The authorities have to ensure that the borders are not compromised
The recent threat by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh that the federal government would shut the land borders with neighbouring countries due to large scale smuggling of rice into Nigeria raises serious questions. Since Nigeria has hundreds of porous border posts while illegal movement of people and goods flow almost freely on a daily basis, how does Ogbeh intend to make good his threat?
Grown predominantly by smallholder farmers with mechanised production backed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Anchors Borrowers Programme and FADAMA Rice Production Cluster, there have been encouraging reports of improved local production of rice across the nation. Meanwhile, Nigeria has imposed a moratorium on rice importation through land borders and is considering a complete ban on all forms of importation by the end of the year. The goal is to ensure self-sufficiency in local production by 2018 and save scarce foreign exchange which is weakened through the unwholesome importation of food products and other consumer goods.
Unfortunately, smuggling activities which pose serious threats to the nationâ€™s economy have also become an impediment to those rice production projects. The current national demand for rice is between six and seven million tonnes out of which about 3.2 million tonnes are produced locally. But with ship loads of rice (at far cheaper landing cost) smuggled into Nigeria through the Seme (Republic of Benin) border and several other routes, the local producers cannot compete.
While we are not oblivious of the existence of the Immigration and Customs Services at the border posts, we have in the past advocated the need to establish a special border patrol unit that will be well equipped with modern high-tech surveillance gear. Aside the fact that these agencies have proved incompetent or perhaps compromised in the discharge of their duties, the challenge is now compounded by the seeming collaboration of some of our neighbours who flout the ECOWAS Treaty by abetting smuggling of rice and other goods not produced in their countries into Nigeria.
While Ogbeh is pointing fingers in the right direction, what he should also note is that smuggling of rice or any product for that matter will continue to thrive as long there are huge shortfalls in the supply of the staple crop in our country, more so when foreign brands are cheaper than the local ones. For instance, the lending interest rates to Nigerian farmers is as high as 18 per cent while many of the rice mills across the country operate on generators powered by diesel aside other impediments. These variable costs of production in addition to the cost of transport incurred by farmers in bringing their products to the market make the Nigerian rice (sold at between N15,000 and N17,000 per 50 kg bag) costlier in the market. In contrast, imported rice from Thailand and India are cheaper because their production is subsidised for export by their respective countries.
While the federal government must look into those issues, there is also need for a thorough probe of the present border security outfits, namely the Immigration and Customs, with a view to establishing the extent of their collusion and collaboration with smugglers at the border towns. Beyond that, the political authority, at the highest level in our country, has to impress it upon some of our neighbours, especially Republic of Benin that using their ports as smuggling routes into Nigeria will attract severe consequences. And such a threat must be backed by concrete action in case of violation.
That is the only way Nigeria can show that it means business. Not by Ogbehâ€™s sermon that Nigeria is not â€œa volunteer nation for economic suicideâ€.