Notwithstanding the heavy policing and thorough security checks at the land borders, aimed at ensuring compliance with Federal Government’s closure order, smugglers are still plying their illicit trade, as they have now devised new methods and new routes to convey their products, especially bags of rice, turkey and vegetable oil.
Investigations by Saturday Telegraph reveal that the illegal dealers in the commodities now engage the services of motorcyclists and canoe operators to convey bags of rice and cartons of vegetable oil from Benin Republic to Nigeria. An undercover operation by our correspondents, who were embedded among the smugglers, exposes the covert and deadly operation of the men of the underworld, showing how they bypass the borders by going through the sea and land using remote villages. On the sea, our reporters witnessed how a team of smugglers paddled their canoes in very dangerous manner, along the Cotonou- Badagry beaches, passing through places like Gbetrume and Inagbe to beat the eagle-eyed Customs officials. Some of the smugglers are also armed in the process as they ferry their illegal products in a combat steady manner, as narrated by one of the smugglers.
Witnessing smuggling operations
Pretending to be smugglers, our reporters had approached some canoe paddlers for help to take their wares to the other side of the sea.
Agreeing to carry out the dirty job, but not without a fee, one of the traffickers, advised our reporters to brace up for the show ahead. The canoe operator, who spoke in pidgin English, while claiming to be the ‘captain’ of the boat, said he is not new in the business, as he had been conveying people across the sea over the years. Not wanting to lose their money in case of any eventuality or a confrontation with naval officers, which could make them abandon the job, the traffickers opted to collect their money before embarking on the journey.
“Na gbege we dey go now. We never know whether we dey come back or we go yamutu, make you just ready and make you give us our money before we comot”, he said in adulterated language. The journey was however hitch-free as the canoe operators eventually stopped at place where some ‘okada’ riders took over the job. On land, the smugglers move their wares through Igolo, a border village and its neighbouring hamlets to pass through Owode and Idiroko in order to bypass Seme border and reach their destination.
The risky process of the new method has however led to the increase in the prices of the grains and oily liquid, as bikers now collect N100 per bag as against the N50 that was in force before the closure. In the same vein, bikers that hitherto convey between three and five bags on a single journey, now load up to six bags to do brisk business. As such, a single journey that used to cost the smugglers not more than N200 now makes them cough out N600 per route. This has no doubt added to the rising cost of the commodities, as it has made the price unbearable for consumers and end-users of the products to purchase.
Involvement of Customs, giant coys’ staff
Further investigations show that some Customs officials as well as drivers and haulage staff of some big and international companies are involved in the ongoing illegalities. Our correspondents did not only see how big trucks were allowed into the country, but also witnessed how they smuggled bags of rice,turkey and vegetable oil, using the cover of their business empires. On the particular day, convoy of trucks belonging to cement, paint, shoes and other manufacturing companies were seen packing the smuggled products into their vans.
One of our reporters, pretending to be a smuggler, had approached some of the drivers, who narrated how they have been ‘helping’ others to convey their goods across the border, before agreeing to take her bags of rice across the border for a fee. One of the drivers explained that the Customs officials would be compensated by their bosses once the goods arrive their destination. He said: “When we are stopped by the Customs people, we will just tell them that the rice belongs to the white men, our ogas, and that it is for their domestic consumption. They know how they get their money from our bosses.
“Police and Customs do not disturb the drivers of white men and big companies. That is the opportunity we have been using to take it across the border. We only enjoy the privilege to make our own money. “But your money will depend on the number of police and Customs check points. You know that they always take our apples and those apples belong to our oga. So, you will have to pay for the apples”, he said. True to his words, the officials met on the road were only shown the apples, which they took, promising to see the driver and haulage staff in ‘town’. What is however not clear is the place they referred to as ‘town’ as well as the reason for allowing the trucks to move despite the government order.
When asked the reason for their movement even with the closure, the driver simply replied that some buses belonging to big organisations are allowed to move with a special pass. “We can move, just like the multinational corporations can move. We enjoy the same privilege and they were told to allow us because our companies are international”, he said. An on-the-spot assessment to various markets by our correspondents across the country however shows that there is low patronage of the products owing to the rising cost of rice and vegetable oil.
Local rice in foreign bags
A new twist to the rising prices is the fact that some smugglers now put local rice in the bags meant for the foreign product. This was witnessed in one of the villages, where our correspondent was on covert operation. The village (names withheld), which was far away from the border and many miles into a busy Lagos busy area, had some of inhabitants repackaging the product. Saturday Telegraph team saw some people in the process of exchanging the bags, this they noted was to make it more attractive as many people believe in the consumption of foreign products. “This is just our way of making good money in this period. Many people want to eat foreign rice, they prefer Uncle Benz and other foreign rice but they don’t know the taste. “Once they see it in the foreign bag, they will buy it. We have been selling it to them, and they are eating it. That shows you that many of them do not even know what they are buying”, one the sellers told our correspondent.
Visiting the markets
In many parts of Nigeria, including Lagos, Benin, Kano, Port Harcourt and several others, Saturday Telegraph investigations showed that the prices of various brands of rice which is a staple food of most homes have also gone up while the availability of both local and foreign rice products vary from one market to the other Our Correspondent who visited Butcher Street Market on Mission road, New Benin Market on Benin-Lagos road and Agbado Market on Akpakpava road, all in Benin City, the Edo State capital gathered that local brand packs of rice are available with sharp rise in their prices while the prices of foreign products are prohibitive. The prices of some of local brands range from N19, 500 to N22, 500 per bag while that of foreign rice is between N25, 000 and N27, 000 each bag.
Indications showed that local rice is available in large stock in some of the markets visited while foreign products and brands are in low in stock. However, aside the low or high availability of the rice products, there is low patronage by customers due to the increased prices. Among the local brands available in the markets visited include Mama Choice N22,000,; Patron N21, 500, Tomato Rice N19, 000; Big Bull N22, 500 and Royal Naija N25, 000. Those of foreign brands are within the ranges of N27,500 for Cap Rice, Tomato rice N26, 000, Yummy Yummy N25, 000, Royal Stallion N25, 000 while the price of 20kg of Gripple Seven is N13, 000. The Niger State Chairman of Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), Alhaji Idris Abini blamed the reason for the increase and differences in the prices of local rice on activities of hoarders and also the farmers. He however told our Correspondent that, before the year runs out, there would be bumper harvest and rice would flood the markets and thereby crash the prices. When our correspondent visited the Engr. Abdulhadi’s Kure ultra modern and the popular Kasuwa Gwari in Minna, only few shops have foreign rice (Caprice and Stallion) displayed.
The prices of local rice in Ebonyi otherwise known as Abakaliki Rice has continued to increase. Though the commodity is much available in the markets and various mills across the state where they are processed, packaged and sold, the price of the rice has been on the increase because of its high demands arising from the restriction on foreign rice. A market survey conducted in across major markets in Enugu, including Ogbete Main Market and New Haven Market shows that full bag or bushel (50kg) of foreign rice (Caprice brand and Tomato brand) goes for N21, 000 as at this weekend, as against N20, 000 it sold about three weeks ago.
Similarly, half bag or half bushel (25kg) of foreign rice currently goes for N10, 500 as against N10, 000 it sold about three weeks ago. On the other hand, full bag or bushel (50kg) of local rice currently sells for N14, 500; while half bag or half bushel (25kg) goes for N7, 300. This is against N12,500 and N6,500 respectively about three weeks ago.
Traders across the country have said that following the closure of the country’s borders, the demand for local rice has increased, occasioning widespread scarcity in some states. Most of the shops visited by our correspondents in different towns showed that there were limited stocks of local rice on sale.
The most available brands of local rice in the markets in Imo are ‘Mama’s Pride’ and ‘Chef’s Choice’, and both are produced in Nasarawa State. One of the traders in Owerri, Ebuka Uzoigwe, lamented the ordeal traders undergo to get supply of rice, adding that the country was not yet prepared for the border closure. He said: “Local rice is speedily going out of the reach of ordinary people and it is not yet Christmas. The rice is not even available and even where it is available it is costly. Before the border closure, local rice was sold about N14,000 but now Mama’s Pride is N20,000 while Chef’s Choice is N18,000. They are almost the same price with foreign rice which is sold about N22,000 but unavailable.
Most of the bags of foreign rice you see in the market today are old stocks.” “Some of us came together, contributed money and ordered a trailer load of local rice. It is two months now since we gave money to our supplier and we have not gotten any supply. Only recently the supplier called us to tell us that to facilitate timely delivery of the supply, we must add an extra N1500 for each bag of the rice. It is the final consumer that will bear the brunt. ”
When asked about the Abakaliki rice from Ebonyi state and the Coscharis rice, he said the Abakaliki rice was also as scarce as others while stressing that they were yet to see Coscharis rice in Owerri. “For now, people that want to buy Coscharis rice, we refer them to the television where they saw the advertorials. The point is that we did not produce enough to go round before we shut down our borders. After the border closure, it became obvious that most of the states we thought were producing rice do not even have enough to serve their state which is why we no longer get regular supply and when we get, we get them at exorbitant prices.” Mrs. Ngozi Okereke in Orlu confirmed that for the first time, she just got supply of the Coscharis local rice and that it sells for N21,000 a bag. She also lamented the sudden hike in the price of local rice in the market. “It defeats the purpose of closing the borders and banning the importation of foreign rice,” she said.
In the southern parts of the country, local rice such as Bblue, Maurice, Maka, Offada, “O’god” and so on are largely available in the markets and while foreign rice like Tomatoes, Good Mama, Flourish, Good luck and so on prices were put at N27,000, N28,000 e.t.c at Sekona, Oluode, Ilobu, Owode markets of the state. At the popular Ogbeogonogo Central Market in Asaba and Midwifery Market along Okpanam Road, the price of a 50kg locally produced rice has risen by more than two-third since July. As at October 10, the price of Caprice foreign rice rose from N16,000 to N29,000 while locally produced stonefree Tomatoes rice skyrocketed from N13,000 to N25,000, even half-bags went up from N6,500 to N15,500.
While foreign rice is scarce in the markets visited, owing to the border closure, local rice, which is expected to have flooded the marketplace, is at lower production. Prices of poultry food like frozen turkey and chicken rose at fastest pace from N1,300 to N2,200 and N1,100 to N1,400 respectively.
The Chief Job Creation Officer, Prof. Eric Eboh, to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, said Okowa had succeeded in using agricultural landscape to develop the state and create wealth and job for unemployed youths and graduates in the state. He said: “We are already milling the rice.
It will be from farm to table. We will process and package it to be launched. It will end up at the government conference table, where it will be served for governors and captains of industries, and declared open to be exported to other countries for consumption.”
In Abia State, the much talked about Abia Rice (Osikapa Abia) could not be found in any market. It was gathered that the Abia Rice has no particular point of production but as produced at the various rice producing communities. Recently, the Chief Press to Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, Mr Onyebuchi Ememanka, told journalists the Ikpeazu administration has established four cottage rice mills at Ofeme, Bende, Acha and Uzuakoli with plans to establish additional mills in Arochukwu and Bende.
In Bayelsa, the local rice, which is now the generally accepted, has flooded the markets. A visit to Swali market the biggest market in Bayelsa showed that almost all the local brands of rice were available. It was noticed that there were more than six brands of local rice at the market. North Despite the closure foreign rice is still available in some markets in the North, especially in Sokoto State. One of our correspondents who visited markets in the North noticed various brands of foreign and locally produced rice. The brand names of the rice seen in the Sokoto old market includes Naija, Sogar, Tomato Anajo, Royal Stallion, and Diamond among others, while the local rice include King, Royal, Naija, Labana, while others have no brand names.
Traders in the old market in Sokoto said the hike in the price of foreign rice had made consumers to have preference for local rice. A trader known as Aliyu said the price of foreign rice had increased to N1000 per measure and 50kg bag of the commodity is being sold at above N18, 000. According to him the increase has led to consumers demanding locally produced rice with a stable price of between N550 to N600 a measure. In Kano, despite the availability of local rice and the springing up of many milling companies, the prices of the commodity has skyrocketed.
Some of the rice farmers and sellers in Kano have different positions on why the price of the commodity is high, some believe that lack of implements and lack of seri-ous government intervention caused the hike in price. Alhaji Zakari GarunBaba a big time Rice Farmer, believes that all the Federal Government’s policies on rice farming was rather a failure because most of them who were truly in the business were not considered.
“You could see that after spending these huge amount the prices of rice in the final analysis will be determined by how it is being produced locally, that is why today we have a bag in the market been sold at N15,000 to N16,000”. In the same vein Alhaji Sabiu Bako a rice miller who recently open his milling company, said from diesel to other operational items needed to produced the local rice they spent millions of Naira that is why it is still high price in the market. The Federal Government Boarders Closure has received a significant supports from the Nigeria Rice Producers who says the policy is greatly making impact on the home grown rice.