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Stakeholders’ continue to be divided on FG’s forex restriction on food imports

It has been fireworks since President Muhammadu Buhari directed the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), to stop providing fund for food importation. Whereas some interest bodies tend to welcome the development, there had been barrage of condemnations from economic experts and industry analysts.

Just as the National President, Rice Farmers Association (RIFAN), Mallam Aminu Goronyo described the directive as a welcome development and a good deal to achieve food self-sufficiency in the country, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a Nigerian Knowledge Institution saw the policy initiative as very dangerous to the ailing economy.

In an interview, Goronyo recalled that in 2015, similar ban was placed on importation of rice but was criticised, adding that today, it has made the rice sector strong and viable. According to him, the current ban will make the country great as it will empower Nigerians economically in terms of employment. “At least 90 per cent of Nigerians will be gainfully engage, through agriculture. “We have over 54 commodities in the country and the moment we can provide employment through these 54 commodities, Nigeria will be economically variable. “It is 100 per cent a welcome idea; we had experienced this in 2015 in the rice sector and for now that it cuts across all commodities, Nigerians will be happy at the end,” RIFAN boss argued.

However, the Lead Director at CSJ, Barr. Eze Onyekpere decried that “This directive was based on the specious reasons that this was necessary for Nigeria to attain food security and that the agricultural policies of government had succeeded to the extent that we do not need food imports.”

“This directive is fraught with danger and appears to be an illegal directive for a number of reasons. The first issue is on the legality of the directive. By S.1 (3) of the Central Bank of Nigeria Act 2007, it is provided that:

(3) In order to facilitate the achievement of its mandate under this Act and the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act, and in line with the objective of promoting stability and continuity in economic management, the Bank shall be an independent body in the discharge of its functions.”

According to CSJ, “There are no provisions in the CBN Act or any other existing law empowering the President to run or give directives on foreign exchange management or any other component of monetary policy. This directive erodes the independence and autonomy of the CBN and presents Nigeria in the image of the Idi Amin fable, when he gave directives to the governor of the Ugandan Central Bank to print more currencies when told that the country was running out of money.  This directive is therefore an illegal directive which the Governor and Board of the CBN will obey at their own peril.”

“The second issue is that policies such as this, assuming it came from the CBN would have required a phased and gradualist approach in determining the point at which foreign exchange allocations for food imports will be reduced. This would have involved a multi sectoral engagement of farmers, food processors, the banking industry, transport and electricity sectors, etc., with clear demonstrable milestones of achievements to indicate the attainment of food security. This directive is rather a knee jerk reaction to the euphoria of sycophants who tell the President that his agricultural policies are working. And very unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this assertion in terms of more quantity, quality and cheaper foods available to Nigerians.

“It is imperative to clarify that we support every effort at increasing local food production and reducing Nigeria’s dependence on imported food products. But in the drive to attain the required level of self-sufficiency, we must not expose Nigerians to undue hardship. This brings us to the third issue, which is that Nigeria is far from attaining food security and has not even started the race for food sovereignty. Stopping the allocation of foreign exchange for the importation of needed food items will only increase their price since there will still be demand for the goods. Unless there is a ban on the importation of these food items, importers will still be free to source for foreign exchange from alternative sources to import them. Increase in the price of food at a time of grave economic crisis, increasing poverty and misery can only deepen the already fragile and precarious living conditions of the average Nigerian. Even an outright ban will be a misnomer in the circumstances.

“In accordance with Nigeria’s constitutional and treaty obligations, to take steps, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the right to adequate food, accessibility of food is imperative for the population. By General Comment No.12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the Right to Adequate Food, accessibility includes two dimensions, the economic and physical accessibility.

CSJ added that “Economic accessibility implies that personal or household financial costs associated with the acquisition of food for an adequate diet should be at a level that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised. On the other hand, physical accessibility implies that adequate food must be accessible to everyone, including the physically vulnerable individuals such as infants and young children, elderly people, the physically disabled, the terminally ill and persons with persistent medical problems, including the mentally ill.

“With the price of basic staples like rice and garri tripled since 2015 and Nigeria becoming the poverty capital of the world, it is clear that the majority of Nigerians neither enjoy economic or physical accessibility to adequate food. It appears Mr. President is cocooned in the lush gardens and mansions of Aso Rock and being surrounded by persons who are not minded to tell him the truth about the suffering in the land, he has lost touch with reality.

“CSJ therefore calls on the President to rescind this illegal and unconscionable directive which has only one natural consequence – the increase in the suffering of the majority of Nigerians.