Nigeria’s Toxic Trade Policy

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By Ayinde Alaba

Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Nigeria does not appear to be learning any lesson from the counsel of this American writer and philosopher. Otherwise, as we continue to writhe under the European Union ban on our “diseased” beans, we would not be offering an open door trade policy to similarly “ailing” food items from outside our shores. Last year the EU outlawed the export of beans from Nigeria, along with other consumable products like dried fish, melon seeds, palm oil, and meat because, according to the Europeans, they “contained a high level of unauthorised pesticide”.

Now, the European authorities’ move sought to save lives, which is the primary responsibility of any well-meaning government. Their research revealed that the beans that found their way to Europe “had between 0.03mg/kg to 4.6mg/kg of dichlorvos pesticide when the acceptable maximum residue limit is 0.01mg/kg.” This is considered dangerous to human health.

Tha ban on our beans was to be lifted in June 2016. But it has been extended by three years. The official journal of the EU said the new sanction came into force because Nigeria is “not doing enough” to address the pesticide content in our beans. So EU had to give Nigeria time to “implement the appropriate risk-management and provide required guarantees.”

This has been a blow to Nigeria’s strategy to diversify its economy and earn good revenue from non-oil exports in the light of the dwindling returns from crude, as well as to create jobs in the agro-based sector.

Another serious concern is that we haven’t been as prudent and protective of the health of the citizens of our country as EU has been. The experts and industrialists say the current shortage of fresh tomatoes in Nigeria together with our trade policy has led to a flood of imported killer tomato pastes from Asian nations. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) says these products are sub-standard and deadly. The agency asserts that its findings reveal that 91% of these products from China, especially, are carcinogenic (cancer-inducing).

Well-known industrialist and president of Erisco Foods Limited, Chief Eric Umeofia, confirmed this in a recent statement to the media. He said, “Banned colouring…dangerous for human consumption are additives in the processes for manufacturing the tomato pastes from China.” Umeofia declared: “It would be a pity for major stakeholders…to stand idly by as spectators while foreigners in collaboration with misguided and unpatriotic Nigerians continue to decimate Nigerian industries with their nefarious activities, killing our economy and killing our people…The quality of most of these food products are unwholesome as the tomato paste imports have clearly shown…It is also important to state for the records that the importers of these tomato pastes do not consume them and they cannot dare expose them for sale in Chinese and Indian markets as they will be given the death sentence.”

The Federal Government of Nigeria is believed to have allowed this killer game to go on because of its policy to balance its trade relationship with China. Under this arrangement, Nigeria favours trade with the Asian giant over the growth of our local industries. This has led to the massive dumping of fake, cheap and deadly products in Nigeria. It is this policy that the unscrupulous tomato and tyre cabal has exploited to bring in toxic products into Nigeria.

Beside the harm to our health, the unbridled influx of these goods is killing the economy and retarding the growth of our industries. The production of these foods in Nigeria would save us billions of dollars in foreign reserves. This would put no stress on our lean foreign reserves. It would also give huge job opportunities to our teeming youths who are coming out in their tens of thousands from our school system. How about the massive wealth that would accrue to Nigeria when we export our tomato paste to other African nations and to Europe and Asia?

We ought to expand our vision beyond the narrow prism of crude exports, now that the commodity has turned the corner and headed for the lane of diminishing returns.

But we can’t do so with a trade policy “tilted heavily in favour of trade, not minding if it is in Nigeria’s favour or not.” That policy has already succeeded in halting the operations of two tyre companies in Nigeria. It was the result of a government strategy that promoted trade over the development and growth of local industries.

The first serious step to take on this issue is to save lives and redeem the economy and local manufacturing sector by halting the importation of the dangerous tomatoes, the way EU stopped our beans. We must then mop up the products in the markets while launching a comprehensive enlightenment campaign to warn against patronising such goods. Of course, the greedy Nigerian businessmen engaging in bringing in these products must be sanctioned and viewed as criminals and economic saboteurs.

Years ago when China found itself mired in the Melamine milk scandal that killed its babies and hospitalised about 300,000, it faced the tragedy squarely. First, as it is typical with the Chinese on such issues, the government promptly cleaned up the system by removing all the powdered milk containing the death-carrying melamine formula from the market. Next, the government prosecuted all those suspected to have been responsible for the tragedy and – guess what – those convicted of the crime were all executed! The government, thus, sent a severe signal to crooked and roguish businessmen who only thrive when their compatriots are dying from the goods they trade in.

Let our government heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice that when other nations are playing games of death with us, we must be wary not to play the same games with ourselves.

––Alaba is a writer in Lagos.