Reversal of rice import prohibition and its consequences By Dele Sobowale

Godwin-Emefiele-360x225If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Yogi Bera, American Comedian.

The report in the NATION, October 13, 2015, page 7, titled “Fed Govt suspends quota issuance to rice millers”, brought tears to my eyes. It would be the third time in my life that the Federal Government of Nigeria would drive me to tears of frustration over the national policy on rice importation. Althogu, I no longer have any investment or involvement with the sector, it is the only sector in which personal monetary investments as well as sacrifice of well-paid job was made because of government policy announcement.

Last year May, on my 70th birthday, I decided to travel by road to Sokoto, my last place of employment in the North. Situated on Kalabina Road, right next door to Sokoto Cement, is the carcass of HASKE RICE MILLS LTD, where I joined at 43 and worked until February 1990 as the General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, GM/COO, until policy changes and death in the family forced me to abandon the dream of becoming Nigeria’s Rice King.

At 46, having made a great deal of success in the pharmaceutical and brewery sectors, as Sales and Marketing Director, I yearned for some big enterprise which will impact the lives of millions of Nigerians and which would be sustainable. By 1983, I already knew the North like the back of my hand and the first decision was to settle there. The second was to get involved in food production and that involved evaluating several possibilities – animal husbandry or crops or combinations of both (integrated farming).

The ultimate decision was made easy when, shortly after introducing the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, the Babangida administration announced a new rice policy designed to make Nigeria self-sufficient in rice production and also making the country a rice exporter by 2000. That meant planning to grow millions of metric tonnes of rice annually of a crop which most Nigerians consumed at least once every two days.

That was the sort of project for an ambitious young man wanting to feed millions. But, I was stuck at first, I didn’t know where to start and how to enter into the sector. Then fortune took a hand a the matter, I received a call in my office at the brewery in Kano to come and see the younger brother of a retired Major-General.

As it turned out, the General and his brother had just bought a rice mill which was established by the President Shagari administration and which had been run aground in a very short time. The brothers needed a manager who could turn the mill around and one of them had been told at the Kano Club to get in touch with me. That was how I landed in Sokoto; but not before securing a five per cent stake in the business with option to increase to ten per cent.

On the day of my arrival in Sokoto, there was not a grain of paddy rice to be milled. But, the government’s ban on rice importation had created a rice scarcity. The nearest places to get rice to Sokoto were the Bakolori Dam project near Talata Mafara, one hundred and fifty kilometers away and Yelwa Yauri wetlands; over 280 kilometers down south. But, within two months the mill was running.

Later, working with thr Rice Institute at Badeggi, we developed various varieties of rice suitable for each ecological zone of Nigeria as well as wetland and upland varieties. Our biggest “coup” was to have dam situated in Goronyo under the Fadama project. Those of us involved were determined to remove all the obstacles in the way of making Nigeria self-sufficient in rice.

At first our greatest enemies, it turned out, were a small band of Nigerians, smugglers, aided by the rest of our Fellow Countrymen, especially those in uniform called CUSTOMS SERVICE. For private gain, they virtually rendered government policy impossible to implement.

But, just as the investors in the sector were making headway and expanding paddy production, the Federal government changed policy by, first approving rice import quotas to selected firms. The problem with this was soon clear to the investors. We were suddenly faced with competition from two sources – smugglers and those with import licences. Unfortunately for Nigeria, and us, the limits on the quota licences were not strictly enforced.

By 1990, the country was once again flooded with cheaper imported rice with which local millers could not compete. HASKE was in the midst of finding solutions to these problems when our Daddy died and, as new head of family, I had to resign and move to Lagos. But, I still followed the trend of events as they unfolded. HASKE closed its gates about four months after my departure.

Similat mills at Makurdi and Badeggi soon followed. Since the three were the biggest millers, it was only a matter of time before others stopped. When the Jonathan administration embarked on the implementation of its rice policy, prodded by Dele Adesina, the former Minster of Agriculture, now President of African Development Bank, they traveled down the familiar road – which had left us starting afresh every time another government announces its own “Rice Policy”.

Invariably, the government receives applause from those who are actually waiting to subvert it knowing it would create an initial scarcity; and also knowing that Nigerians are impatient for results. Just as certain, when the predictable scarcity emerges, smugglers, CUSTOMS, and those close to the seat of power request for import quota. That inevitably kills the rice policy.

We are now repeating the same mistakes made in the past and because of this Nigeria will never become self-sufficient in rice. One of the greatest fortunes in Nigeria and the world, today, was built on quota licences granted to an individual for rice and sugar.