The #EndSARS protest, which later turned violent, may have come and gone but it has left behind debts and scars on thousands of Nigerian businesses, traders, farmers, corporate bodies, and public institutions. In this report, EMMAMEH GABRIEL examines the impact of the protests on rice farmers and dealers arising from security flaws at the country’s land borders.
Since the protest was brought under control, rice farmers and dealers in the essential Nigerian delicacy are fighting hard to bounce back to full business.
The plight is compounded by the fact that the EndSARS protest came at a time commercial farmers were struggling to start all over again after months of lockdown that hindered the distribution chains of their products, resulting in the loss of millions of naira to COVID-19 pandemic.
Stakeholders in the agro industry in various interactions with LEADERSHIP Friday claimed that there were security breaches at the country’s land borders by economic saboteurs in some states who hide under the guise of the #EndSARS protest to carry out their nefarious activities..
One of them, Mr. Retson Tedheke, who is a commercial rice farmer, said: “Every movement in Nigeria that is nationalistic and directed and targeted at the Nigerian nation is good. However, along the line, once it goes against improving the lots of the Nigerian nation it becomes a problem and that was what #EndSARS became at the later stage of the protest.”
Tedheke, who doubles as the national coordinator, Nigerian Farmers Group and Cooperative Society (NFGCS), said that the losses incurred by his members were enormous and canvassed wholistic measures to enable them absorb the shocks.
In the same manner, governments, particularly the Lagos State government and private business owners are still counting their losses from the #EndSARS protests, just the same way, farmers and those in the agriculture value chain, have incurred debts and economic bruises, which they will live with for the rest of their lives.
Investigations by this newspaper revealed that while the protests were going on, smugglers leveraged on the openings created by the violence to flood markets in Ogun and Lagos States with smuggled foreign parboiled rice and other banned items.
Lagos, Ogun and the neighbouring states remain the major markets for rice distributors in Nigeria but the activities of smugglers have left them in distress in the last few weeks.
During the protests, hoodlums in Ogun and Lagos attacked Customs checkpoints where they killed a Custom officer, Solomon Alagye and left several others injured.
The incident was confirmed by the NCS Ogun State command’s public relations officer, Hammed Oloyede. It was gathered that the incident left the land borders in Ogun and Lagos opened for several weeks as NCS officers could not return to their posts for fear of a second wave of attacks.
While the mayhem lasted, smugglers moved contrabands around unhindered as the joint border drill operatives stationed near Covenant University, along Sango-Idiroko Road, Ota could not return to their posts weeks after hoodlums attack officers at the checkpoint.
The same was with the checkpoints from Owode inward Idiroko leaving the Ogun State border exposed for smugglers to operate freely for weeks.
On October 30, our correspondent in Lagos reported that seven vehicles loaded with smuggled poultry products and rice along Idiroko Road at about 8:00am heading for various markets in Ogun and its environs.
He also reported that the same products were smuggled on Saturday, 31st October, 2020 at about 10:00am with no resistance from the joint border operatives, Ogun Customs’ operatives or Strike Force Unit, Zone A.
His visits to some markets in Lagos showed that prices of rice have crashed by almost 50 per cent as a result of the unhindered activities of rice smugglers aided by the #EndSARS protest, a situation that has left local producers, warehouses stocks and distributors in a fix.
For instance, findings by our correspondent showed that at Owode Market, along Idiroko-Border Road, foreign rice that which hitherto sold for N26,000/bag now sells for between N14,000 and N16,000 while at Atan Market it sells for N18,000.
At Sango, a bag of rice sells for N20,000 while at Iyana Ipaja market, the price has gone down from N32,000 to N22,000.
What this implies is that, our local rice has been shot out of competition in the market, a dealer lamented.
Lagos is a major financial centre for all of Africa and is the economic hub of the country. The megacity has the fourth-highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Africa and is one of the most populated states in the country.
A source in the NCS at the Idiroko Border Command said that the morale of officers had been down due to the attacks on their checkpoints and formations in Ogun and Lagos States by hoodlums campaigning against police brutality.
He said that smugglers would have overran the South West especially Ogun and Lagos with contrabands but for the steadfastness of the Zone A of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Ikeja.
The officer who craved anonymity because he’s not authorised to speak to the press, said: “After the attacks, the morale of Customs’ officers manning the border posts came down, especially those in Ogun and Lagos commands.
“You can see the paltry seizure made by the Seme border command last week. That is not what Seme command is known for in terms of anti-smuggling but the need for face-saving accounted for why they made that seizure available.
When contacted, the national public relations officer of NCS, Joseph Attah, told our correspondent that a patrol base was merged for officers to repel hoodlums’ attacks.
“We have to merge patrol bases together to have good numbers and a lot is being done to motivate our officers. The comptroller-general (CG) has equally sent messages out to all officers telling them he is behind them as far as they are on legitimate duty,” he said.
Meanwhile, some Lagos-based rice distributors said that they have been in shock since the protests ended. According to them, smugglers who took advantage of the protest to smuggle foreign rice into the country are not only killing their businesses but threatening the investments of local producers and putting the health of millions of Nigerians at risk.
They said most of the smuggled rice had expired, accounting why prices crashed in Lagos markets.
Mrs Eunice Afiebor, a major distributor for NFGCS said she has not able to sell out of the four trailers load of rice she brought to Lagos a month ago.
“We have been rendered helpless by smugglers who dumped expired rice in our markets. We are close to the Yuletide and nobody is buying because most Nigerians still prefer foreign rice even when they are aware that they have expired.
“I cannot transport rice all the way from Ga’ate in Nasarawa State to Lagos and sell each bag less than 40 per cent of the original cost and I am not talking about transportation and other levies.
“The government must come up with more robust policies that will favour farmers and make production cheap for them. Because this is one area these smugglers are exploiting to take control of the market, while our economy continues to suffer the consequences”, she said.
For Angela Oynekere, the aftermath of the EndSARS protest has slowed down patronage and it is really biting hard on her investment.
She said: “I used to sell at least two hundred bags in less than a month but it is not so again. I have not been able to pay my suppliers because I can’t sell below the amount I bought from them. Like other local rice, Ga’ate Gold Rice was already gaining ground in some parts of Lagos but smugglers are frustrating the efforts of local producers.
“I don’t know how long this will continue. We are going through tough times selling our rice and I pray they (government) do something to save our business.
“It has become an epidemic for farmers nationwide because a nation can only survive by what she produces locally, revive her local industries, and I saw that in all of the challenges that faced every nation during the COVID-19 era, the leaders strived to generate and regrow their local capacity,” she said.
Similarly, Tedheke (commercial rice farmer), said: “We the Nigerian Farmers Group and Cooperative Society are first of all farmers, now we are a cooperative and a business employing over 500 Nigerians, sitting on a 3,500-hectare of farmland in Nasarawa State, paying over N5 million in salaries monthly and just coming out of COVID-19 did not need #EndSARS.
“We needed the protest to stop the police from extorting us on the road. We did not need it to break into warehouses where Nigerians like us have suffered to produce and keet our goods in the warehouses.
“Second, we also did not need the protest to open up borders and allow foreign goods to flood the Nigerian market, because that in itself becomes another pandemic to Nigerian farmer.”
He continued: “So when hoodlums under #EndSARS protest started looting and violence erupted, what simply happened was that some of us who are farmers who had produced and warehoused our produce, when it was time to sell it became difficult to sell because the land borders were overrun by bandits, criminals, those who did not believe in the Nigerian dream because every time you forcefully open the border and bring in imports – rice, pepper, tomatoes or whatever you think we can produce here, what you are bringing in is poverty, joblessness, hunger, banditry and kidnapping.
“So for those days we felt we were doing something noble to be able to reform the police, EndSARS, and stop what they were doing that was wrong; we inadvertently created another monster and that monster is joblessness because as far as there are imports running in through our borders and in Lagos what we have ended up doing, we have created problems for farmers in the country and we are going to live with it for a very long time.
“So, #EndSRAS as noble as it was, is a curse to the Nigerian farmers because what it simply did was to expose the weakness of the security apparatus and once they cannot manage the borders, you allow those economic, social and political saboteurs who have no interest in how this nation grows but have interest in what they can smuggle and end up ravaging the economy,” he concluded.
Border closure was meant to check smuggling and economic sabotage but during the #EndSARS protest, smugglers had time to develop decoys to beat border security and allowed contrabands into the Nigerian food market.
The price of the #EndSARS protest is huge; rice farmers and major marketers and distributors are groaning, the value chains have been greatly affected and with these combined with the current price of crude oil in the international market, the economy might bleed again if adequate measures are not put in place to address the monster, the farmers lamented.