Before Food Disappears from Nigerian Tables Again...

THISDAY Newspaper- Taiwo Olawale

Early last month, many people woke up in southern Nigeria one morning to discover that food had literally disappeared from their tables. Fresh tomatoes and other vegetables suddenly became gold; where they could be found, they became so expensive that many housewives went back home without buying them. Beef also disappeared and yams became untouchable. While the sudden scarcity affected most states of the South West, Lagos was the worst hit. Panic set in as hair-raising rumours began to spread.

The immediate reason for the sudden disappearance became known instantly; food sellers’ associations were on strike. It was actually a warning strike that was to last one week. But the exercise caught many by surprise. In the first place, only a handful of people who were lucky to have visited major vegetable and food markets on the eve of the warning strike were lucky to have had prior knowledge. Besides, a large percentage of the population lives well below the poverty line. This means that many of them live from hand to mouth; that is, they cannot stockpile anything even if they had wanted to.

Mrs Shade Oyenuga, a housewife had told THISDAY during the strike that it was difficult to stockpile foodstuffs before the strike. “There is no money. Even those who can afford to buy some of these items cannot because power supply is very bad. How do you preserve vegetables and meat in this (hot) season when there is no electricity to power the refrigerators? So, we are all at the mercy of the food sellers and we are all suffering.”

And did the people suffer! Many had to forego several food items while the strike lasted. But the food sellers had an explanation for their action. According to the Chairman of the Mile 12 Market Men and Women Traders Association, Alhaji Haruna Mohammed, the traders have been suffering for so long and all efforts to get the governments of the states concerned to take action have remained unsuccessful. In particular, he explained that the strike became necessary because transporters and traders who bring in the vegetables and foodstuff have been suffering unbearable multiple taxes and harassment in the hands of government officials and touts.

Then, he had told journalists that, “Each state these trucks pass through from the North down to Lagos collects taxes. A trailer loaded with foodstuffs often ends up paying up to N100, 000.00 in taxes before getting to Lagos. The worst is the Ogun State government. After paying at their border towns, we get to Lagos to pay another round of taxes.”

Mallam Yusuf Danjuma, Chairman of Amalgamated Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria corroborated Mohammed’s submissions and reiterated that the strike affected “the supply of cattle, tomatoes, beans, rice, vegetables, onions, chickens, maize, carrots, goats, yam and other food items supplied to the South from Northern Nigeria.” He regretted that it was worrying that their members are forced to pay huge amounts of money to bring their goods to the south. This, he said, is in addition to various levies paid at the point of delivery before such products are off-loaded for sale in the markets.

The traders wanted the Federal Government and governments of the states through which they transport their produce to find lasting solutions to the problems. So, it was actually not just the problem of Lagos alone. Danjuma confirmed this when he told a National Daily that, “Whenever we are transporting cattle and other foodstuffs to the South, some states are there blocking us and collecting money from us. If you buy something in Maiduguri and you are bringing it to the South, nobody disturbs you in Yobe, Bauchi, Plateau and Nassarawa. But as soon as you come to Makurdi, you start facing extortion and it extends to Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Akwa-Ibom and Cross River.

But Lagos is the biggest market for the produce; it was therefore the worst hit. Lagos is also the worst culprit in the harassment and multiple tax imbroglio. According to some officials of the foodstuff association, a truck pays as much as N12, 000.00 in taxes and other under-the-table levies in Lagos alone! The traders and transporters also alleged that they are harassed the most in Lagos by policemen and agents of the Lagos state government such as LASTMA, KAI, LIRS, local government officials and even area boys.

Because the state was badly hit, the Lagos state government was one of the few governments that took immediate action. THISDAY gathered that the state government reached out to the protesting transporters and merchants and assured them that it would look into their grievances. To show that it meant business, the state government constituted a special committee to look into the grievances and report back in two weeks. The committee was chaired by Ade Ipaye, the Special Assistant (SA) to Governor Babatunde Fashola on Revenue and Taxation.

Based on the state government’s assurances, the traders started bringing in produce again six days after they started the strike. But the crisis did not just affect consumers; everybody involved in the chain was badly burnt by the strike action. Like the consumers, many people involved in the transportation and distribution of vegetables and foodstuffs are daily paid workers or labourers who live from hand to mouth. So, while the strike lasted, transporters, labourers and retailers suffered great economic loses and personal pains.

Most importantly however, the action laid bare the soft underbelly of the country’s agriculture sector. Available statistics show that about 70 percent of the country’s population is engaged in agriculture. Those figures also show that more than half of the nation’s food is produced in the North. And, nearly half of all the food produced is lost due to lack of modern storage facilities. The one week strike exposed all the inherent weaknesses in the sector in so many ways.

In the first place, it confirmed that an overwhelming percentage of the population is truly involved in agriculture as many people went hungry because they could not sell their produce or earn their daily pay from the sale of farm produce. It also confirmed that most of the country’s food comes from the North. In addition however, it confirmed the interdependence of different parts of the country in the food chain. The North produced food and there was nowhere to take it!

While the strike lasted, traders bringing in the produce from the north had nowhere to take their produce. Many, who loaded produce at different markets in the north headed towards the south in the hope that the strike would be called off before they got to their various destinations, had their fingers badly burnt. There were reports that days after the strike started, many trucks got stuck in towns such as Mokwa, Makera and Gada waiting for the signal to proceed to the south.

“Most of the trucks waited in these towns only for two or three days. But the merchants suffered heavy loses. As you know, they were transporting food items which were perishable. So, the items were rotting away as they waited. By the time they moved, most of the tomatoes and other items had gone bad”, Mallam Audu Direba, a transporter told THISDAY during the strike.

The loses also extended to the farmers and major dealers in the north. Because produce was stuck along the food chain, middlemen suspended purchases and farmers lost harvested produce. The loses both way only amplified the country’s pathetic storage system. The few government storage facilities do not have capabilities to handle perishable food items like vegetables and meat. So, farmers rely on traditional methods which can hardly preserve fresh tomatoes and vegetables beyond a few days.

If only the country had kept tab of the loses incurred by farmers, transporters, merchants and retailers, it would have been confirmed that ordinary Nigerians lost hundreds of millions of Naira in the few days that the warning strike lasted. Add that to the man-hour and other ancillary loses (especially the gargantuan traffic jams caused by convoys of trucks that brought in the foodstuffs after the strike); and the country would have lost billions of Naira!

Unfortunately, as the country is beginning to recover from the economic and psychological trauma of the warning strike, the Amalgamated Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria has issued a fresh ultimatum in Lagos. The Secretary-General of the association, Comrade Kabir Hassan, who issued the ultimatum on behalf of the association, explained that the association was forced to take the decision because of the refusal of agents of state to stop extorting and harassing its members. He said the nationwide strike, which would be indefinite, would commence on April 20 or 21.
Hassan said officers of the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA), Rapid Response Squad (RRS), Nigeria Police and Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) continued to extort and harass its members even after Governor Fashola had set up a committee to address the complaints raised by the association in its warning strike in March.

He explained that the leadership of the association resolved to go back on strike because the cases of multiple taxes, extortion and harassment of its members had reached intolerable levels, stressing that this informed the association’s decision to give the state government a 14-day ultimatum to adequately address the concerns of its members or face an indefinite nationwide strike.

The Secretary General noted that, in addition to meeting officials of the state government, the association has met with other stakeholders in a bid to find amicable solutions to the problems of its members, saying that they would have no choice but to go on strike if nothing is done within the period of grace. He said: “The leadership of the association met with concerned state government officials on Monday to make our decision known. We also met the security leaders in Lagos state, including Commissioner of Police, Mr. Marvel Akpoyibo and LASTMA Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Young Arabamen among others.”

So, once again, food may disappear from Nigerian tables if nothing is done to stop the impending strike. Once again, farm produce would perish on farms across the nation while traders flex muscle with federal, state and local governments. Farmers would watch helplessly as the fruits (and vegetables) of their hard labour perish before their very eyes. Children would again eat rotten vegetables and adults would go hungry again.

But there are about ten days before food disappears from Nigerian tables again. And, governments must act urgently to save Nigerians, needless suffering. In the first place, the problem is not just a Lagos problem. From Hassan’s statements, it is obvious the food dealers intend to make it a nationwide strike. This means that it would affect everyone, one way or the other.

Secondly, one of the issues raised by the warring association is the issue of multiple taxes. This is one problem that the federating units of the Nigerian nation really need to look into, and urgently too. It is an issue that has pitched almost every sector of the Nigerian economy against the different tiers of government. There is an urgent need for all levels of government to meet and harmonise taxation. And, Nigerians don’t have to go hungry before governments begin to look into the issue of multiple taxation.

As it concerns cattle and food dealers however, there is an urgent need to rein in overzealous state and local governments desperate to raise their internally generated revenue by harassing transporters. Sources within the Amalgamated Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria claim that some state governments have relaxed their tax drive since the initial warning strike was called off.

One of the sources told THISDAY that it is only Oyo, Ogun and Lagos that are still problematic along the North-South West corridor. “Lagos is the worst culprit. In Lagos, the harassment is unprecedented. Everybody wants money and there is only one government receipt for all the money they collect from us. The most demanding of these officials are LATSMA, Road Safety and RRS (police special squad men). They mount road blocks at every kilometre and collect a lot of money from us. Ogun and Oyo states are also very troublesome. We pay so much money in these states that they account for more than half of the levies and taxes we pay from point of loading to point of off-loading”, the source declared.

So, the whole nation may suffer the pains of food shortages from April 20 because of the sins of three states. Unfortunately, the efforts of only one of the states may not be enough to save the situation. All the three states and, indeed, all the other states involved would need to act to save the situation. This is where the federal government comes in.

This was the submission of Alhaji Aminu, a foodstuff merchant at the Mile 12 market. According to Aminu, the federal government needs to lead a coordinated effort to solve the problems once and for all. “There would be no progress if one state solves the problems and another does not. It would also be counter-productive if we have to negotiate one issue in one state today and go to another tomorrow to start all over again. Besides, since the whole country is involved in the chain from farm to market, we should all talk as one entity. So, the federal government needs to take active part in bringing all of us to the negotiating table”, he argued.
He also argued that, by meeting at such a high level, states would be able to exchange ideas on taxation and agree on what should be charged in each state depending on whether the state is a transit state or a major player in the food chain. He said, “By coming together, the states and the federal government can agree on what each of the federating units should charge depending on their roles.”

More importantly however, there is the need to take measures that would help develop the agriculture sector beyond the mere daily subsistence farming that it is presently. If there are better technologies and storage systems, the sector would become more robust than it is today. Even in the face of threats such as the one issued by the Amalgamated Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria last week, there would be no panic. Farmers would be able to keep their produce for longer periods thereby minimising loses whenever sales are disrupted by any unforeseen circumstances, including strikes. Consumers would also live with the assurance that there would be food on their tables no matter what any union or association does.

There is also the need to evolve better transportation systems for perishable goods. In more developed climes, tomatoes and other perishable goods would normally be transported in refrigerated containers. Nigerian governments and other stakeholders ought to be working towards developing advanced and better transportation systems for perishable food items. With such systems, the kind of subtle blackmail which officers use to extort money from transporters would cease. “The officers who extort money from our people knowing that we are always under pressure to get our goods to our destinations; they know the goods must not rot under our watch. So, they use delays to threaten us and we are forced to pay”, Aminu said.

The strike threat is no doubt a big challenge for all tiers of government. Multiple taxes and harassments are real. So, the Amalgamated Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria may truly have a case. And, unless the issues raised are properly dealt with and resolved, many Nigerian families may soon feel the pangs of hunger very soon.

So, resolving this imbroglio should be the new Executive Council of the Federation (EXCOF)’s first and most pressing assignment as the members settle down to work. The council would need to look into the grievances of the foodstuff dealers and seek ways of resolving them to the satisfaction of all concerned. More significantly however, the EXCOF would need to seek more permanent ways of protecting consumers, farmers, merchants and the whole food chain.
Of course, by acting now, the council would be protecting the country’s biggest employer and highest contributor to the national GDP. Then, of course, there would be the need to create an enabling environment for the agriculture sector of the country to grow beyond the rudimentary level that it is today.

In the task to save the nation from another round of food shortages, the Acting President may also use the enormous powers of the presidency for the benefit of the people. He may need to call the principal actors to order and kick-start the process of resolving the problem once and for all. A popular African saying declares that if food worries are resolved, poverty becomes greatly diminished. In the fight against poverty, food worries must first be addressed. A strike is definitely not one of the ways to address such an import issue. Food scarcity is bound to occur if the strike takes place. And, people would suffer seriously.

All stakeholders must act responsibly if the people must be saved another round of food worries. Governments must seek genuine solutions and the traders must not push their demands too far. Everyone should realise however that with the recent ultimatum, the threat of hunger is real and unless something is done urgently, food may disappear from Nigerian tables again. And, food matters are, no doubt, serious matters.


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