The rate of rice importation into Nigeria has been increasing, on daily basis, because local production of the commodity has failed to meet the demand of the surging population. Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development , Dr. Akinwumi Adesina , recently revealed that the country spends over N356 billion, yearly, on the importation of rice, meaning that on the average, about N1 billion is expended to bring foreign rice everyday into Nigeria . A customs source in Katsina said the Federal Government has restricted rice importation to the sea ports where various agencies can examine the imported rice and declare levies and duties on them as well as determine, immediately, whether or not they are fit for consumption. But, a large amount of expired rice is being smuggled into the country, largely across the land borders. It is needless to say that smuggling severely harms the economy in multidimensional ways chief among which is that it leads to the shortfall of revenues because duty and levy placed on imported rice could not be obtained and there are health hazards because expired rice cannot easily be detected at the borders. Patriotic Rice Association of Nigeria (PRAN) said in April 2013 that an estimated 40,000 metric tonnes of rice get imported illegally, jeopardizing the businesses of legitimate importers and growers and causing huge losses of revenues, believed to be around N27 billion, to the government. At present, government is thought to be getting only about 20 per cent levies from the bulk of rice imported into the country. Of course, government has taken a number of steps to boost rice production, locally, including the placing of the 100 per cent levies on imported rice as well as other intervention measures. Minister of Agriculture Dr Adesina said several seed companies were established all over the country recently and "over $5 billion was invested into the sector." The source said the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone B, of the Nigerian Customs Service had recently arrested smugglers of expired rice, drugs and fabrics mostly at the border areas of Katsina, Sokoto and Jigawa states "due to intensified surveillance." Nearly all the smuggled rice used to come through Niger and Republic of Benin . The source said law enforcement officials of neighboring countries could assist their counterparts in Nigeria in tracking fake rice if they adhere to 'international transit protocol' by escorting and handing over all consignments passing through their territories to Nigerian officials for analysis. According to him, customs of countries that signed transit protocol agreement must work together to stamp out the menace of smuggling. Said the source: "Our land borders are porous which serve as channels for smuggling goods. The customs have blocked most of the roads. But for the menace to stop, the smugglers have resorted to other means, they use motorcycles to transport bags of expired rice to border towns, through bush path. A motorcycle can carry between five and eight bags and two motorcycles can carry a truckload of expired rice in a day. The vehicle containing the smuggled rice is normally positioned at secluded side of the border and the hired motorbikes will be used in transporting the bags, little-by-little to a safe location, usually a rented store in the Nigerian border towns before being transported to major markets. But with the cooperation of the locals, the customs were able to confiscate huge tonnes of rice certified as fake by the federal quarantine units." According to the source, there was an obvious connection between local communities around the border areas and smuggling gangs that had at different occasions prevented custom officials from arresting smugglers. "The locals are hired to barricade roads with logs and tyres. In such instances, the officers must meet with elders and youth leaders to plead their cases. It takes time and is precarious to dialogue with the people because they have been bought and programmed by the smugglers, who usually inform them that there is nothing bad in importing food items." The source said the prospects of rice cultivation in Nigeria are under serious threat following the increase in the rate illegal importation of expired rice from notably India and Thailand . Going by the record, the number of apprehensions of smuggled rice at the Benin - Nigeria and Niger - Nigeria borders in 2013 by the FOU Zone B is alarming. There were 95 rice seizures in April 2013 , 76 in May, 71 in June and 90 in July. Others are August 37, October, 54 and November, 76. Thousands of tonnes of rice were declared unfit for human consumption and sent to the courts for destruction while the product certified fit for consumption was released after the payment of duties and levies by the owners. The records showed that only 204 bags of smuggled rice were arrested in Katsina as at the third week of January 2014. When contacted, the FOU Zone B Comptroller Ahmed Suleiman Maina , said it was true that several seizures were made of expired rice and drugs at the border towns. He said government did not ban the importation of rice, vegetable oil and drugs but such products could only be brought into the country through the sea ports while importation through other routes is considered illegal. He said rice importation, through the land borders, has been discouraged by government because there are few agencies working at the land borders that could examine and clear goods. He said: "We have the federal quarantine plant and the officials of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in addition to the customs at the ports who could conduct the required tests on all imported rice to find out if it is safe for consumption.These officials are not readily available at the land border areas because of how porous the borders are and customs could not conduct the necessary tests alone." He said that most of the rice smuggled through the borders had expired and were repackaged. He said the customs has begun consultations with importers with a view to encouraging them to transport rice through water rather than land. He added: "We have been meeting with businessmen, especially rice merchants, to ensure imported rice passes through the sea ports. Those who could not afford the transportation costs could join forces with others to charter a vessel that can transport the rice conveniently." He said enlightenment campaign is being conducted regularly by the customs service in order to educate the public, including importers, about the effect of importing expired rice to the economy. "Local production of rice will be adversely affected because farmers can't favourably compete with the smugglers. Again by boosting local production through import regulation, there will be more jobs and the economy will be stronger.Of recent, there were complaints that the Lake Chad basin that produces millions of tonnes of rice isn't producing anymore now, because of the insecurity there. The farmers have migrated to safer places. Also the river basin authorities are not producing the large quantities they used to, due to retreat of water tributaries. And now with the increase in the importation of illegal rice, the future is certainly bleak to local producers. This explains why government is regulating importation not because of any other deceitful motive." He said that the Unit had also intensified surveillance on illicit drug influx at the border areas and had confiscated a number of consignments. The customs work together with NAFDAC officials to examine any drugs seized and those that are found to be fake or dangerous to humans are mostly destroyed in a lawful way, he said. The Unit had recently arrested a truck loaded with fake 'Tramadol tablets' near Jibia in Katsina State. The drug cartons were carefully concealed in the truck beneath animal feed. Officials said such drugs are taken by youth as intoxicants.
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