Why Customs’ rice gift stirs controversy
“The imported rice was poisonous because before coming into the country, it must have spent a minimum of five years in the silos.
“A chemical must have been added to sustain its freshness and that chemical is harmful. Also, it has been re-bagged with a new date given as the production and expiry date, and that is what we consume here which causes diseases,” these were the views of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, before the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Notwithstanding his position on imported rice, a superior order came from President Mohammadu Buhari on April 7th, to distribute the confiscated rice to Nigerians as relief items to cushion the effect of the lockdown on the people.
Ali immediately swung into action, amid worries by stakeholders that the seized rice might not be suitable for consumption, going by the poor handling of the seized items.
As weighty as the directive was, Ali immediately declared 46,000 metric tonnes (158 trailers) of rice to be shared to Nigerians through the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
Despite the state of some of the rice, Ali assured that “only edible items certified fit for human consumption by the National Agency for Food Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), will be released to the public.”
Unfortunately, the expected played out when the Oyo and Ondo State Governments rejected the 1,800 bags of rice, each, donated by the NSC, claiming they were bad and unfit for consumption.
The Executive Assistant to Governor Seyi Makinde on Agribusiness, Debo Akande, said: “We received these items from the Federal Government via the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and we brought them to the warehouse. It was in the process of further inspection that we discovered that the rice had been infested with weevils.”
Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, also ordered the return of some bags of rice as they were found to have expired.
Secretary of the State Palliative Committee, Alex Kalejaiye, confirmed that some of the bags of rice had expired and were no longer fit for consumption.
According to him, the bad rice will be separated from the good ones, and the good ones will be taken to the laboratory to ascertain if they are fit for human consumption.
Meanwhile, Oyo/Osun Command of NCS said the rice given to Oyo State was duly certified by officials of the State Government before evacuation, and was surprised by the rejection three days after delivery. The Command called for probe into the matter.
The Command, in a statement signed by its Public Relations Officer, Abdullahi Abiola, said the Service as an agency of government saddled with the responsibility of protecting national economy and citizens’ wellbeing cannot be associated with such an act.
He said: “As instructed, on the 20th of April 2020, the Oyo/Osun Area Command received high ranking members of the Oyo State Government in the persons of the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Jacob Ojekunle; the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Agriculture, Mrs Saidat Bolatumi Oloko; Executive Adviser to the Governor on Agribusiness, Debo Akande; The representative of Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management and Social Development in Oyo, Mrs MO Lasisi, and other members. They visited the Command twice on the same day to inspect the bags of rice that were available for allocation.“The Customs Area Controller, Comptroller, HU Ngozi, led them to the warehouses where they inspected the bags of rice, checked expiration dates and expressed satisfaction and readiness to evacuate their allocation.
“Before leaving the Command on their second visit, they pleaded to be given those from a section of one of the warehouses they considered ‘fresher’ and this was granted.
“Subsequently, on the 21st of April 2020, the Oyo State Government team came with their vehicles under the supervision of Jacob Ojekunle, Mrs Saidat Oloko, Mrs MO Lasisi and other top officials, in the presence of the Customs Area Controller, other officers and members of the press to witness the loading and exiting of the 1800 bags of parboiled rice allocated to their state as palliative to the vulnerable.
“Incidentally, in the process of loading, few bags fell at different times and burst open in the presence of Ojekunle and Mrs Lasisi, and there was no time that any of the burst bags of rice had weevils in them.
“The warehouse had no signs of weevils, neither were there signs of weevils on the loaders or on the trucks under the scorching sun.
“The three; Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States took delivery of the bags of rice allocated to them, returned their landing certificates to show delivery to its final destinations.
“They also showed appreciation to the CGC for his magnanimity. Contrary to allegations by Oyo State Government, Osun and Ekiti States have not complained about their allocations. The Command is therefore surprised, even embarrassed to hear three days later, that the rice allocated to them were infested with weevils and unfit for human consumption.”
Vice President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Kayode Farinto, told The Guardian that the matter arose as a result of failure of government to plan for the welfare of its citizenry.
He said: “The government is not serious about the whole issue that is just the bottom line. The CG had told them that the rice is not fit for consumption, but the President went ahead to give directive, and that means Ali released the rice based on the directive, not on his conviction.
“It has been politicised now, let’s thank the Oyo State Government for being very vigilant. What if they had given the bad rice to Nigerians?
“We all know that some rice were poisonous; we even know that there was plastic rice. I think the rice was distributed out of desperation and frustration. Ordinarily, what the Customs would have done is to certify that the rice is fit for consumption through the necessary agency like NAFDAC before sharing it.
“If you have 20,000 bags of rice in your warehouse, call NAFDAC; let them test it to know which one is fit for consumption before you release it, not just releasing rice.
“It is unfortunate that we like playing with people’s life in Nigeria. Everything is being politicised. Nigerian government is not really looking at coronavirus as an issue. In other developed climes like America, they gave their citizens $2,500 to stay at home. There is what we call food bank in London, but we don’t have these here.
“We even have a situation where the rice that is meant for the common man is being stolen by those that are supposed to distribute them. It is unfortunate. I was thinking that this pandemic will make some people to fear God, but it is not so in Nigeria,” Farinto said.