When rice is smuggled into Nigeria, it is not all brought in bits that are hidden in weird vehicle compartments or as single bags. Many of these would have to be loaded into big trucks or barges. These large consignments of rice require proper roads and hence can be intercepted easily, if some Customs officers were not complicit in those smuggling operations.
For some years now, rice importation through the land borders has been banned in Nigeria but still permitted through the seaports at a rather high 70 percent tariff that is meant to discourage importation. However, ‘foreign rice’, as it is called has continued to flood markets across the country, as local production capacity is yet to catch up with demand.
Some officers of the Nigerian Customs Service have for years been known to collect a bribe of N1000 for every bag of rice being smuggled into Nigeria, particularly across the Seme border area, where several eye witness accounts in Lagos have recalled this happening. This was confirmed two years ago (in 2017) during an undercover trip across the border by a BusinessDay reporter, who witnessed firsthand the reckless abandon with which smuggling was done, right under the watch of Customs officers paid with taxpayers’ funds to secure the same borders.
Rather than address the operational inefficiencies and monumental corruption tendencies of the Nigerian Customs Service, the Federal Government decided to shut some of the country’s borders in what was described as an effort to curb smuggling.
“The government is in denial, everybody on the streets knows that the Customs (service) is synonymous with corruption,” said Emmanuel Ijewere, vice president, Nigeria Agribusiness Group (NABG) in a phone interview with this reporter.
According to him, “We do know that the smuggling along the borders take place with a cabal, and there is allegation that it is the Customs that makes it happen. If there was genuine effort to clean up the customs, this shutting of the borders would not have been necessary.”
Analysis of the volume of rice exported to Nigeria’s neighbouring countries, gives a picture of the quantity of rice that is in turn smuggled to local markets in Nigeria. Those countries are not known to consume parboiled rice, and even if they could, their entire populations are a fraction of Nigeria, and cannot consume such rice volumes.
Pleading anonymity, a top official, in one of the biggest agricultural conglomerates in Nigeria, had in a document shared with BusinessDay, stated: Rice consumption in Nigeria is almost entirely of parboiled rice. In West Africa only Nigeria consumes parboiled rice. Other West African countries including all the neighbouring countries to Nigeria (Niger, Benin, Cameroon, Chad) are not consumers of parboiled rice. In Africa only South Africa is the other major country that consumes parboiled rice.
The shipments of parboiled rice from India and Thailand into Lome, Cotonou and Douala ports is a very fair estimate of smuggled rice into Nigeria as none of these countries have internal consumption of parboiled rice. All the imports of parboiled rice into these countries finally find their way into Nigeria, this official asserted.
Using Thailand as an example, as it was the largest rice exporter to Nigeria and her neighbouring countries, data from the Thailand Rice Exporters Association showed that rice exports to Benin republic in 2014 was 1,112,602 metric tonnes, declining sharply to 805,765 metric tonnes in 2015 when Nigeria stiffened rice importation in favour of local production.
However, a year later in 2016 Thai rice exports to Benin picked up again, recording 1,421,050 metric tonnes, and further increased in 2017 to 1,814,014 metric tonnes. Last year, Thai rice exports to Benin was 1,697,930 metric tonnes. As at July this year (2019), Thai rice exports to Benin stood at 943,162 metric tonnes, a slight increase from 932,890 metric tonnes within the same period in 2018.
The same patterns were recorded by Cameroon, another neighbouring country sharing borders with Nigeria. In 2014, Thai rice exports to Cameroon was 517,526 metric tonnes, and just as seen in Benin, equally dipped in 2015 when Nigeria stiffened rice importation, recording 449,297 metric tonnes. The country’s exports from Thailand also picked up by 2016 with 502,254 metric tonnes of rice, increasing the volume to 749,000 metric tonnes in 2017, but a sharp decline to 415,341 metric tonnes in 2018. However, 2019 exports to Cameroon were already showing signs of performing better than 2018, with 290,679 MT of rice already exported there from Thailand, against 221,171 MT in 2018.
Nigeria on the other hand recorded 6,537 MT of Thai rice exports in 2018, a staggering drop from 1,239,810 MT in 2014, 644,131 MT in 2015, 58,260 MT in 2016, and 23,192 MT in 2017.
As rice exports to Nigeria decline, those of the neighbouring countries have steadily increased, even though there is little evidence to suggest they are able to consume the volume of rice they are importing.
“Let the customs do its job and not just paying lip service,” said Rotimi Fashola, general manager, Elephant Group Plc a company with investments in local rice production, but hesitant to indict the Customs service directly for being complicit in rice smuggling.
Fashola, reiterating the existing ban on rice importation through the borders, said “if indeed the Customs service polices the land borders as it should, no rice would come in.”
“What we can advocate is for customs to do its job,” he said.
The foreign rice found in Nigerian markets are not brought in through underground tunnels synonymous with drug cartels in Latin America as they desperately work to distribute their illegal merchandise. In Nigeria, every single bag of foreign rice (or at least 97 percent) that is found in the market was smuggled into the country, many of this with the active connivance of some Customs officers as reiterated by reliable sources do this in exchange for financial rewards, in short, bribes.
Whether or not Nigeria is sufficient in rice production is not the subject of contention, rather; the smuggling of rice, which in the estimation of government is ‘killing local production’. If the borders are reopened and the corruption tendencies in the Nigerian Customs Service remain, nothing will change in smuggling of not only rice but other agricultural products and goods cross Nigeria’s notoriously porous borders.
As Ijewere suggested, if Nigeria really wanted to fight corruption and protect the economy, the first requirement is “to first of all clean out the entire customs.”
“As at now,” Ijewere described the Nigerian Customs Service as “destructive to our economic future.”