By FELIX OBOAGWINA
On behalf of our voiceless compatriots, we feel the need to apprise you with the unpalatable result of this subsisting shutdown of our borders. Sir, the effect is killing!
Resuming from your Sallah holiday in Daura, you made good your avowed plan to ban the importation of some food items by shutting the Nigerian borders. Following this shutdown, the CBN Governor announced that more items had been piled upon the list of 41 items already prohibited from accessing foreign exchange officially. Nigerian Customs quickly clamped shut our borders with Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroun. Apparently, you intended those policy changes to help shore up our forex, stabilise the Naira and encourage local food production.
Have they told you that these summary moves have unleashed an economic Tsunami threatening to sink the common man? Currently, commoners gasp under the wavy spectre of inflation. Thanks (or no thanks) to the border closure, food prices have shot crazily sky-high. The shelf price of parboiled rice, one yardstick for gauging domestic inflation, has skyrocketed outrageously from N15,000 per bag to N18,500 for the cheapest brands.
Need you reminding, Your Excellency, that your predecessor left the price of a bag of rice at N8,000, which under your regime spiralled to N30,000 before it miraculously dropped to N12,000? This happens in a country whose government prevaricates on inking a N30,000 minimum wage bill, a country with an unemployed population of over 60 percent and a country presently crowned the poverty capital of the world. A carton of chicken has shot from N8,000 per carton to N15,000.
What about revenue lost? I cannot immediately lay my hands on the comprehensive figure of revenue generated at the official borders, but between January and mid-March this year, Customs reported that at the Seme border alone, it generated N1.26 billion. Only two-and-a-half months! Only one border! So compute how much income the closure has dammed off.
Someone must have forgotten that several lines in the overland import chain solely depend on the trans-border relationship with our neighbours –from transporters, to clearing and forwarding agents, to maikaya on-loaders and off-loaders. Frustration and reduced employment in such informal and formal sectors threaten to drive up crime, acute poverty and other negative metrics. And since rice’s price shot through the roof, it created a domino effect that has seen the price of staples like yam and beans inevitably following in the same direction. Inevitably too, the value of money has decreased.
Undoubtedly, you had noble intentions. And this, Nigerians appreciate. You want us to eat local –Nigerians should eat what they produce. Great vision! But Permit me to borrow only the premise of this famous quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882): “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight….” In other words, will we attain self-sufficiency by the snap of a finger? Will food flood our tables by executive orders and CBN knee-jack programmes? More importantly, has this border policy (the third closure by your regime) put the commoner at the centre piece of conception and implementation? Can we afford this laissez faire liberalisation we propose for local food merchants? Does this not amount to throwing citizens into the jaw of Shylock lions?
Back in the day, faced with shortage in local supplies, General Murtala Mohammed brought Nigerians beef from Argentina. And your military regime introduced a price-control mechanism to tame mercantile greed. Shehu Shagari forced prices down by opening import licences principally for rice and primary food items. Those were the hallmarks of empathetic governance. Your new-fangled policy kills that sympathetic spirit.
Ask around, a 180-million population squares off as a gargantuan market. But can local production meet local demand today? Local farmers are blessed with this 180 million-market on a platter of gold, but they have simply failed to court patronage. Up till today, they have refused to implement competitive pricing. Or how do you explain that the prices of local and imported agricultural products are the same, and sometimes the local is more expensive?
Furthermore, is this border closure premised on self-sufficiency? Look around, no country is self-sufficient. Neither do they completely abandon their citizens’ stomachs to the vagaries of rapacious market forces. Many countries subsidise food –heavily. China, despite its rice sufficiency, still imports Thailand and Vietnamese rice, purely to tame the prices of local ones. Donald Trump may be battling Chinese business for the selfish interest of American business, but food is off limits in the raging Sino-US trade war. The US government sits as a major off-taker of farm produce, buying excess stuff off American farmers for dumping into the ocean sometimes, and sometimes as donations to drought-flogged nations. This strategy, part of a deliberate US agricultural policy that sees the country yearly plough $20 billion (N7.2 trillion) public fund as subsidy into foods, guarantees that foods sell at rock-bottom cheap in America. Do you know that every cow in the EU gets a subsidy of $2.20 per day? Did they tell you too that Japan doles out subsidies for its estimated 60,000 cow breeders to bridge the gap between market prices and recommended standard prices?
Also, look at the United Kingdom. One reason Britain abhors a No-Deal Brexit comes from the realisation that imposing restrictive Customs checks will mean that the number of trucks bringing supplies to Britain from Europe through the international routes would drop by up to 60 percent, thus unleashing disruptions in Britons’ access to certain fresh foods and essential medicines, with the spiral effect on prices.
Against such civilised examples, can a Third World nation like Nigeria afford to leave her people’s daily bread to market forces?
He that gives food gives life. Food is life. With industrial raw materials, big off-takers dictate commodity prices. But in the staple market chain, commoners battle the largely greed-propelled whims of farmers and middlemen. The Nigerian producer gloats in buy-it-or-go-and-die tyranny. This creates a disconnect, which your commodity price regulation policy bridged in the 1980s. Now, no such shield exists. Prices have risen… and will still rise, if this trajectory continues. And according to the basic law of demand and supply, low supply will naturally produce inflation. Our non-Utopian reality today shows we are under-producing on food, the reason for the mercurial rise of prices.
What should you do?
First, work out a 10-year rolling plan that will phase out imports gradually, with little shocks to the average Nigerian’s life.
Secondly, save foreign exchange by forcing local production of petroleum products. Imported fuel represents our single largest forex guzzler. Sir, if you redeemed your 2015 campaign promise to stop fuel importation, the Naira would by now have rallied.
Joggle your team. How can you keep a Minister of Agriculture who posits that the bourgeoisie orders pizza from London, and that affects the economy, and a Customs boss who describes rice from foreign silos as poisonous? Na wa o!
Why are local food staples not attractive? Price! And to be fair, producers should not take all the blame. Overheads suffocate the local supply chain. To get a basket of tomato from farm to market, several fees, a huge chunk illegal, must be coughed out. Freight trucks must pay anything from N25,000 to N100,000 annually for about 25 stickers and emblems, each owned by sundry local governments, agencies and associations. Lorries pay a sum for loading at food markets and also pay for offloading. Ascending Onitsha Bridge, for example, costs N1,500 and another N1,400 to descend. NURTW collects about 10 percent of goods’ value per trip. Running a trip between Ibadan and Abuja, for example, freighters must settle police, soldiers, commodity agents, NDLEA, up to the tune of N5,000 per trip. This excludes the cost of fuelling that can reach up to N30,000 and more.
With over 70 percent of our population accessing less than $2 per day, Nigeria has been confirmed as the poverty capital of the world. Very hopeless situation for many! And In this hopelessness, your citizens are sorting themselves out the easy way. Some embrace suicide. Some have thrown themselves into freezing deserts and boiling seas, just to escape hollow prospects at home.
Let me end with the words of the Lebanese writer, Kahlil Gibran’s classic poem in his 1933 book, The Garden of The Prophet: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting.”
Recall that Omoyele Sowore used his online news site, SaharaReporters, to trumpet you into government in 2015. But now, he hoots in anger, just like several Nigerians who initially spread palm fronds to serenade you as the expected Messiah. Make no mistake, Sir, the anti-xenophobic riots nationwide were not a spark of nationalism. They blazed from general the anger and hunger of Nigerians who seized the opportunity to stock up pro bono. If you read between the lines, the riots meant: We are hungry; bring back our daily bread!
May you heed to their cries before the words of Kahlil Gibran turn prophetic.
As always, Your Excellency, accept the assurances of my best regards.
FELIX OBOAGWINA IS A JOURNALIST AND HE WRITES FROM LAGOS