Political Rice, Ministerial Lies, Food Insecurity

By Soni Ehi Asuelimen

Farmers on a rice field in Nigeria

Most times, we seem to be carried away by dissipating too much time on mundane issues than on substance. This is why the lies of two ministers over claim that Thailand is shutting down most of its rice milling plants because of the brazen lie that tremendous local rice production is responsible.  We were expected to applaud the Muhammadu Buhari administration for the phantom miracle. I know some have decided to ignore the propaganda lies of APC administration. But that could be a fatal error. Lies serially repeated can suffocate truth and be erroneously perceived as truth over time.

Agriculture minister Audu Ogbe said recently that rice mills in Thailand from where most of imported rice comes from were closing shop because of Buhari’s bogus rice production success.  The information minister Lai Mohammed followed quickly by telling that Thailand was begging to establish rice mills in Nigeria to help mill Nigeria’s phantom surplus rice.

However, the Thailand ambassador to Nigeria shunned diplomatic niceties to deny the claim of Audu Ogbe, explaining that he never in the wildest imagination uttered such claim in his discussion with the Agric minister. Statistics easily accessible show rice mills in Thailand are doing well and creating jobs from the failure of Nigeria to improve domestic rice production to feed teeming population and create jobs. If Ogbe’s foundation was a lie, then Mohammed’s building crashes. Sadly, the two ministers are above 70 years old, grandfathers. What lesson to children? For this international embarrassment, for which no rejoinder to the ambassador’s denial has come forth, the two ministers still their jobs under a confessed sleeper Buhari.

It is this kind of official lie that misled government since 1978 to restrict rice importation, amongst other edible commodities, to fill the serious gap in domestic production. Yet for 40 years of restricting rice import, and encouraging massive smuggling nationwide via prohibitive tariff and levies, domestic rice production has not improved beyond 40 percent of domestic demand. 

Briefcase rice producers have cashed into the official deceit. They propose to federal government to provide land for them to grow rice, but ask for import duty waivers to import rice to fill the shortfall.  Twenty years after government conceded, the briefcase farmers are yet to produce rice in Nigeria, but are making killing profits importing rice, enjoying import duty waivers and undercutting domestic rice producers who don’t enjoy government assistance.

Under the Jonathan administration, several of these rice importers shortchanged government by not paying or underpaying taxes to the tune of several hundreds of billions of Naira. Since then, nothing has been reported on government forcing the rice importers, largely foreign companies, to pay up on dodged taxes, a criminal offence, or any sanction imposed for slapping government laws and policies on import quota limitation. 

In fact, the Buhari administration is detested today because of two policy actions, namely dramatic petrol price hike from N97 to N145 per litre in one swoop and the sudden and devastating devaluation of the Naira that saw one dollar trading for up to N500, down now to N360 from N100 during Jonathan administration. The policy inspired by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), swallowed ignorantly and naïvely by Buhari, has provoked massive inflation, devaluation of living conditions, massive factory shutdowns and unemployment so much there is palpable anger in the land and the confused illiterate government is confounded on what to do.

 

Riding on the crest of popular people support that enthroned him, I had thought Buhari would reverse the failed food import restrictions by General Obasanjo in 1978 as military head of state, continued mindlessly by other administrations. We ban or restrict importation of basic food items (rice, frozen fish, meat, poultry) we cannot produce and allow the people to suffer nutritional deficiencies, ill health, short life span, low productivity. While Nigeria and Buhari administration continue with primitive agric methods of roaming cattle rearing, African nation, Botswana, here has three million cows, produced through ranching, for 300,000 human population and exports the excess processed production to the United States of America. So, what makes it impossible for the dumb Northern states and federal government to ranch cattle and process into finished frozen products and containerized to Lagos and other urban markets? About 100 cows processed can fit into one 40 feet refrigerated container. Is this not better than walking 100 lean and emaciated cows from Sokoto to Lagos, a distance of over 1000 kilometers, what can comfortably fit into one container?

What grieves me most is that the dumb and unprepared dummy politicians thrown up for political office continue to repeat old errors and expect right results. Regrettably, dumb and similarly greedy electorate vote them back into power, as we are about doing again and again to continue the vicious circle of cluelessness. Lord have mercy!

Lest we forget, the West African Rice Development Association had about 15 years ago identified 47 varieties of rice that can be cropped all year round, three or four times a year, suitable for all types of land: swamp, dry, upland and lowland. So, there is no excuse. With irrigation, all season production is feasible and possible. Why do we continue to live in stone age using and being contented with primitive subsistence farming and still expecting elusive food self-sufficiency and security?

For[SP1] [SP2]  instance, the Customs department has in the past 12 years demonstrated the futility of continuing with the regime of food import restrictions and prohibitive tariff when local production hardly covers 50 percent demand.  Republic of Benin ports and economy are booming because of Nigerian importers trying to dodge inefficient seaports administration on discharge of cargoes, oppressive import duty and levies on restricted food items all of which have made smuggling to thrive, with smugglers ready to die in face off with the Customs than die in instalments from joblessness. What is the sense in buying a bag of from India for N1000 and paying N1600 import duty and levy bringing landing cost to N2600 (six years ago) when the same bag via Republic of Benin attracts N300 duty, thereby making smuggling attractive and inevitable.

The Customs had in the past years counselled the federal government to slash oppressive taxes and levies in order to reduce the attraction for smuggling and reduce the casualty of men killed in confrontation with smugglers nationwide. Sadly, we have a government that listens only to the selfish advice of political businessmen who produce political and propaganda rice than the real stuff. How long can we continue using failed policies and expect success results?

Asuelimen wrote from Lagos. He can be reached via soniasuelimen@yahoo.com (08023459055)