Rice Smugglers On The Loose

By Stephen Ubanna

Barely  three weeks  that  Sani Madugu, former Comptroller, Ogun Command and Comptroller Enforcement at the Customs Headqarters, handed over to Agbara Ojobo Michael, a Deputy Comptroller, smugglers  appear to be on the loose  in Ogun state.

Agbara may have provided opportunity for the  smugglers to give him the first baptism of fire in the state when he said  on taking over from Madugu, his predecessor that” that he will not make any promise until he must have inspected the Command, understand the terrain and identifies the threat.

He may have shot himself on the leg when he said,” the Customs policy is that ” no  officer should stay too long in  a particular place because if you stay  long, you will begin to have friends  and will not be as aggressive as you use to be” which may have given the officers the impression that he has a hidden agenda  to  introduce his own officers into the scene.

Unknown to him, his predecessor had carried out a major re-organisation of the Command which saw the removal of two officers  to give a bite to the Command anti-smuggling operations. Seriki Abdullahi, who got a special promotion from Hameed Ali, a retired and the Customs Comptroller General as a Chief Superintendent of Customs  over an arms seizure  at Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A,and incidentally the officer in-charge of the Command Crack team was removed by by Sani, the former Comptroller of the Command.

Until , Abdullahi’s removal, he  made a seizure of  2018  model  of a Range Rover with a Duty Paid Value, DPV, of N51 million. the former Comptroller, was said to have also removed one Olumu, the Deputy Comptroller , Enforcement  and replaced him with Deputy Comptroller Ochiba which may leave him with little or no changes to be made but to allow the status quo to remain and work with the team met on ground and giving them his own rules to follow to give a bite to the Command anti-smuggling operations.

Smuggled Truck Load of Rice From Oyo Axis
Smuggled Truck Load of Rice From Oyo Axis

Hemay have assured Agbara, his successor, that the Command has a team of dedicated and committed officers that could support him to succeed in containing the activities of smugglers in the state. That was how far he could go.

On Saturday, May 13 , the suspected smugglers took the battle  to Ilara, a border Community in Imeko-Afon  local government area,  between Nigeria and Republic of Benin . the border Community , according to source is very close to Abeokuta, the Administrative Headquarters of Ogun Command.

The  smugglers may have decided  to move a convoy of vehicles  loaded with smuggled 50kg bags of foreign par boiled rice  from Republic of Benin through Illara to Abeokuta   to show to Agbara, the Ogun  Command Comptroller , the likely threats he will face in the state and for him to put his axe right.

Armed to the teeth, the smugglers  according to Lawal  Oladimeji, a resident of  Ilara , were ready to kill because they knew the consequence  if  caught in the act by Customs personnel on patrol.  They knew will  lose both the smuggled bags of  rice and the vehicles to Customs killed in the process of resisting arrest

.Perhaps, having gotten to a point of no return with their smuggled bags of rice in a Convoy of vehicles at Illara, the border Community  on their way to deliver  the items  to their sponsors in Abeokuta, they ran into  a Customs  patrol team, accompanied by ,soldiers, who were members of Operation  MESA who applied all the tricks to dispossess the smugglers of the vehicles loaded with the smuggled bags of rice without a gun- shot but the hoodlums were said to have  resisted it, leading to exchange of bullets.

Eye witness account confirmed that no fewer than four people were feared killed in the gun duel and six others injured.  It could not be ascertained  whether  both parties in the gun duel experienced the casualty as  Abdullahi Maiwada, an Assistant Superintendent of Customs failed to volunteer information.

To show that he was not top of the incident , he was reported to have said, ”  I learnt there was an interdiction  between  our men and smugglers at Illara, a  border Community when the smugglers wanted to move  bags  of rice in their vehicles out of the town to their receivers ”.

It would be recalled that on Saturday  April 14, 2018, Abdulraheed  Abdulsalam, an officer attached to the Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, Lagos Roving team  headed by Jack Okpabi, a Chief Superintendent of Customs, now in-charge of the Command Rapid Response team, was abducted  these fireworks men at Sango Otta , Ogun state. The hoodlums may have escaped with the Customs officer  without confrontation because the team had no soldiers or police back up.  The team may have gone out on operation based on available of information received of smuggled bags of rice hidden in an area, dreaded by soldiers and police men including Customs patrol to raid because of what may come of it. This is because lives would be lost as the suspected smugglers in the area are described as killers because of their fierce looks after taking tramadol drugs and India hemp.

But Jack , regarded as a fearless officer in Customs circles braved the odds to take his team to the area but was unlucky to lose one of his men to the ruthless smugglers, who sees smuggling as a matter of life and death. The FOU, Zone incident may have thought other Comptrollers of  the FOUs across the country and land border sations never to send out  patrol teams on anti-smuggling operations  either based on classified information or on routine patrols without the involvement of  soldiers from the Operation MESA, and the police  to effectively confront the smugglers and come out without results.  It is not surprising why the Ogun Command patrol team at Ilara border Community could dispossess smugglers of their convoy of vehicles loaded with foreign rice.Rice traders and  importers  confirmed the trend has worsened because  of the high tariff and 70 levy on imported rice into the country by the government.

A Customs source confirmed that rice imports  from the Asian countries of Thailand and India  had significantly dropped. Take Tailand that use to flood Nigeria ports with rice exports, between 2014 and now , the Magazine found the trend had changed  because of  the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, policy which which was  made public on June 23, 2015, that that it would no longer provide foreign exchange, for 41 items, including rice imports into the country.

From the peak 1. 23 million metric tons in 2014, it dropped to 23.192 metric tons as at November 2017.  For the past 18 months, the CBN , was  said to have stopped issuing Letters of Credit, LC, to rice importers  and those who have had opportunity of buying ffrom their oversea Customs by sourcing for forex from unofficial sources to buy from their oversea suppliers find it difficult to pay the 70 percent duties and 70 levy They had no option but to divert their rice cargo carrying vessels to Republic of Benin and other ports in the West African sub-region which find to Nigeria through unapproved routes in Ogun, Oyo, Lagos, Kwara, Sokoto, Kano, Jigawa and  Borno states, Cross river states among others.

Curiously enough, rice imports through Republic of Benin in particular  in the last 18 months had been on the increase due to the lower tariff. from  805.765 metric tons recorded in 2015 by at  the country’s seaport at Cotonou, it move up astronomically to 1.65 million metric tons  as at November 2017 and had continued to increase on a monthly basis since beginning of 2018. The gains of Cotonou port is also the gains of other  countries seaports in the West African subregion, leading to the suspicion that the staple food item might have been smuggled into the Nigeria market through  the land border.

Mohammed Abubakar, President, Rice  Millers Association  of Nigeria, RIMAN, hinted that smuggling  remains the major problem in the  rice value chain. Abubakar  pointed out that rice smuggling is thriving  because the price of the locally milled rice  cannot be the same  as that of smuggled rice because of evasion of duty by the importer. He is right.  Already there are indications  that some four rice milling Companies which had been so hard hit by  the high tariff and the 70 percent levy on rice  are almost being compelled to close shop because of drop in patronage by rice farmers.

The milling  firms hard hit by government fiscal policy measures include Veetee Nigeria ltd, Stallion Group, Dana Group and Olam Nigeria ltd. There are fears in both official and unofficial circles  that if the government  fails to review its  fiscal policy measure on  rice to attract low duty and levy as obtained in Republic of Benin to encourage legitimate rice importers and dealers, it may work against its lofty objective of to improve the sector  of proposing  the establishment of about 20 rice processing mill plants across the country.

Ibilola Sholaja, Vice President, Rice that insufficient of Nigeria rice Distributors Association of Nigeria, RIDAN, had said  one of the factors responsible for rice smuggling. Muda Yusuf, Director General, Lagos Chambber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI, corroborated  Sholaja’s views.

In spite of Federal Operations Units, FOUs, across the country, particular ,FOU,  Zone  A, to stamp out rice smuggling in the south west, Yusuf  disclosed the market share of smuggled rice in the region and other parts of the country was still bigger than the share of locally produced rice.

Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, governor of Kebbi state and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Rice, PTFR, had made it clear to those that care to listen that the mandate given to the Task Force  is to ensure  that Nigeria is self sufficient in rice production instead of depending rice imports.

As a prelude to achieve the stated objective , The Kebbi state governor  may have raised the hope of rice millers when he disclosed of government’s plan to reduce the interest paid by them on loans. The millers had asked  for reduction on interest on loans  to sustain the tempo of rice milling in the country. he admitted that what Nigerians want now  was  not about  making subsidy available on rice production but making  it affordable and accessible such that Nigeria rice could be as competitive as the imported foreign parboiled rice into the country.

Giving an insight into a close- door meeting with the RIDAN officials recently, the PTFR Chairman explained  the rice distributors are interested in selling Nigeria produced rice  because it is nutritious and help to provide employment to the teeming unemployed Nigeria youths.

As officials of the Nigeria Customs Service, NC, battles to contain the activities  rice smugglers across the country , RIDAN, members may have promised of their readiness to assist the government revenue and anti-smuggling agency  in stamping  out smuggled rice in the Nigeria  markets .

This is a good news to Kemi Adeosun and Audu Ogbeh, ministers of Finance, Agriculture and Rural Development respectively, only if they can fulfill  their promise. There had been such promises in the past by the Rice Millers and Distribution Association of Nigeria, RIMDAN, to  Abdullahi Dikko,  the former Comptroller General of the NCS.  the Association   bought branded  Hilux pick  up vans, with the inscription RIMDAN, which was donated to Customs to help in the fight against smugglers.

The Association did not stop there as it was giving out classified information on rice smugglers to smugglers and how to track them . they may have relaxed in supporting the Customs with information to track rice smugglers as most of them are said to be members of the rice smuggling ring.

It is not surprising why all the efforts  made by Muhammed Uba Garba, Comptroller, Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, in the south west and other and his counter parts in Kaduna,  Owerri, and Bauchi  and otherComptrollers  in the land border stations involved  across the country appear not to have made any appreciable impact.

take for instance, Lagos, Ogun and Oyo states, where the Command patrol and Surveillance teams had made spectacular seizures of trucks load of rice which should  dampen the enthusiasm of the smugglers to continue in the nefarious business because of the loss but they are  still swarming into the illegal business like bees, meaning that they are either corporate  or VIP smugglers who have the financial resources to go into full scale rice smuggling.

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