Customs: FG Blanket Ban On Food Importation Forces Customs To Intensify The Anti-smuggling War As NECA , LCCI And Individuals Kick

By Stephen Ubanna

Those who had  expected President Muhammadu Buhari to take advantage of the Eid el Kabir  festival to put smile on the face of Nigerians  by lifting  the ban on foreign rice and other food items importation into the country were disappointed.

 This is because the Katsina born Nigerian President  appear to  have made things worse for people as  he has directed Godwin Emefiele, the governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN,  to stop providing  foreign exchange  for importation of foreign parboiled rice and other food items into the country. The President had justified his action to the fact that there had been a steady improvement  in Agricultural production  in the country in the last four years , an indication that the nation  may be  heading  towards the attainment of  self- sufficiency in food production like the industrialised   nations. Until he gave  the directive to the CBN governor  in Daura, his home town, last Wednesday, Emefiele had stopped giving approval for issuance of Letters of Credit, LC, for food importation into the country in the last two years.

 Many believe that the  CBN governor may have given the President the opportunity  to come out to  ban the issuance of  LC, for food importation because of his persistent message that the  Administration of  former President Goodluck Jonathan Administration  spent  much of the country’s scarce  foreign exchange reserves  on food imports and the need for the present Administration to stop it  to boost local production..  He  was said to have  reeled out figures to support his claims   that  that the then  government  spent about   $$2.41billion  on food importation   between January 2012 and May 2015.

The CBN , governor, may have gladdened the heart of the President  and members of the National Economic Council , NEC, Headed by Yemi Osibanjo, the Vice President,  last year when he  disclosed that the country has saved over  $21 billion  from the ban on food importations based on implementation of its policy banning food importation.

GWH Seme filled With Seized Foreign Rice

Giving an insider information, the CBN , helmsman had  confirmed  that  there had been noticeable  declines in the country’s monthly  food import bills  from $665.4 million  recorded in January 2015 to  $160 million  as at October 2018.   According to him, there were 97.3 percent in cumulative reduction in  the monthly rice import bills, 99.6 percent in fish, 81.  3 percent in milk, 63.7  in sugar  and 60.5 percent in wheat.  Based on the report which was said to have been  forwarded   to the resident on the drop in import bills last year, he  was said to have  promised  that  in no distant future , there would be a complete  ban on food importation into the country as the importers would no longer  be granted foreign exchange to do the business. True to his words, he  had kept to the promise.

Sani Shehu, a Human Rights activist and a former Senator of Federal Republic of Nigeria,  who described the Presidential directive  to the CBN, as a step in the right direction in order not to turn Nigeria as a dumping ground  for foreign food items  , noted that   the decision  would go a long way to boost food production  in the country. 

Shehu, was said to have suggested to the President the need to hand over the funding of   Agricultural projects  in the country  to the Bank of Agriculture which was established for the purpose  instead of the CBN  handling it  to  to protect farmers from kidnappers  who are everywhere. The President may not likely accede to the request because of his absolute confidence on the leadership of the apex Bank in administering the economy over the last four years.

In spite of the enthusiasm that had had greeted the President’s  decision to ban food importation across the country, the Nigerian Employers Consultative  Association, NECA, Lagos Chambers of Commerce  and Industry, LCCI were not carried away by it. This could be said of   Kingsley Moghalu, a Professor and former Presidential Candidate of the Young  Progressives Congress, YPC, who retired as a Deputy Governor of the apex Bank.

Timothy  Olawale, Director General,  NECA  said the Presidential directive to CBN,  to withdraw  foreign exchange  for  importation of food items  into the country  came  at a wrong time that Nigerians are experiencing hardship because of the poor  state of the  economy.

 Describing the policy as  laudable the Council,   the country  at present  could not  afford  such  a policy  as it had not yet attained  self-sufficiency  in food production. LCCI, officials, on their GWH Seme filled With  Seized Foreign Rice part , want the government  to give further clarification on the directive  by disclosing  the food items   to be restricted  from  foreign exchange allocation.

 Taking a cursory look at the workings of the Bankers Bank, the former CBN , Moghalu, a former   deputy  governor  of CBN, stressed  that the Bank does not really  ‘’require  the formal  and implicit approval  of the President  to perform its  job’’. 

Moghalu, who could not hide his feelings said the   President or any other political Authority  outside the Bank,   do not have the’’ powers to  give the Bank direct instructions on what to do’’.  He noted that ‘’there  are only three areas  in which the President could exercise  his  powers on the Bank as obtained in other parts of the world.  One of such  areas, was the approval of the Bank annual financial Statement.  Another area in which the President could exercise  his powers on the Bank , he further highlighted was   the approval of the country’s currency designs. This is in addition to any external investment that may be  undertaken  by the apex Bank which must be approved by him.

The Professor of Economics , declared   that outside these three instances,  the Bank  does not  require  the approval  of the President  in order to perform its statutory functions. This may have informed why he had  critised the Presidential  directive to the apex Bank  to stop providing  foreign exchange  for  food  importation into the country, describing it as an Executive interference .

Given the Presidential directive, there are  fears  in both official and unofficial circles that it may worsen  the smuggling of these  foreign food items through unapproved routes between Nigeria, Republic of Benin, Niger, Chad and the Central African  country of Cameroon into the country. Hameed Ali, a retired   Army Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, may have prepared the minds  of the Area Comptrollers  at the Federal Operations Units, FOUs, across the country  and the land Border  stations including the Coordinators of the Headquarters Strike Force, HSF, to brace up  for the challenges ahead  by   intensifying their anti-smuggling operations.  

There is no gain saying the fact that  since 2018, when the CBN , stopped  giving LC, to importers of  foreign parboiled rice   and other food items into the country,  smugglers had been more aggressive in their operations with the support of Border Communities  who transfer their aggression to Customs personnel on legitimate duties.

A senior Customs officer who spoke  The Value  fears believes  that the President  recent pronouncement   turning the CBN  decision to that of the would further encourage  smugglers to dare Customs  ant-smuggling teams  at the land Border Areas.    

 The seizure of  thousands of ‘’50Kg’’ bags of foreign rice and other food items that  were  made by  Seme Command under Comptroller Muhammed Uba Garba,  between June and July  22, 2019 speaks volume.  The   Command was was  said to have impounded  13,508, 50Kg bags of rice  from the smugglers both on land  and the Creeks within the Seme and Badagry axis .  A visitor to the Command recently would be surprised  that the Government  warehouse at the  Seme Border Community has been filled up again by the patrol Teams.  

Those who could not bear the heat from the  Command anti-smuggling Teams  were said to have relocated to Ogun  state, now under  two Comptrollers, following  the decision by the Ali led Customs Management to create eight additional Commands which affected the old  Ogun Command.  

Michael Agbara, the Comptroller of the old Ogun Command,  has been  given  the new Ogun Command  saddled with the responsibility of collecting Excise duties from Excise factories in the state whild the newly  created Idioroko Command  reverts to its initial role as a  basically anti-smuggling  Command .  The Customs Authorities  may have taken the decision to enhance the anti-smuggling operations in the state.  Note that there  are over 80 illegal  smuggler routers and human traffickers routes  that had been  identified as being the border  Communities between  the state state and Republic of Benin alone.

Given that the Old Ogun Command could not handle the situation alone,  the Mohammed Aliyu led FOU Zone A, Operations and Lagos Roving Team, Headed by Riks Lura, an uncompromising  Chief  Superintendent of Customs  and the Command Strike Force Team , Headed by  one Superintendent Ahmed,  Smugglers who escaped been caught by the FoU, Zone A , Teams,  in the  have stepped in to cover the lapses of the  old Ogun Command  anti-smuggling operations. This is evident going  by the thousands of 50Kg bags of rices that have been intercepted and trnsferred to the Government warehouse  at Ikeja,by various patrol  Teams , that had been set up by  the command Area Comptroller in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun , Ondo and Ekiti states. The story is the same in FOU , Zone C , under Comptroller  Kayode Olusemire controlled   Benin, Enugu and Calabar, warehouses . Smugglers who had   escaped the eagle eyes of the FOU , Zone A , Operations and Lagos Roving and other  Patrol Teams in the south west geo-political region have not been lucky to escape t the FOU, Zone C, and   HSF, Teams along the  Ore – Benin Expressway.

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