By Sulaimon Salau
Notwithstanding all efforts to promote local production of rice in the country, the protracted smuggling of the commodity appears to have grown to the extent of dominating the market, just as it suck away the foreign exchange by way of capital flight.
Rice is actually the most preferred staple food for Nigerians, This make it so popular and ever sough for by Nigerians, young or old. Major markets across the country can never be short of rice. But the more worrisome aspect is that about 70 per cent of rice in the local market are foreign parboiled rice, while the locally made rice have been overwhelmed and barely has no place in the market.
For these facts, rice continues to receive more attractions from core businessmen, manipulators and the smugglers. Indeed, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) has adjudged rice as the most smuggled items through the land borders.
The Guardian investigations showed that rice is the most profitable commodity for smugglers as there are always ready buyers for the smuggled rice. The consumers also claimed that the foreign products are cheaper and more available than the locally produced rice.
During a visit to Seme border in Republic of Benin, it was discovered that the popular market in Seme was dominated by Nigerians who were buying rice in bags and smuggled them into Nigeria through the unapproved routes. Same thing was discovered at Idiroko border and Ilaro in Ogun State. In fact, Nigerian currency (Naira) was freely traded with in the Seme market.
The products are sometimes conveyed on motorcycle popularly known as Okada, carrying four to six bags at a go. They move it across the border with alleged ‘settlement’ of about N100 daily. The Guardian learnt that the Okada smugglers sometimes move in convoy with an escort who interface with the security agencies.
Aside from the petty rice smugglers, truckloads of the commodity are always smuggled into the country, although, many are being confiscated by the Customs. Notwithstanding the numerous seizures, the smugglers appears non perturbed, as they move on top of their game, against all odds.
Smuggling of foreign parboiled rice from across the borders (mainly Benin Republic) is posing threat to the rice industry in Nigeria.
For decades the Federal Government have been formulating policies on control of rice importation. In 2015 the government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) placed an outright ban on importation of rice from land borders, while it slammed 70 per cent duty on rice importation from the seaports, a measure it argued was to help conserve the nation’s foreign reserves and encourage local production.
Despite the government’s high tariffs, that supply gap is still being plugged by imports. Even worse, some importers are avoiding the steep import tariffs and chose excessive profiteering by smuggling rice through porous land borders, not minding the inherent risks.
The most terrible aspect is that the quality of the smuggled rice could not be guaranteed, thereby posing health challenges to the unsuspected citizens.
In 2016, an alarm was raised on the shipping of fake rice also known as ‘plastic rice’ into the country from China. The Customs was immediately put on red alert and the situation was later curtailed. As if that was not enough, in 2017, The Federal Government also warned that there were 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, advising 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 said during a press conference organised by the Ministry of Finance in Abuja.
The Customs CG said the Federal Government had not issued license for importation of rice and that any rice seen on the streets that was not produced in Nigeria was smuggled.