An estimated $3 billion bags of rice destined for the Nigerian markets are stuck in various warehouses in Benin Republic due to the Federal Government’s refusal to allow importation through land borders and fierce customs anti smuggling drive.
The annual routine of importing rice into the neighbouring country from July to December to make massive sales in Nigeria during Yuletide period has hit a brickwall this year as Controller General of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ali has insisted that his men have tightened the frontiers.
Nigeria shares major border frontiers with Benin Republic at Seme Border (Lagos), Idiroko (Ogun), Shaki (Oyo),Chikanda (Kwara) and other smaller openings. Prominent among them is Seme where the highest volume of trade and largest smuggling opportunity exist because of its easy access to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital city.
Seme Border which hitherto was a major transit point for foreign rice importation suddenly became impenetrable for smugglers as almost daily seizures of 50kg bags have taken a good portion of the customs warehouse in the area.
A recent visit to Benin revealed that most of the warehouses where the bagged rice are kept before shipment into Nigeria are now battling for space.
Some consignments of imported rice no longer have storage space at the popular stores and so are exposed to rains, weevils and other unhygienic forms of storage.
Popular warehouses no longer receive rice shipments as thousands of bags earlier delivered to them since July could not be evacuated into Nigeria as planned as was the case in previous years.
Popular Cherika Warehouse in Akpakpa near Cotonou with a capacity to store 25,000 bags is fully loaded with Thailand rice with no hope of evacuating them into Nigeria except government relaxes its policy of rice importation through border.
Defezi Warehouse close to the Cotonou Port is filled with over 40,000 units of 50kg bags of Indian and Thailand rice. Defezi got occupied earlier due to its proximity to the port but was not evacuated as the owners could not risk entering Nigeria with it.
Cica Warehouse in Missebo area of the Cotonou outskirts that suffered lack of patronage in the past due to distance from Seme Border and bad road presently has over 15,000 bags.
Some grains are getting moulded, caked with their bags torn and quantity reduced while endlessly awaiting shipment into Nigeria.
As hope of smuggling them into Nigeria gets slimmer by the day, there is a conscious effort to bring in the commodity without using bags.
The unwholesome method requires pouring grains of rice into various compartments of vehicles like the boots, bonnets, inner parts of the doors, under the seats and other spaces meant for spare tyres and tools.
Sources disclosed that the more the attempt to smuggle hundreds of bags into the country, the more customs in Seme and Idiroko make more seizures.
Unfortunately, some of these grains are no more safe for human consumption and so cannot be donated to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) as was done in the past.
Over 37,000 bags of rice have so far been seized in Seme and Idiroko between January and September 2016 including the 13 vehicles laden with smuggled rice.
From the owners of the rice to the transporters, loaders, landlords and operators of warehouses, there is a general lull as it has been a season of stockpiling without transiting.
They expressed frustration at the government policy but more on what they described as Seme Customs lack of cooperation.
Nigerian Customs had in an October 2016 press statement reiterated government’s ban on rice importation through the borders. The statement signed by Wale Adeniyi, customs spokesman reinforced its resolve to protect government’s attempt to improve local rice capacity.
Part of it reads: ‘’We like to reiterate the position that importation of rice remains banned through our land borders, and we have the commitment to partner government agencies and stakeholders to enforce this restriction. While this restriction is in force, rice imports through the ports are still allowed subject to payment of extant charges.
‘’It is equally important to restate the confidence of the Nigerian Customs Service in the ability of Nigerian rice producers to fill the existing sufficiency gaps in the supply of the product. The service has noted with satisfaction the ongoing rice revolution undertaken by many state governments, and strategic interventions by the Federal Government agencies.’
‘’The service is convinced that the bumper harvests expected from these efforts will address the supply gap in 2017. It is our belief that continuous waste of scarce forex on a commodity that can be produced locally makes no economic sense, most especially at a period of recession. The service will therefore advocate a total ban on rice importation into Nigeria with effect from 2017’’
There are loud cries in Benin over what is going on at Seme and other borders. A respondent simply identified as Mr. Sewanu said things have taken a turn for the worse as every attempt to bring rice into Nigeria has failed.
‘’You can see we are idle here because rice is not entering Nigeria through Seme Border. We can’t work. Each day we come here , it is in prayer that the customs should cooperate with our bosses so we can have jobs to do to survive.
‘’By this time in previous years, thousands of bags of rice had entered Nigeria from here and more ships had been discharging at the Cotonou Port. But this year is different, nothing is working.
‘’Seme customs have spoiled the business for us.We don’t want to take the risk of transporting rice through any other border because Lagos is the largest market. Once you enter through Seme,you are already in the market.
‘’If this continues, we may die of hunger. Benin customs in Krake cooperates with us but the customs in Nigeria are our only headache. We want the Controller removed. He is making things difficult,’’ Sewanu lamented.
A visit to the border shows smooth running and processing of imports into Nigeria and there are so much activities in the banks. People were seen paying customs duties for items not on Nigeria’s import prohibition list.
While the stockpiling of imported rice continues to increase in Cotonou and neighbouring towns, there may never be a market for them as they face the risk of either being expired or going bad due to poor storage condition.
Benin Republic with an estimated population of 11 million persons and closest to Togo with a little above 8 million, there appears to be no market for the stocked rice as these countries lack the population and luxury to consume them.
Prices of rice which presently sells for between N11,000 and N13,000 in Cotonou is expected to crash ahead of the Yuletide period as they continually face difficulties in getting them into Nigeria.