Notwithstanding all efforts to promote local production of rice in the country, the protracted smuggling of the commodity appears to have grown to the extent of dominating the market, just as it suck away the foreign exchange by way of capital flight.
Rice is actually the most preferred staple food for Nigerians, This make it so popular and ever sough for by Nigerians, young or old. Major markets across the country can never be short of rice. But the more worrisome aspect is that about 70 per cent of rice in the local market are foreign parboiled rice, while the locally made rice have been overwhelmed and barely has no place in the market.
For these facts, rice continues to receive more attractions from core businessmen, manipulators and the smugglers. Indeed, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) has adjudged rice as the most smuggled items through the land borders.
The Guardian investigations showed that rice is the most profitable commodity for smugglers as there are always ready buyers for the smuggled rice. The consumers also claimed that the foreign products are cheaper and more available than the locally produced rice.
During a visit to Seme border in Republic of Benin, it was discovered that the popular market in Seme was dominated by Nigerians who were buying rice in bags and smuggled them into Nigeria through the unapproved routes. Same thing was discovered at Idiroko border and Ilaro in Ogun State. In fact, Nigerian currency (Naira) was freely traded with in the Seme market.
The products are sometimes conveyed on motorcycle popularly known as Okada, carrying four to six bags at a go. They move it across the border with alleged 'settlement' of about N100 daily. The Guardian learnt that the Okada smugglers sometimes move in convoy with an escort who interface with the security agencies.
Aside from the petty rice smugglers, truckloads of the commodity are always smuggled into the country, although, many are being confiscated by the Customs. Notwithstanding the numerous seizures, the smugglers appears non perturbed, as they move on top of their game, against all odds.
Smuggling of foreign parboiled rice from across the borders (mainly Benin Republic) is posing threat to the rice industry in Nigeria.
For decades the Federal Government have been formulating policies on control of rice importation. In 2015 the government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) placed an outright ban on importation of rice from land borders, while it slammed 70 per cent duty on rice importation from the seaports, a measure it argued was to help conserve the nation's foreign reserves and encourage local production.
Despite the government's high tariffs, that supply gap is still being plugged by imports. Even worse, some importers are avoiding the steep import tariffs and chose excessive profiteering by smuggling rice through porous land borders, not minding the inherent risks.
The most terrible aspect is that the quality of the smuggled rice could not be guaranteed, thereby posing health challenges to the unsuspected citizens.
In 2016, an alarm was raised on the shipping of fake rice also known as 'plastic rice' into the country from China. The Customs was immediately put on red alert and the situation was later curtailed. As if that was not enough, in 2017, The Federal Government also warned that there were some brands of poisonous foreign rice in circulation.
Having critically examined the items, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali described rice imported into Nigeria as poisonous, advising Nigerians to stop consuming it.
He said: "A chemical must have been added to sustain its freshness and that chemical is harmful. Also, it has been re-bagged with a new date given as the production and expiry date and that is what we consume here which causes diseases.
"So, I appeal to Nigerians to please patronise our own rice; it is available, more nutritious and if you do that you will assist Customs by making sure these people are put out of business," Ali said during a press conference organised by the Ministry of Finance in Abuja.
The Customs CG said the Federal Government had not issued license for importation of rice and that any rice seen on the streets that was not produced in Nigeria was smuggled.
Illegal rice importation, he said, remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Nigeria Customs Service.
Also, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri said: "For imported rice, we don't know how long it had been in their (exporters) silos. Recently, one country decided to bring in a shipload of rice into Nigeria so that we can use it to support the IDPs (Internationally Displaced Persons) in the North-East, but when we subjected the rice to a test, we discovered that the rice was actually poisonous.
"This means that most imported rice have been in silos for 10 to 15 years and have no nutritional value. So what we have told them is that anybody who wants to support the IDPs or any other person in Nigeria should please use our local rice.
"The argument is that local rice is more expensive, but we say even if it means buying half bag, do it. It is better for us to eat a smaller quantity of nutritious rice than for us to take poisonous shiploads of rice," he said.
Meanwhile, foreign rice has continued to litter Nigerian markets. From Sango market in Ota, Ogun State to Daleko market in Mushin; Mile 2 in Lagos; Utako Market, Abuja; Terminus Market Jos; Mile 3 Market Port-Harcourt; Main Market, Onitsha; Singer Market in Kano; Ogbete Market in Enugu, and Jimeta Main Market in Yola, among others, foreign parboiled rice are predominantly displayed and gained so much patronage.
Checks revealed that many of these are smuggled rice. For example, The Guardian's investigation at Sango market showed that the smugglers came in as early as 4.00 am to offload the products to the rice dealers who usually buy as low as between N12,500 and 13,000 per 50 kg bag and resells at between N14,000 and 15,000 per bag.
In a chart with The Guardian, as smuggler at Sango market said: "rice trading" is one of the best business he like doing, claiming that as risky as the business may look, he makes good returns.
The young man, who identified himself as Taiwo Abe, said: "I don't know why government will ask us not to import rice. We are into business, after all, we don't kill and we are not stealing. We make meaningful income from this business and that is what I use to sustain my family. I have wife and children that I also need to feed and I cannot do rituals, I can't do Internet fraud (yahoo yahoo). But, the business of smuggling pays. I am a carpenter, but no patronage, no sales, so I need to look for alternative means of survival, and rice smuggling has helped me a lot,"
On the risk, he said: "There is no business that is not risky. I am nurtured on the street and I was trained to hustle. I use unapproved routes where no Customs officer will disturb you. Besides, we have some contacts that guide our movement, so, to me it's not a big deal."
A saleswoman, who simply identified herself as Risikat, said it is cheaper to patronize smugglers than the local rice millers, adding that even the customers prefer foreign rice.
"The only Nigerian rice that customers demand for is Ofada rice and I don't sell it. It is cheaper to buy from smugglers and I make more profit,"
She berate a situation whereby the Customs raid their shops and seized their stocks last year, calling on the Federal Government to also create a conducive environment for businesses to thrive. She said the bad economy is forcing people to look for alternative means of survival.
For the Nigerian Customs, it is an unending struggle. The officers are already overwhelmed with rice smuggling as they face reprisal attack and brutal retaliation on daily basis. For example, A Customs Assistant 1, Hamisu Sani, was killed in one of such encounter at Asero area of Abeokuta, Ogun State, while Tunde Wasiu Abdul'Azez was killed on Palace Road, Gumel Local Government Area of Jigawa State.
However, the seizures continued. The stores are filled to the brim. But the smugglers are unrelenting. The battle continues.
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. The effort by customs notwithstanding, the figure only represents a fraction of smuggled rice into the country within the review period.
In 2018, the Customs seized 238,094(50kg) bags of rice across the country from January to November. The bags of rice, according to the Public Relations Officer of Customs, Joseph Attah, worth N4.05 billion.
In Ogun State Area command, about 44,615 bags of foreign rice were seized between the period, while the Area II Command, Onne, Rivers State confiscated 118 containers loaded with foreign rice. Seme Command seized 37,568 bags of 50kg foreign rice, which is equivalent to over 63 trailers of rice, with DPV of N876 million in 2018.
In the first quarter 2019, the FOU Zone A intercepted 16,117 bags of 50kg parboiled rice; The Nigerian Navy, Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Akwa Ibom seized 2,044 bags of rice in one month (April).
The Commanding Officer, Forward Operating Base (FOB), Ibaka, Captain Toritseju Vincent said: "These anti-smuggling activities are inimical to the growth of our own rice industry. So we will continue to do our duty to make sure we nip it in bud, and bring it to a complete halt,"
He said the commodity was brought in with a boat, while the suspects abandoned the boat and the products, the pumping machine and fled.
Controller, Seme Command of Customs, Mohammed Uba Garba, who also berated the spate of rice smuggling into the country, said: "Government allowed the importation of fertiliser duty free with the aim to boost agricultural production. You are also aware that government has engaged some individuals with a view to stimulating local production of rice. This comes with benefits such as employment generation, preservation of foreign exchange, and food security among others.
"No nation can develop under hunger. People can se0ek advice on proposed ideas when they are properly fed. It is along this line that we are so much committed against the smuggling of foreign rice. Part of the danger of foreign rice is that it would deplete our foreign exchange. Besides, nobody knows the duration of when the rice was produced, but people will buy and consume it. It is hazardous to health," he stated.
Controller Federal Operation Unit (FOU) Zone A, Aliyu Mohammed, said: "Nobody will grow our economy for us, we must work together to make Nigeria great. If you go to Cotonou now, over N1 trillion bags of rice are waiting there and they must enter Nigeria. How many officers are in Customs? With all our efforts, some of them will find their way. We can't eradicate it completely because of the nation's porous borders. Besides, we don't have friends; people are always working against us. If you go out now and see them beating a Customs officer, you will join them to beat him. It is unfortunate. The smugglers are seeing it as their birthright to smuggle. They claimed they couldn't go to school and start looking for job after graduation, so they are looking for quick means of making money".
He alleged that the act of smuggling are perpetrated by the rich men, who see it as a booming business, saying, "A poor man can not use the small money he has to buy rice, but a rich man will buy it and use the poor man to smuggle it. They are using innocent people to enrich themselves. We should all work to support government policies. Go to Benin Republic, visit the round about area, you will discover that prices of houses have soar, because they have turned most of their residential buildings to warehouses where they keep rice and earn higher income. So, they get more money for keeping rice than rent it as residential".
He also emphasized the quality of local rice and its health benefits, saying: "Go and get the foreign rice and cook it. If you are a Hausa man, I will tell you to make Tuwo shinkafa. Then, get Kebbi or Abakaliki rice and make the same Tuwo shinkafa. Cover it throughout the day and open it in the morning. You will discover that the foreign rice will scatter because it is chemical rice, but our local rice will be intact and the aroma will be enticing. Then, you will never eat foreign rice again.
"Those who are saying that the local rice is not enough are the real smugglers because they don't want you to know the secrete. Go to Bida, Abakaliki, Adija, you will see the large expanse of land used in harvesting rice. We need to help our leaders. We need to help this country," he said.
Against the backdrop of the Nigerian government's policy on domestication of the rice industry and the war against its illegal importation, seaports of West African countries are still receiving large quantities of the commodity, apparently for onward shipment to Nigeria through the land borders. Consequently the commodity still tops the smuggling chart and seized items by the recent records of the Nigeria Customs Service, while poultry products and vehicles occupies the second and third highest smuggled items into the country.
According to Economic Confidential, in a three-week survey on the rice market across the six geopolitical zones in the country, Economic Confidential team observed that foreign rice such as Mama Gold, Royal Stallion, Rice Master, Caprice, Falcon Rice and Basmati are sold alongside Nigerian rice namely: Umza and Fursa Crown from Kano, Mama Happy from Niger, Labana Rice from Kebbi, Olam Rice from Nasarawa, Abakaliki Rice from Ebonyi, Ofada Rice from Ogun State, Swomen Dama from Plateau, Lake Rice of Lagos/Kebbi States among others.
National Deputy President, Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, Segun Atho, told The Guardian that smuggling is a major threat to rice production in the country, but all hands are on deck to ensure that the nation feeds itself through sustainable local production of rice.
"Rice smuggling is another virus in the content of Nigeria, because if you look at the rate people smuggle rice, it is alarming. There are some cartels behind it that are not ready to sheath their swords. Rice is being produced by almost every nation and it has become a staple food, which is important to every nation that wants to survive.
"When we complain about smugglers, what about the Customs that are support to prevent them? They are there when the women are carrying small bags containing rice into the country. They are there when some people are using bad vehicles to convey smuggled goods. They are there what are they looking at? Although, some the Customs officers are good while they still have some bad elements among them. They will collect money from the smugglers and allow them to go.
"Also, the border communities see smuggling as their national cake and this is unfortunate. It is a serious situation. We have to fight together, if Nigeria want to attain self sufficiency and sustainability in rice production.
"Farmers are doing their best, and I can see that smuggling is reducing because right away, I am talking from the farm. All over the country, farmers are producing and we are trying to mop up the production for processing and for marketing and all hands are on deck.
He said the Anchor Borrowers Programme introduced by the Federal Government has helped farmers a lot.
Denying the claims that foreign rice is more than local rice in the market, Atho said: That is not true. What we have is that some rice sellers re-bag local products into foreign sacks and sell as imported rice. This is because of the consumption pattern of Nigerians and we really need to change that. We need to patronize locally made goods. Do you know that they are packing Nigerian rice in foreign bags? Because they know that the consumers cherished it. You have been eating Nigerian rice but you don't know. Go to the integrated rice mills in Kano, Kebbi, Wakot, Benue, Abakaliki. Coscharis, Dangote, Sam Egu are all bagging rice now.
The Rice Processors Association of Nigeria (RIPAN) had earlier raised an alarm that over one million metric tons of rice has been smuggled into Nigeria in the last three months.
The Chairman of RIPAN, Alhaji Mohammed Abubakar Maifata made this revelation in Abuja, said: "Investors in Nigeria have made enormous financial commitment in the Rice Sub-sector. Unfortunately, the only threat to the industry's total development, is Smuggling.
Over one million metric tons of Rice which is equivalent to about 20,000,000 bags of 50kg rice have been smuggled into Nigeria in the last three months.
"Nigeria currently loses huge revenues, foreign exchange and Jobs to this menace as Nigeria Rice Processing companies are shutting down because of their inability to gain market access.
"More painfully millions of small-holder Farmers are stuck with their Paddy because the Millers can no longer afford to buy from them."
He said investigations conducted by the Association in the last few months indicated that, "all our international borders have been converted to smugglers route and our markets are filled with smuggled foreign rice".
He cautioned that, "there is the need for urgent actions to avert eventual national food emergency by combating smuggling so that we can continue to grow our local Rice industry and the economy".