In the last few years, there has been a raging battle for the survival of maize farmers in the country. This battle throws up many issues involving farmers on the one hand and government agencies, like the Ministry of Finance, National Bio-safety Management Agency and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, on the other.
Maize, unlike rice that is strictly import-restricted, is not an import-banned grain as no government policy has restricted its importation by any individual, company or body.
In the last two years, maize farmers have been clamouring for a total ban on maize import, which they say was forcing them out of business.
Two weeks ago, the Maize Farmers Association of Nigeria (MAAN) convened a press conference in response to a publication by the National Bio-safety Management Agency (NBMA) at which it cried out that the agency was also part of the system that is killing their business.
The national president of the association, Alhaji Bello Abubakar Funtua, said the agency was forcing it’s about one million registered members out of business.
“The recent publication by the National Bio-safety Management Agency on the request by Grand Cereal Limited, requesting for the importation of maize is not only alarming but a disservice to Nigerian farmers and government efforts at achieving self-sufficiency in maize production,” his speech read in part.
He argued that “MAAN is executing the ABP in 19 states that empowered more than 100,000 on-and-off farm workers. This modest contribution of MAAN, if complemented by other large-scale maize users, will comfortably create more than one million on-and- off farm employment in the maize sub-sector alone.
“Therefore, the request for the importation of maize in any form is considered counterproductive to the agricultural development of the country and should be discouraged in its entirety,” he said.
Alhaji Funtua debunked the statistic by the Ministry of Agriculture that showed Nigeria as currently producing 10.5 of the 15.5 million tonnes national demand, arguing that the figures were not correct.
He said maize production last year stood at 15 million metric tonnes and the projection for this year is 20 million tonnes.
The national president said the required quantity of maize by all processors in Nigeria is 8 million tonnes, stressing that there is no need for any importation as the farmers have capacity for whatever quantum was needed.
Also adding his voice, Pastor Tunji Adenola, the immediate past national president of the association, believes importation is economic sabotage orchestrated by enemies of Nigeria supported by some government agencies.
“We are organised in such a way that whatever quantity of maize someone needs we can get it for them. Why are they interested in importation when we have this produce here?” he asked.
According to MAAN, a letter of protest has been written to the bio-safety agency, the Vice President, ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development, Finance and Environment.
Responding to the claim, the Director General of the NBMA, Dr Rufus Egbeba, whose agency was accused of making the publication, said as far as the issue of importation of grains and other products was concerned, the agency was not in a position to grant any permit.
He explained that the agency comes in only where the agricultural produce are genetically modified to ensure that the import will not have an adverse impact on human health in the area of toxicity, alkalinity or on poultry that will consume feed processed, as the case may be.
“On the issue of permit on agricultural products, there are agencies that are in charge of importation of products. There is nothing wrong going to them with your products and telling them that you have enough products to cater to the needs of the poultry industry and also going to the grains dealers to make them know that you have enough products to cater for their needs. All these can be discussed and agreed on amicably instead of causing conflict in the process,” he said.
Dr Egbeba also explained why the agency accepts such applications: “Prior to now, there have been a lot of importation of grains and seeds into this country without the NBMA even knowing that they are genetically modified.
“It was after we carried out a national survey and we discovered that there are traces of genetically modified materials in some of these products that we now aligned with other government agencies, particularly the custom services on the matter. We sought that should there be anybody that wants to bring in bulk shipments of grains from countries that we know have genetically modified grains and seeds, we should be alerted.
“We advice the dealers and importers of such grains to come for bio-safety permit; let us ascertain whether these products are safe for us before they are brought into this country.”
The NBMA boss also advised farmers to approach the appropriate quarters if they have enough produce, restating that it was not their responsibility to grant import permit but to come in only if it was a product of bio-safety.
At the moment, about 400 metric tons of produce is expected into the country and so far about eight permits have been granted for the import of genetically modified maize.
Statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture where most of this maize is coming from show that Nigeria’s maize import in 2014 stood at 150,000 tonnes but by 2015 the importation increased by 33.3 per cent amounting to 200,000 metric tonnes.
However, 2016 witnessed the worst upsurge in decades as import stood at 650,000 representing 225% but went down in 2017 by 69.23% with import standing at 200,000 tonnes.
However, there has been a 100% increase in 2018 with import now standing at 400, 000 metric tonnes.
Last year, the issue generated controversy nationwide when the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh and the former Minister of Finance, Femi Adeosun, along with some governors and senators traded blames on the issue of maize importation.
Chief Ogbeh said: “If I had the power, I would have stopped the importation of goods into Nigeria 30 years ago. I don’t know anything about it. My ministry doesn’t know anything about it. It is the responsibility of customs to stop them.”
Similarly, Adeosun said, “I don’t know anything about it. One NGO approached us to import drugs for IDPs and we told them that they should buy in Nigeria.”
With those claims and counter claims, observers are asking: who grants import permits?
This reporter put this question to a customs officer who sought anonymity. He said the Nigerian Customs Service does not grant permits…”Our duty is to ensure that we implement government policies and laws at the ports. What the policy or law says we should stop from coming in, we stop; what it allows we allow.”
Currently, he said companies importing maize pay 5% duty.
On the pressure from farmers, Chief Ogbeh had also recently admitted that there was need to stop the importation of maize; acknowledging that there was no law that prohibits it coming into the country.
Until this issue is holistically tackled, farmers, government agencies and feeds companies will continue to trade blame and the nation’s economy will be the greatest loser.
As it stands today, lack of government’s deliberate policy on the subject has further heightened tension among farmers and some are already looking at going into other crops that enjoy protection by government policy, eg rice, soya beans among others.