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.
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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