The economy and politics of rice importation in Nigeria

There was a time in history when Nigeria held the unenviable record of being the world’s largest importer of rice, accounting for about 25 per cent of all rice imports into sub-Saharan Africa. Parboiled rice imports from Thailand alone accounted for between $700 million and $800million per year. Additional tonnages come from India, China and the United States, while broken rice (rice broken in the milling process) was also imported from Senegal.

Apparently worried by the trend, the Federal Government has overtime admitted that the amount being spent to make rice available to consumers may rise to $150 billion (about N23.4 trillion) annually by 2050 based on the projection of 36 million metric tonnes.

A couple of years ago and while importation was still in vogue, the Association of Rice Importers of Nigeria suggested that as huge as the figure is, it does not take into account the high volume of rice smuggled into the country through an interminable variety of routes. Some of the notable routes through which smuggled rice flood Nigeria include entry points such as: Maradi and Zinder in the North as well as Seme and Idiroko in the South West geo-political zones of the country.

Similarly, rice-millers in the country had also at one point estimated the loss to smugglers to be in the billions of Naira range monthly. The implications are inimical to the health of the economy.

First, this free-for-all trade negates the Federal Government’s desire to increase local production, with the expected promise to create employment, generate more income and enhance the value chain that would benefit not a few entrepreneurs.

According to another group; the Patriotic Rice Association of Nigeria (PRAN), “massive and incessant smuggling of rice into the country had thrown the rice industry into turmoil with severe consequences for government revenues, the economy and future plans for rice self-sufficiency.

The association  said given the free reign enjoyed by rice smugglers, “a bleak future lies ahead of local rice growers and traders legitimately involved in rice trade.”

While tracing the origin of this sad economic development, the group said: “The Nigerian rice industry seems to have been thrown into turmoil since the import tariffs were increased exponentially effective January 2013. Matters have got complicated further with the reported inability of Nigeria Customs to control smuggling of rice across the country’s borders with Benin.

“The Nigerian rice consumers are in the process short-changed with inferior brands being smuggled and then re-bagged into quality brands and sold at higher prices.”

The irony is that the nation has the capacity to produce enough rice to meet local demand and even for export. This is well known and there have been efforts to boost local production and milling and end the suffocating dependence on food imports. The missing link has been the ability to design a workable comprehensive programme and to stick to it to the very end.

According to agriculture experts, Paddy rice is generally grown by small farmers in Nigeria where over 30 per cent of rice-growers cultivate less than one hectare, and close to 60 per cent less than five hectares. Although the paddy harvest rose from under one million tonnes in the 1970s to 4.2 million tonnes in 2010, production has not kept pace with demand, until the present administration came on board and made agriculture, especially rice cultivation as one of its capital projects

And recently, the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria said Nigeria had hit annual production of 8 million metric tonnes of rice production, with a target of 18 million metric tonnes by 2023.

Sadly, despite the ban on imported rice, they still flood Nigerian markets through connivance of unscrupulous customs and other security agents.

It is a fact that Nigerian markets are flooded by brands such as: Pearl, Falcon, Royal Stallion, Tomato Aroso, Thai Caprice and Moto, Tripple Seven, among others.

While it is true that legal importation of rice has continued to decline, majority of rice in the Nigerian markets are imported smuggled rice.

In 2018, the Nigeria Customs Service said it seized 497,279 bags of imported rice between 2015 and August, 2017 with a Duty Paid Value of N3.8 billion.

And to underscore government’s achievement, Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, said rice importation into the country has dropped by 95 percent in the last two years.

While not faulting the Minister, available statistics indicate otherwise, as the bulk of rice that are in the markets are not home-grown, but smuggled.

Curiously, Nigeria’s neighbour, Republic of Benin has been recording an increase in rice imports from Thailand, from 805,765mt in 2015 to 1, 647,387mt as at November 2017. The bulk of the rice parboiled. This is an indication that the rice imported to Benin is smuggled to Nigeria through the land borders. Benin Republic does not eat parboiled rice!

The fact is that the ban on rice importation has not been effective since its implementation in 2016 due to the nation’s porous borders which spanned across well over 1,400 routes and the connivance of security agents.

The way to go is to support the Federal Government which after decades of encouraging importation of rice, has now not only thrown its weight behind local cultivation, but has also demonstrated its determination to stick to the ban importation of the staple food.

We not only support the policy, but we also pray that it extends to more items for which Nigeria has local alternatives. And the question really is: Is there any imported item for which Nigeria does not have at least a near-alternative. There is certainly none.

Finally, it is laughable that the Comptroller General of Customs recently advised that Nigerian should stop eating imported rice, he says they are poisonous. Is it not the same rice that Customs distributes o Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)?