Notwithstanding Federal Government’s efforts to promote the production of rice in Nigeria, the continuous smuggling of the commodity to the extent of dominating the local market, is making nonsense of an existing ban with attendant capital flight.
Rice is the most preferred staple food for Nigerians, and available in different sizes and varieties in major markets across the country. But the more worrisome is that about 70 per cent of the products in the local market are foreign parboiled rice, thereby overwhelming the locally produced ones.
Being the most profitable commodity for businessmen and smugglers in the market, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), adjudged rice as the most smuggled item through land borders.
On March 21, 2016, the government had announced the re-introduction of ban on importation of rice through land borders across the country, following an upsurge in rice smuggling, amid dwindling revenue from rice imports through the borders, which fell short of the volume of rice arriving from neighbouring ports.
The Guardian investigations showed that most consumers also prefer the foreign products, claiming they are cheaper and more available than the locally-produced rice.
On a visit to the Seme border in Republic of Benin, where most of these rice products find their way into Nigeria, it was discovered that the popular market in Seme was dominated by Nigerian traders and buyers, who smuggle them in through unapproved routes.
It was the same scenario at the Idiroko border, and Ilaro, both in Ogun State. In fact, Nigerian currency (Naira) was freely traded and used as a medium of exchange in the Seme market.
Further investigation revealed that the rice products are conveyed through various means, depending on the capacity of the smugger. The petty ones use motorcycles popularly known as Okada, which carry up to four to six bags at once. They move the product across the border under a ‘settlement’ fee of N100 per bag daily. Also, these Okada smugglers sometimes move in convoy with an escort who interfaces with security agencies.
The bigger smugglers use trucks, but some of the commodity are confiscated by the Customs at checkpoints. Despite the numerous seizures, the smugglers appear unperturbed, and up their game, against all odds and continue to bring in the products.
Ahead of the ban on rice, Government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), introduced the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP), on November 17, 2015, targeted at boosting food security and production of agricultural commodities including rice, maize, wheat and a host of others with comparative advantage across all states of the federation.
It also slammed 70 per cent duty on rice importation from the seaports, to stem the high rate of dependence on foreign products while conserve the nation’s foreign reserves and encouraging local production.
Despite the government’s high tariff, the supply gap is still being plugged by imports. Even worse, importers bypass the charges by smuggling rice through porous land borders, not minding the inherent risks.
However, the quality of the smuggled rice cannot be guaranteed, thereby posing health challenges to unsuspecting consumers.
In 2016, an alarm was raised on the shipping of fake rice also known as ‘plastic rice’ into Nigeria from China, until the Customs the arrested situation. A year later, Government also raised an alarm of some brands of poisonous foreign rice in circulation.
Having critically examined the items, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, described rice imported into Nigeria as poisonous, and advised Nigerians to stop consuming it.
He said: “A chemical must have been added to sustain its freshness and that chemical is harmful. Also, it has been re-bagged with a new date given as the production and expiry date, and that is what we consume here which causes diseases.
“So, I appeal to Nigerians to please patronise our own rice; it is available, more nutritious, and if you do that you will assist Customs by making sure these people are put out of business,” Ali had said at a news conference in Abuja.
Declaring that Government had not granted any licence for rice importation, and that any rice not produced in Nigeria, is smuggled, he said Illegal rice importation remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Customs Service.
Former Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, had also noted that: “For imported rice, we don’t know how long it had been in their (exporters) silos. Recently, one country decided to bring in a shipload of rice into Nigeria so that we can use it to support the IDPs (Internationally Displaced Persons) in the North-East, but when we subjected the rice to a test, we discovered that the rice was actually poisonous.
“This means that most imported rice have been in silos for 10 to 15 years and have no nutritional value. So what we have told them is that anybody who wants to support the IDPs or any other person in Nigeria should please use our local rice.
“The argument is that local rice is more expensive, but we say even if it means buying half bag, do it. It is better for us to eat a smaller quantity of nutritious rice than for us to take poisonous shiploads of rice,” he said.
Nonetheless, foreign rice has continued to litter and dominate Nigerian markets. From Sango market in Ota, Ogun State, to Daleko market in Mushin; Mile 2 in Lagos; Utako Market, Abuja; Terminus Market Jos; Mile 3 Market Port-Harcourt; Main Market, Onitsha; Singer Market in Kano; Ogbete Market in Enugu, and Jimeta Main Market in Yola, and a host of others the story is the same.
The Guardian investigation showed that at Sango market, smugglers arrive as early as 4am to offload the products to dealers, who usually paid as low as between N12,500 and N13,000 per 50kg bag, and resell for between N14,000 and N15,000 per bag.
In a chart with The Guardian, a smuggler at Sango market said: “rice trading” is one of the best businesses one can engage in, though risky, but has good returns.
The young man, who identified himself as Taiwo Abe, said: “I don’t know why government will ask us not to import rice. We are into business, after all, we don’t kill and we are not stealing. We make meaningful income from this business and that is what I use to sustain my family. I have wife and children that I also need to feed and I cannot do rituals, I can’t do Internet fraud (yahoo yahoo). But, the business of smuggling pays. I am a carpenter, but no patronage, no sales, so I need to look for alternative means of survival, and rice smuggling has helped me a lot,”
On the risk involved, he said: “There is no business that is not risky. I was nurtured on the street, and I was trained to hustle. I use unapproved routes where no Customs officer will disturb you. Besides, we have some contacts that guide our movement, so, to me it’s not a big deal.”
A saleswoman, who simply identified herself as Risikat, said it is cheaper to patronise smugglers than the local rice millers, adding that even the customers prefer foreign rice.
“The only Nigerian rice that customers demand for is Ofada rice, and I don’t sell it. It is cheaper to buy from smugglers and I make more profit,”
She decried a situation whereby the Customs raid their shops and seized their stocks last year, and called on the Federal Government to also create a conducive environment for businesses to thrive, adding that the bad economy is forcing people to look for alternative means of survival.
For the Nigerian Customs, it is an unending struggle; the officers are still overwhelmed by rice smugglers, as they face reprisal attacks and brutal retaliation on daily basis. For example, a Customs Assistant 1, Hamisu Sani, was killed in one of such encounters at Asero area of Abeokuta, Ogun State, while Tunde Wasiu Abdul’Azez was killed on Palace Road, Gumel Local Government Area of Jigawa State.
However, the battle continues and the seizures are increasing, as the Customs warehouses are filled to the brim. The Service said it seized 497,279 bags of imported rice between 2015 and August, 2017, with a Duty Paid Value (DPV) of about N3.8 billion. The Customs’ effort notwithstanding, the figure only represents a fraction of the value of rice smuggled into the country within the review period.
In 2018, the Customs seized about 238,094 (50kg) bags of rice across the country from January to November, which its Public Relations Officer, Joseph Attah, said was worth N4.05 billion.
In the Ogun State Area Command, about 44,615 bags of foreign rice were seized between the period, while the Area II Command, Onne, Rivers State confiscated 118 containers loaded with foreign rice. Seme Command seized 37,568 bags of 50kg foreign rice, which is equivalent to over 63 trailers, with DPV of N876 million in 2018.
In the first quarter 2019, the FOU Zone A intercepted 16,117 bags of 50kg parboiled rice; The Nigerian Navy, Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Akwa Ibom, also seized 2,044 bags of rice in April. The Commanding Officer at, Ibaka, Captain Toritseju Vincent, said: “These anti-smuggling activities are inimical to the growth of our own rice industry. So we will continue to do our duty to make sure we nip it in bud, and bring it to a complete halt.”
He said the commodity was brought in with a boat, while the suspects abandoned the boat, the products, and their pumping machine and fled.
Controller, Seme Command of Customs, Mohammed Uba Garba, who also condemned the spate of rice smuggling into Nigeria, said: “Government allowed the importation of fertiliser duty free with the aim to boost agricultural production. You are also aware that government has engaged some individuals with a view to stimulating local production of rice. This comes with benefits such as employment generation, preservation of foreign exchange, and food security among others.
“No nation can develop under hunger. People can se0ek advice on proposed ideas when they are properly fed. It is along this line that we are so much committed against the smuggling of foreign rice. Part of the danger of foreign rice is that it would deplete our foreign exchange. Besides, nobody knows the duration of when the rice was produced, but people will buy and consume it. It is hazardous to health,” he stated.
Controller Federal Operation Unit (FOU) Zone A, Aliyu Mohammed, said: “Nobody will grow our economy for us, we must work together to make Nigeria great. If you go to Cotonou now, over N1 trillion bags of rice are waiting there and they must enter Nigeria. How many officers are in Customs? With all our efforts, some of them will find their way. We can’t eradicate it completely because of the nation’s porous borders. Besides, we don’t have friends; people are always working against us. If you go out now and see them beating a Customs officer, you will join them to beat him. It is unfortunate. The smugglers are seeing it as their birth right to smuggle. They claimed they couldn’t go to school and start looking for job after graduation, so they are looking for quick means of making money.”
He equally alleged that rice smuggling is also being perpetrated by the rich, who see it as a booming business, saying: “A poor man cannot use the small money he has to buy rice, but a rich man will buy it and use the poor man to smuggle it. They are using innocent people to enrich themselves. We should all work to support government policies. Go to Benin Republic, visit the roundabout area, you will discover that prices of houses have soar, because they have turned most of their residential buildings to warehouses where they keep rice and earn higher income. So, they get more money for keeping rice than rent it as residential.”
He also warned against the poor quality of the imported rice compared to the local rice and its health benefits, saying: “Go and get the foreign rice and cook it. If you are a Hausa man, I will tell you to make Tuwo shinkafa. Then, get Kebbi or Abakaliki rice and make the same Tuwo shinkafa. Cover it throughout the day and open it in the morning. You will discover that the foreign rice will scatter because it is chemical rice, but our local rice will be intact and the aroma will be enticing. Then, you will never eat foreign rice again.
“Those who are saying that the local rice is not enough are the real smugglers because they don’t want you to know the secret. Go to Bida, Abakaliki, Adija, you will see the large expanse of land used in harvesting rice. We need to help our leaders. We need to help this country,” he said.
Despite the Nigerian government’s policy on domestication of the rice industry, and the war against its illegal importation, seaports of West African countries are still receiving large quantities of the commodity, apparently for onward shipment to Nigeria through the land borders. Consequently, the commodity still tops the smuggling chart of seized items by the Nigeria Customs, while poultry products and vehicles occupy the second and third highest smuggled items.
Economic Confidential, in a three-week survey on the rice market across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria, observed that foreign rice such as Mama Gold, Royal Stallion, Rice Master, Caprice, Falcon Rice and Basmati are sold alongside Nigerian brands like: Umza and Fursa Crown from Kano. Others are Mama Happy from Niger, Labana Rice from Kebbi, Olam Rice from Nasarawa, Abakaliki Rice from Ebonyi, Ofada Rice from Ogun State, Swomen Dama from Plateau, Lake Rice of Lagos/Kebbi States among others.
National Deputy President, Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), Segun Atho, told The Guardian that smuggling is a major threat to rice production, but all hands are on deck to ensure that the nation feeds itself through sustainable local production.
“Rice smuggling is another virus in the content of Nigeria, because if you look at the rate at which people smuggle rice, it is alarming. There are some cartels behind it that are not ready to sheath their swords. Rice is being produced by almost every nation, and it has become a staple food, which is important to every nation that wants to survive.
“When we complain about smugglers, what about the Customs that are support instead of prevent them? They are there when the women carry small bags containing rice into the country. They are there when some people use bad vehicles to convey smuggled goods; what are they looking at? Although, some the Customs officers are good, while they still have some bad elements among them. They will collect money from the smugglers and allow them to go.
“Also, the border communities see smuggling as their national cake, and this is unfortunate. It is a serious situation. We have to fight together, if Nigeria wants to attain self-sufficiency and sustainability in rice production.
“Farmers are doing their best, and I can see that smuggling is reducing. I am talking from the farm, and all over the country, farmers are producing, and we are trying to mop up the production for processing and for marketing, and all hands are on deck.
Furthermore, he said the CBN’s Anchor Borrowers Programme has helped farmers a lot.
Denying the claims that foreign rice is more readily available in the market than local rice, Atho said: “That is not true. What we have is that some rice sellers re-bag local products into foreign sacks and sell as imported rice. This is because of the consumption pattern of Nigerians, and we really need to change that. We need to patronise locally made goods. You have been eating Nigerian rice but you don’t know. Go to the integrated rice mills in Kano, Kebbi, Wakot, Benue, Abakaliki. Coscharis, Dangote, and Sam Egwu are all bagging rice now.”
Similarly, Rice Processors Association of Nigeria (RIPAN), had earlier raised an alarm that over one million metric tonnes of rice had been smuggled into Nigeria in the last three months.
The Chairman of RIPAN, Mohammed Abubakar Maifata, who made this revelation in Abuja, said: “Investors in Nigeria have made enormous financial commitment in the rice sub-sector. Unfortunately, the only threat to the industry’s total development, is smuggling.
“Over one million metric tonnes of rice, which is equivalent to about 20,000,000 bags of 50kg rice, have been smuggled into Nigeria in the last three months.
“Nigeria currently loses huge revenues, foreign exchange, and jobs to this menace, as Nigeria rice processing companies are shutting down because of their inability to gain market access.
“More painfully, millions of smallholder farmers are stuck with their paddy because the millers can no longer afford to buy from them.”
He said investigations conducted by the Association in the last few months indicated that, “all our international borders have been converted to smugglers route, and our markets are filled with smuggled foreign rice.”
But he cautioned that, “there is the need for urgent action to avert eventual national food emergency by combating smuggling so that we can continue to grow our local rice industry and the economy.”