Ebonyi and foreign rice ban.
Apparently buoyed by emerging support for its ban on the sale and consumption of foreign rice, the Ebonyi State government has to set up a task force to ensure full compliance.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh had commended the state government for the decision to ban the sale and consumption of foreign rice during his assessment tour of some rice projects in the state. Ogbeh who was accompanied by the chairman, Presidential Committee on Rice Production, Abubakar Bagudu and CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele commended Governor Dave Umahi for ensuring massive rice production in the state. He said “I heard you banned the sale of foreign rice in your state, God bless you for it”.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Abdullahi Adamu had in a different forum, endorsed the ban thus: “I support the ban on sale of foreign rice in Ebonyi. We have to start somewhere. What we know is that local production is not enough but we should consume it and that is not an excuse for importing rice”.
Umahi directed the taskforce to “confiscate foreign rice found in our markets, the person should give us the certificate of the quality of the rice and has to provide the import duties paid for it, where he bought it from and give us Standard of Organization of Nigeria certificate to prove that the rice is not poisonous”. He sought to justify these measures on the grounds that some foreign rice were poisonous having been stored for over 20 years abroad before they were smuggled into the country.
On the face value, it would seem all is well with the decision of the Ebonyi State government to ban the sale and consumption of foreign rice. This is especially so as the seeming overall objective is to discourage the consumption of imported rice and boost the consumption and production of local variant. This thinking is further supported given that Ebonyi has great potentials for the production of local rice which is said to be of better nutritive value than the imported variety. There is also a lot of economy of scale that will follow if our people are made to consume the rice we produce. It will create jobs, enhance income per capita and catalyze a positive leap in the general well-being of our people. These benefits are not in doubt.
There is also the compelling imperative to discourage the seeming insatiable appetite of our people for what is foreign. Thus, the inward looking approach for solutions to our developmental problems cannot be faulted.
These may have been some of the considerations that compelled Umahi to ban the sale of foreign rice –a product the state has elastic capacity to produce. Through the ban, it is seeking to encourage the consumption of locally produced rice which will in turn lead to increased production, job creation and improvement in the general well-being of the people. Conceived along this line, the ban would seem a step worth its while.
But its success would depend on a number of extenuating variables some of which are beyond the control of the state government. The first presumption of the policy is that Ebonyi has available, enough local rice to meet domestic demand. The veracity of this claim is clearly in doubt. For a start, it is doubtful if the state government has accurate statistics on the quantity of rice consumed in the state yearly. It is unlikely to have one since it has no way of monitoring the quantity of foreign rice that hitherto came into the state.
Even if it is privy to the quantum of local rice produced in the state, the unavailability of reliable data on consumption could in effect, render the policy nugatory. There could be scarcity of the product which in turn, will lead to price increase. It is also doubtful Ebonyi can produce sufficient rice to feed its people when the commodity is sold and consumed beyond the shores of the state.
If Umahi discovers that the rice produced in his state cannot go round as it is sold in other states, will he then turn around and ban its sale outside the boundaries of the state? This poser is at the heart of the contradiction brought to the fore by the sole action of that state in banning the sale of foreign rice contrary to extant policy of the federal government. The same contradictions were at play when Umahi directed the taskforce to extract from foreign rice sellers such information as certificate of quality, duties paid on the commodity and certificate from SON that the rice is not poisonous.
These issues are beyond the mandate of the state government as we have a surfeit of regulatory agencies for such assignments. Moreover, Ebonyi State is a land locked state. It neither has a seaport or airport nor does it share borders with any foreign country. What then is the propriety in going into the markets to inundate retailers with all these details that ordinarily should be supplied by importers at the ports of entry? Why hold the poor retailers responsible for issues they know little or nothing about?
How many of our rice importers have their head offices in Ebonyi and how many of them are from that state if any? These posers have been raised to underscore the incongruity in some of the demands the task force has been assigned to confront foreign rice seller with. They also reinforce the problems we run into when we roll out an isolated policy that ignores extant position of the federal government on the matter.
Ebonyi State went beyond its mandate to have unilaterally banned the sale and consumption of foreign rice in the state. The action is loaded with more problems than whatever benefits it is bound to achieve. Apart from the fact that it cannot guarantee sufficient supply of local rice, it will amount to an undue harassment of foreign rice sellers, most of whom are middlemen and retailers.
For such a ban to have meaning, the initiative should come from the federal government. But it cannot do so because of the mismatch between domestic production and consumption. Besides, Nigeria is signatory to many treaties on trade liberalization that frown at trade restrictions or outright ban on the importation of commodities. So where does the Ebonyi case fit within this matrix and of what value will it be in the overall national calculations to increase the consumption and production of local rice?
The federal government said it has initiated measures in several fronts to boost domestic rice production. These should be pursued with greater vigour. Audu Ogbeh has promised government’s rehabilitation of the Ettem Amagu Ikwo Dam, supply of rice harvesters, threshers and parboiling drums to the state. These are the issues to be vigorously pursued by the Ebonyi State government to ensure it gets its fair share of them.
The overall objective now should be to substantially increase domestic production of rice that can fairly compete with the imported ones. Once this has been achieved, the lure of force as a veritable tool to secure local consumption compliance will fizzle out unilaterally. Then, Ebonyi will have no need for a task force that will confiscate imported rice within its shores.
More importantly, with the phenomenal high price of imported rice, the availability of cheaper local variant should be a soothing relief to the people of the state. By simple economic laws, this will result in a shift of patronage to the cheaper alternative. If we still depend on force to get our people to consume our local rice despite its cheaper price, it should instruct we are yet to get our acts right.
These are the issue to worry about. The right approach is to get more rice produced, refined in such a way that will command local patronage. Then, there would be no need to worry about foreign rice influx and use of taskforces to harass sellers of the commodity. For now, the approach of the Ebonyi State government to the matter is a verity of putting the cart before the horse; an exercise in shadow chasing.