By Innocent Orok
More embarrassing scenes and comments are emerging from various State government officials regarding the Federal Government rice donations to states government as palliatives to cushion the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.
At the last count and for the last two weeks since some states have started picking their allocations, more than four states have rejected the rice, while some have threatened to return same. The latest is the Rivers State government. Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State this morning in a state broadcast said they cannot travel to Cross River State to carry 1800 bags of rice. Moreso when he has heard that some state governors had rejected the rice as not fit for consumption.
The Federal Government through the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) had announced four weeks ago that the FG will give out 158 trucks of rice (a truck is counted as 600bags of 50kg bagged parboiled rice) as palliatives to Nigerians to help their food needs to stay at home during the Covid19 pandemic.
When the announcement was made by the Customs, there were mixed feelings, while the ordinary Nigerians were happy, some stakeholders in the maritime industry, especially maritime journalists were skeptical. The journalists who often revered to the Customs rice , as “Poisonous Rice ” having quoted from one of the Comptroller General, Col Hameed Ibrahim Ali’s press video referring to foreign rice seized by customs as not fit for consumption and poisonous due to the chemical use in preserving it.
Journalists have held unto this statement by the Customs boss. But when the Service announced that the rice to be issued out will all be tested and certified by National Agency for Food, Drugs and Administration Control (NAFDAC), Nigerians kept their fingers cross expecting a consumable rice from the Customs. Until when the first burble bursted from the Oyo state government.
ARE CUSTOMS SEIZED FOREIGN RICE REALLY POISONOUS?
Going memory lane, in the last fifteen years, the Nigeria Customs Service has been implementing and effecting various government policies on rice importation into Nigeria. These policies in one way or the other has increase massive seizures of rice through the Customs across land borders and even the sea ports.
The seized rice figures got doubled when the present government in 2015, not only banned the importation of Rice through the land borders, but also mandated the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) not to issue Forex to rice importers in the seaports . The rice import duty and levy was also jacked to 110%.
These hard economic policies frustrated the importers and traders of foreign rice, as such they resorted to smuggling and concealments of the product, both at the borders , waterways and seaports.
Also, on assumption of duty in 2015, President Mohammadu Buhari had mandated Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), the Comptroller General of Customs to focus on increase revenue, suppressed smuggling and reform the Service. Hence, the anti -smuggling war in the Service was ignited, Foreign rice became one of the endangered products in Nigeria.
To this end and to justify his Customs endless battling of foreign rice smugglers as well as to discourage Nigerians from consuming foreign rice. Ali, then said Imported Smuggled rice are poisonous and dangerous to health.
It was like a blanket statement that all foreign rice are poisonous . But to many, it was merely a political statement as most foreign rice are good for consumption, there was no proven fact to justify the Customs boss claim.
One may asked, if really foreign seized rice are poisonous?, as the Customs boss claimed. Why then do the Customs seized it, store it in their warehouses and later gave it out to IDPs and now as palliatives to Nigerians ,? instead of destroying them. Or is it in the various Customs warehouses that the rice after staying for too long and then turn poisonous due to lack of care?
WHY MOST STATE GOVERNMENT REJECTS THE CUSTOMS RICE
Oyo State government was the first to blow the trumpet of the Customs rice as being unfit for consumption and infested with weevils. The state said it is returning the entire 1800 bags given to it. It later made good its promise by returning it few days ago, though the Customs at the Oyo/ Osun command refused accepting it, saying the Customs Headquarters has not mandated them to do so.
The Ondo and Akwa Ibom State government were said to have rejected their donations too, though they have not return theirs yet. But both states government said the rice is unfit for consumption, claiming that they will carry out further test, if they are good to eat.
Just this morning, the Rivers state Governor, Nyesome Wike, in a state broadcast rejected their 1800bags.
Speculation reports also has it that some states government might have found the rice as unfit for consumption, but because it was a free gift, they don’t want to make noise on it, but will rather dumped the rice.
LESSONS FOR CUSTOMS MANAGEMENT ON THE “POISONOUS” RICE SAGA.
There is no gain saying that the Customs management is embarrassed at the turn of event, seeing their patriotic gesture turning out to hunt them.
The scenario has turn into a glamorous one by some media group and maritime stakeholders calling on President Buhari to sack Col. Hameed Ali, the CGC of the Customs . Some have vowed to drag Ali to court for issuing out poisonous rice to kill Nigerians.
To add salt to injury , the Director General of NAFDAC, Prof. Adeyeye was quoted on a national television to have said the Controversial bad rice from Oyo state was not certified by the agency , before it was issued out. This revelation by the NAFDAC boss has further ridiculed the management of the Service, showing that their earlier assurance of NAFDAC certifying the rice was a ruse and means to deceive Nigerians. In saner Climes , by now somebody should have gone in for such negligence.
It is worthy to note that before Ali came onboard as Customs CG five years ago, the over 125 years old Service has been seizing rice and was able to manage it through auctions without such hiccups as witnessed now.
is unfortunate that the present customs management led by Ali has allowed the mismanagement of billion of Naira worth of seizures made by the officers to descend to this level.
As it is for the rice, so it is for vehicles, clothing, vegetable oil and other prohibited goods seized by the Service. The common scenario in all the Customs Commands, Units and Warehouses are roting away wares which could have rake in extra revenue for the government.
This poisonous rice saga should be an eye opener for Ali to fashion out a new way of auctioning seized goods, so far the Customs e- auction is not working.
As it stands today an estimated N15billion worth of seized item are languishing away in various government warehouses and Customs formations across the Country.
The Customs boss should expedite actions to auction these items out as his rigid method of Managing the Service is costing more damage and embarrassment to the Service, the government he represents and Nigeria as a whole.