In a Whatsapp group with some friends who all qualify as middle-class Nigerians, one person said he has had to increase his ‘allocation’ for feeding at home. A bag of rice now costs N16,000. In December it cost N9,000. Another friend based in Port Harcourt interjected that N16,000 is a good price — it is apparently N24,000 out there. A quick check through Jumia bears this out —a 50kg bag of Royal Stallion rice costs N22,500.
If middle-class people are complaining about food prices, it is frightening to imagine what is going on with the 85% of Nigerians who survive on $2/day or less. One must ask — what manner of country allows this kind of thing to happen just like that? This behaviour says a lot about Nigerians and how their leaders in particular behave.
Here’s a chart of global rice prices in the last 1 year.
Rice prices have gone up since December but only by 15%. And if you say the problem is due to forex, that is the point I am going to make.
Is the Nigerian government powerless to do anything about the steep increase in the price of a staple that is eaten by almost all Nigerians? The price of rice is one of the few things that is guaranteed to affect almost all Nigerians. Nigeria is going through very difficult economic times, why allow the price of rice to go out of control if you are a government that can do something about it?
The anecdotal stories are not good. Last week, The Guardian ran a story about an increase in theft of cooked food in Ilorin
According to Alhaja Hamidalat Olawale at Sango, “I was cooking around 5.00p.m. in readiness for the breaking of the fast for the day. It was beans and I decided to use coal pot at the open backyard. I had added all the food condiments and was waiting for the broth to dry up. But to my greatest surprise, I did not see the pot of the beans again.
“I was shocked discovering this. What amazed me was that the thief did not come for it before it was ready; he or she came when the food was ready and we were already salivating, meaning the person must have been closely monitoring me.”
Another victim, an undergraduate of the University of Ilorin, Anita Bazuaye, said it was her pot of soup that disappeared beside her window.
“It was painful because as a student, it was difficult for me to get money again for another soup. In fact, when I managed to start cooking again, I did not leave the place until I had securely packed the pot inside my room.”
Things are rough. People are losing their jobs and at the same time are being squeezed by rising food prices. There’s no point rehashing the story of the recent shocking tomato price rises on account of the tuta absoluta pest.
They used to discourage eating in the dream but with the way this administration is going anywhere you see food abeg chop
— Shakabula (@muna_nz) July 4, 2016
In March, Audu Ogbeh, the agriculture minister, vowed that the government was going to ‘stabilise’ rice prices in April.
The Federal Government said on Saturday that it would stabilise the price of rice from April to make it affordable to everybody in the country.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, made this known while declaring open the 2016 National wheat farmers field day in Alkamawa village in Bunkure Local Government of Kano State.
Mr. Ogbeh said the stability of the price of rice would be very viable due to its demand and affordability to the people from April.
No such thing has happened and the minister is simply unlooking his own words now.
How The Other Side Does It
Serious countries go to varying lengths to keep food prices stable. It is the least a government can do in difficult times. And it is useful for reasons of self-preservation as well —a spike in the price of staple foods can kick a government out of office.
In 2013, freezing weather destroyed 30% of UK wheat harvests. For the first time in a decade, the country was forced to import wheat to prevent a spike in prices.
The cold weather has devastated wheat crops across the country, forcing Britain to import more of the grain than it exports for the first time in a decade.
The ruined harvests, which have cost farmers £500million, will force Britain, traditionally a significant net exporter of wheat, to boost imports by more than a million tonnes.
In 2014, excessive rains in France destroyed wheat harvests. This meant that France, the biggest wheat producer and exporter in Europe, was forced to import wheat
France’s rain-hit wheat crop has delivered the first shock of the 2014/15 season: the EU’s top grower and exporter is buying Lithuanian and British milling wheat to mix with its unusually poor-grade crop to meet contracts signed before the harvest.
French exports exceed those of Britain and Lithuania on the world market, but a wet summer has meant France is set to produce more wheat for animal feed and less higher grade bread-making grain this year.
The imports are the latest signal that France might struggle to retain its market share of milling wheat exports this season because a large part of its crop is failing to live up to its traditional clients’ criteria.
During the past 13 years for which Reuters has records, France has only once imported significant amounts of Lithuanian wheat.
This year in Brazil, a bad harvest affected beans production. The government’s response was to remove the 10% import duty on beans
FEW Brazilians get through a day without eating beans. They gobble up 3.4m tonnes a year, a ladle a day for each person. So when prices rise, as they did by a fifth recently after bad weather damaged the domestic harvest, they gripe. On June 24th the government suspended its 10% tariff on imports. Blairo Maggi, the agriculture minister, hopes that Chinese and Mexican farmers will fill the leguminous gap.
You can find various other examples where countries faced a challenge with food supply and responded to it. In those 3 examples, if nothing had been done, consumers would have felt a big spike in prices. If you can keep prices stable, it is important that you do so and not just leave things to get out of hand.
The Nigerian Response
How has Nigeria responded to this? Well, if you can call it a response, the government has acted in its usual callous manner and made things worse.
First, there was the stupid policy of putting punitive tariffs on rice imports in the name of spurring local production. This only led to a quota game. As I’vewritten previously, a report shows that only 1% of Nigerian farmland is irrigated, compared with 28% in Thailand. If you want to boost local production, that’s the problem to fix. Simply banning imports or raising tariffs will only boost smuggling.
But in the face of rising prices, the government has not said anything about reducing the pointless tariffs. It is just looking while Nigerians take the body blows of 100% price increases.
When the Central Bank banned 41 items from accessing official forex sales last June, rice was the first item on the list. The ban remains in place which means that anyone who wants to import rice has to source forex from the black market. Even the stupid rice import quotas have been suspended by the current government as it has not issued any quotas since it came into office last year. People are now trying to import rice using expired quota papers.
What about Customs? In March, Customs again banned rice imports through land borders. Then a couple of weeks ago, the Ogun Area Command Comptroller, one Waindu Multafu, had this to say about rice smuggling
Rice has become a staple food. It is the most smuggled item because of the financial benefits accruing to the smugglers. “People smuggle rice to avoid payment of Customs duty,’’ Multafu said.
“There is no place in our warehouse to put rice again. Though, we are making efforts to dispose the ones we have in the warehouse,’’ he told NAN. Multafu said that the command was doing what was right and expected of the officers and men of the command. The controller said that the command generated over N3 billion in the first quarter of 2016, adding that the amount exceeded what was collected in the corresponding period of 2015.
All he can see is smugglers. Rice is not uranium that is used to make nuclear weapons. It is food for people to eat. Even as millions of poor people have to deal with doubling of prices, all these Customs guys care about is chasing smugglers. He knows it is a staple food but to him that only means financial benefits accrue to smugglers. He even boasts that their warehouse is full of rice and that they seize rice from smugglers every day.
Rice prices are going up. Government keeps a ban on access to official forex to import rice. It also keeps punitive tariffs in place on imported rice. Customs is seizing rice every day and piling its warehouse with seized rice. Prices continue to go up and people are feeling real suffering.
This is not the behaviour of people who are normal. It is the behaviour of sick minds who either do not know what they are doing or are too callous to care, or both. In April, the President ‘ordered’ the release of grains from the ‘strategic grain reserves’ to alleviate some of the price rises. In reality, there is nothing in those ‘reserves’. They were built in locations that were determined by political considerations and then contracts were awarded to fill them up. You can guess what happened after that.
How did Nigeria get to the point where people can be suffering and the response from the government is to intensify that suffering? What is so special about rice that it has come to this? It is food and people need to eat! In the name of an idiotic policy, no amount of suffering can be too much. At a time when rice prices have more than doubled in a few months, what manner of country are you when your Customs is chasing people bringing in rice and filling its warehouses with food that people need to eat?
It is important for Nigerians to reflect on this kind of behaviour that does not care for the suffering of tens of millions of people. How can a government be so unresponsive? Is it waiting for the problem to simply go away even though it can do something about it?
The definition of food security is not that you produce all the food you need yourself. It is having different supply sources for your food. Weather can easily wipe out the harvest in a country — food security means that you are able to respond to this problem by importing what you need and ensuring that people do not have to bear any painful price rises. Food is so basic that it needs to be taken care of to allow people focus on other things.
The same thing happened with tomatoes. Pest destroyed the harvest and prices shot up astronomically. The government was looking and making noise. The only thing they contributed was to inform us that the name of the pest was ‘tomato ebola’. The CBN did not think to remove tomatoes from the banned items list. The National Assembly was indulging an outright crazy man and giving voice to conspiracy theories about tomato imports causing cancer. They also had time to plan a trip to inspect tomato factories in China.
I ask again — is it normal for people to behave in this way? Is it normal for a government to watch its people suffer from rising food prices and intensify that suffering? How did we get to this point where this kind of self-righteous wickedness has the full backing of the state?