activities of smugglers whose ingenuity in bringing in the contraband continues to befuddle the service.
Investigations by Sunday Sun revealed that a large percentage of rice sold in Nigerian markets is brought illegally into the country. Sources said while the leadership of Nigeria Customs Service has demonstrated enough commitment in the struggle against illegal importation of the commodity, economic saboteurs are unyielding in their bid to ensure such effort come to naught as they reportedly connive with the bad eggs within the service to perpetrate their nefarious activities.
Smuggled rice finds its way into the Nigerian market in both conventional and unconventional ways. Only recently, Customs officers, stationed at the Badagry-Seme border apprehended a suspected smuggler, Moses Degbogbahun, while trying to smuggle bags of rice into Nigeria. Degbogbahun reportedly conveyed the smuggled rice bags in an ambulance and packaged the consignment like a corpse.
The food item, it was further learnt, also finds its way into the country through rivers and creeks in most unhygienic ways as it is often conveyed in open wooden canoes and splashed with water from the creeks.
With smugglers now under the heat from the Customs Service, more uniformed personnel now have field days bringing the product into the country. The development, according to an agricultural economist, Mr. Idowu Adeleye, poses a huge threat to the proposed plan by the government to make Nigeria self-sufficient in rice production in 2017. Adeleye, who described the proposal as a welcome development, however, cautioned that the government needed to strengthen its interdiction efforts, stop illegal inflow of rice into the country, to enable it to secure the confidence of local rice farmers.
“I am aware that the government is doing a lot to support this initiative by giving farmers the needed support through the Anchor Borrowers Scheme managed by the Central Bank of Nigeria. But in spite of this, our porous borders must be taken care of to discourage smuggling and to build confidence in Nigeria’s farmers and investors. The best way to safeguard and protect the nation’s budding rice industry is to prevent its importation into the country either legitimately, or illegitimately,” he said.
Although, like Adeleye, many stakeholders are of the opinion that the government has shown enough commitment to ensure Nigeria is self-sufficient in rice production by 2017, not a few stakeholders have expressed reservation about government’s ability to protect local rice farmers considering the influx of smuggled rice into the country.
When contacted for comment on the situation, President, Rice Millers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Tunji Owoeye, declined comment on the development, citing constraints by the board of the association to make public comment.
However, some rice millers who spoke on the condition of anonymity called on the government to find a lasting solution to the problem of smuggling of rice, which they identified as a major threat to local rice production.
“There is no doubt as to whether Nigeria has the capacity to make the country self-sufficient in rice production now. If you go to Anambra, Kebbi and some other states, you will understand what I mean. But the problem is that local producers need to be adequately protected. Our borders are too porous and smuggled rice still finds its way into the country with ease. The government must rise to this challenge to enable us to succeed. The government has really invested in this project, but it is important they realise that the impact of government’s investment can only be felt if local rice producers are adequately protected.”
The spokesperson of the Nigeria Customs Service, Mr. Wale Adeniyi, in a telephone interview, however, disagreed with the view that markets in the country are flooded with smuggled rice. “I will suggest you visit the warehouses at Idi-Iroko and if you have the opportunity you can also visit warehouses in states like Katsina, Kaduna, Lagos. Go and see if the warehouses are filled with smuggled rice. When you see the warehouses, I may not need to say anything again. It is not enough to visit the markets alone. How do you determine if the rice in the market is smuggled? The warehouses are the places I know smuggled rice is,” he said.