Abuja — Tuesday's directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) not to allocate foreign exchange to food importers is not only illegal but one that is capable of worsening the suffering of the majority of Nigerians, a leading civil society organisation (CSO), Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), has declared.
Buhari, who handed down the directive in Daura, Katsina State, predicated his action on what he described as the steady improvement in agricultural production, and attainment of full food security in the country.
However, in its reaction, CSJ, in a press statement by its Lead Director, Eze Onyekpere, a lawyer, said Buhari's directive "was based on the specious reasons that this was necessary for Nigeria to attain food security and that the agricultural policies of government had succeeded to the extent that we do not need food imports."
According to CSJ, the directive is fraught with danger and appears to be illegal for a number of reasons, citing Section.1 (3) of the Central Bank of Nigeria Act 2007, which provides that: "In order to facilitate the achievement of its mandate under this Act and the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act, and in line with the objective of promoting stability and continuity in economic management, the Bank shall be an independent body in the discharge of its functions."
"There are no provisions in the CBN Act or any other existing law empowering the President to run or give directives on foreign exchange management or any other component of monetary policy. This directive erodes the independence and autonomy of the CBN and presents Nigeria in the image of the Idi Amin fable, when he gave directives to the governor of the Ugandan Central Bank to print more currencies when told that the country was running out of money.
"This directive is therefore an illegal directive which the Governor and Board of the CBN will obey at their own peril," the civil society organisation argued.
The second issue, it observed, is that policies such as this, assuming it came from the CBN would have required a phased and gradual approach in determining the point at which foreign exchange allocations for food imports will be reduced.
"This would have involved a multi-sectoral engagement of farmers, food processors, the banking industry, transport and electricity sectors, etc.,with clear demonstrable milestones of achievements to indicate the attainment of food security.
"This directive is rather a knee-jerk reaction to the euphoria of sycophants who tell the President that his agricultural policies are working. And very unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this assertion in terms of more quantity, quality and cheaper foods available to Nigerians.
"It is imperative to clarify that we support every effort at increasing local food production and reducing Nigeria's dependence on imported food products. But in the drive to attain the required level of self-sufficiency, we must not expose Nigerians to undue hardship. "This brings us to the third issue, which is that Nigeria is far from attaining food security and has not even started the race for food sovereignty. Stopping the allocation of foreign exchange for the importation of needed food items will only increase their price since there will still be demand for the goods.
"Unless there is a ban on the importation of these food items, importers will still be free to source for foreign exchange from alternative sources to import them. Increase in the price of food at a time of grave economic crisis, increasing poverty and misery can only deepen the already fragile and precarious living conditions of the average Nigerian. Even an outright ban will be a misnomer in the circumstances," CSJ said.
It stressed that in accordance with Nigeria's constitutional and treaty obligations, to take steps, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the right to adequate food, accessibility of food is imperative for the population.
"By General Comment No.12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the Right to Adequate Food, accessibility includes two dimensions, the economic and physical accessibility," it added.
The statement further argued that with the price of basic staples like rice and garri tripling since 2015 and Nigeria becoming the poverty capital of the world, it was clear that the majority of Nigerians neither enjoy economic or physical accessibility to adequate food. "It appears Mr. President is cocooned in the lush gardens and mansions of Aso Rock and being surrounded by persons who are not minded to tell him the truth about the suffering in the land, he has lost touch with reality.
"CSJ therefore calls on the President to rescind this illegal and unconscionable directive which has only one natural consequence - the increase in the suffering of the majority of Nigerians," CSJ concluded.