It is no longer news that almost all the government warehouses across different commands of the Nigeria Customs Service are filled with perishable foodstuffs, especially bags of foreign parboiled rice. What now makes the news is that some of these commodities are rotting away while so many Nigerians are dying in abject poverty, ANOZIE EGOLE reports
At the beginning of the year 2022, the World Bank predicted that the number of Nigerians living in abject poverty would rise to 95.1 million in 2022 from 89 million recorded in 2020. This figure represents a 6.1 million increase in a space of two years.
The Nigerian Economic Summit Group has also predicted that 102 million Nigerians may likely be pushed below the poverty line before the end of the year 2022.
The Federal Government had earlier said that no fewer than 11 million Nigerians would be pushed below that poverty line this year as a result of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the high number of Nigerians living in abject poverty, the Nigeria Customs’ warehouses are filled with different contraband perishables, including bags of foreign parboiled rice, vegetable oil, clothing, amongst others. Some are no longer fit for human consumption.
Recently, the acting Customs Area Controller in charge of the Federal Operations Unit, Zone A, NCS, Hussein Ejibunu, while giving the first-year report of the unit, told journalists that between January and June 2022, the unit had seized 45, 928 bags of foreign parboiled rice of 50kg each which was equivalent to 77 trailer-loads, among others.
If the rice seizure figures represent what was made by a single command in six months, by the time numbers recorded at other commands such as the TinCan Island, Apapa, Western Marine and others from different zones across the country are collated, that figure may well grow in exponential proportions.
Ejibunu was quoted to have said, “The major challenge we are having is lack of space. If you want to confirm what I am saying now, someone should go to our former correspondent office. There, you will find out that there is rice everywhere. The only place that does not have rice is where we are sitting now and this is the only place we have our meetings. I have written and requested, and the CGC has promised me that. We will do constructive warehousing that can warehouse a whole lot of seized goods.”
Unfortunately, these seized food items are left to rot in the custody of the Customs while millions of Nigerians wallow in hunger and starvation, unsure of where the next meal will come from.
This is not unconnected with bottlenecks and different bureaucracies involved before the court can allow seized items to be distributed to the Internally Displaced Persons or the people who can make use of them.
The Chief Executive Officer, Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise, Dr Muda Yusuf, advised the government to see how they could use perishable seized goods for economic interventions.
“If you have seizures that are perishable, I think the appropriate thing to do is to see how to use them for some social interventions. There are so many areas in our society that are in need of food or some many of those things that are perishable. We should not allow those things to get rotten before we dispose of them.”
He advised that a time frame should be given for these commodities to be disposed of, adding that the Customs was not doing enough in the area of ensuring quick disposal of these goods.
“Once it has been established that these are seizures and they are not likely to return to the owners, then there should be a time frame to dispose them to meet some social needs in the society. It could even be the social investment programme that the government is doing. There should be a way, rather than just keep them with the Customs and struggle with space. The thing is rotting away. So, there should be a way and time frame to dispose of these,” Yusuf noted.
According to him, “The Customs are not doing enough, which is why those things are lying down there. There should be a time frame and the reduction in the bureaucracy on how to dispose of the perishables. They should decentralise it so that at the zonal command, decisions can be taken so that within their own command they can identify institutions that are in need of these things and use them to support,” he noted.
A member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Dr. Ikenna Nwosu, said that the question should be if the Customs was actually expediting actions to ensure that the seized goods were taken away before they went bad.
“If it is a seizure, it is supposed to be auctioned as soon as possible. And when it is auctioned, the Customs recovers the duty that should have been paid on the item so that Nigerians will benefit. But again, you cannot auction it if NAFDAC says it is not good for human consumption. So, the question is whether Customs expedites whatever action is needed before the items become inedible. Any item in the Customs’ warehouse is either in detention or seizure.”
A source from the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control said that the Customs had not been carrying NAFDAC along in the process of determining if the products were safe for consumption or not.
“The ideal thing that is supposed to happen is, once these products are seized and taken to the government warehouse, before they are given out to IDP camps or anywhere, NAFDAC should be on the know so that we take samples of these products and analyse them. But I don’t think they have been doing so and you know products like these have shelf life and cannot be forever. The ideal thing is that they are supposed to invite us as we speak. We don’t know what has been happening. There are other things you can do with spoilt rice; it can be used for the farm. There is a standing arrangement whereby they must inform NAFDAC of whatever they want to do with it. You know the borders and ports are under their control; they are the landlords. We just come and go, but those seizures must have been done by them on our behalf. They have the power to seize these items on our behalf.”
Reacting to this, the National Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Timi Bomodi, said that the service must follow due process before any action would be taken on seized goods.
“When seizures are made, there are other procedures that follow and a procedure that is compulsory is condemnation from the court. Once the condemnation is obtained from the court, the service is free to do with them whatever they want. A lot of these seizures are still facing condemnation in court and the NCS cannot go to the judiciary to tell them to prioritise our cases because I am sure that the judiciary itself is overwhelmed with its own challenges.”
He said, “The service has been giving out these items to like Internally Displaced Persons camps. Even the ones that are unfit for human consumption can also be converted to animal feed. But as I said, we are following due process, once we are sure we have done what needs to be done at the court, we will do the needful.”
On the accusation of not carrying NAFDAC along, he said, “Before we are going to give people to consume, we have to certify they are good for human consumption with the NAFDAC. Even before that, the Controller, FOU A, had taken some samples to NAFDAC and they certified those things to be full of lead and unfit for human consumption.”
He also advised Nigerians to be patient with the service. “So let us not jump the gun. We have to follow the process. And I think that is what people need to be patient about and not just to tell us that these things are wasting away in the warehouses.”
The acting National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, Kayode Farinto, said, “This issue can only be determined by the Federal Government and whatever food item that they seize should be given to IDPs and not ordinary Nigerians. What we should be talking about is to tell the government to look at the various seizures that have been made so that the ones that are food items should be expressly taken to IDPs instead of allowing them to waste.”
Also speaking, a member of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Stanley Ezenga, blamed the Federal Government for the unnecessary protocol involved in processing these seized food items. He added that the goods should be given out to the needy.
“We have IDPs all over the country and the farmers have been prevented from going to farms by the bandits. This means there is hunger in the land. Instead of keeping those things to waste, there are people that need them, so they should be distributed to make space for other things,” he said.