Muhammadu Buhari may not need another term as president, but he surely needs to gain political capital critical for enjoying legitimacy and for his party in future elections.
One of the simplest ways of doing that is to re-open the Nigeria-Benin Republic border, which is the entry point for major food products into Nigeria. The closure of the border, according to BusinessDay market survey, has shot up prices of food items by 50 to 100 percent in the last 14 months — deepening poverty in a country notorious for being world’s poverty haven.
“A bag of rice is now N35,000,” was boldly written on a cardboard placard flaunted by an #EndSARS protester at Gbagada in Lagos on October 16.
Another protester in Lekki, on October 17, before the shooting of peaceful protesters by soldiers, brandished a placard boldly written, “Our families cannot afford a bag of garri.”
#EndSARS protests have focused mainly on the brutal police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), but many young Nigerians have protested high cost of living that has permeated lives for more than one year.
Before the closure of the all-important border, which has been the source of Nigeria’s food items from rice to pepper, a 50kg bag of foreign or imported rice was priced at N15,000 to N18,000. But the price is now N26,000 to N35,000 in many parts of Nigeria. Many households buy garri, powdery food flour made from cassava tubers, on ‘painters.’
A painter of garri costs N400 before the border closure in August 2019, but it now costs N800 to N1000 in several markets in Lagos, Onitsha, Abuja and Port Harcourt. A 25kg bag of garri stands at N13,000 to N16,000 as against N8,000 before the policy began.
Similarly, a 50kg basket of tomatoes costs N8,000 to N10,000 before the border closure, but its price at Mile 12 Market in Lagos is N12,000 to N14,000 today. A tomato seller at the market says there have not been fine and good tomato crops since the closure of the border in 2019.
Also, a 50kg basket of pepper, which costs N5,000 to N7,000 before the border closure now goes for N12,000 to N15,000, BusinessDay learns.
“The cost of every food item has doubled since August last year. It has been the survival of the fittest,” Raphael Nwaenuigwe, an Anambra State-based poultry farmer, who also plants cassava and vegetables, states.
Cost of living has been on the rise since August 2019. Inflation in Nigeria stood at 12.82 percent in July 2019 before the closure of the land border, but it shot up to 13.71 percent in September 2020. Food inflation hit 16.66 percent in September 2020 as against 15.48 percent in July 2019, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The increase in the food index was caused by risen prices of bread, cereals, potatoes, yam and other tubers, meat, fish, fruits as well as oils and fats.
“The decision by the government to close the border was the catalyst that spurred the consecutive rise in inflation from August/September last year,”said Omotola Abimbola, a macroeconomist at Chapel Hill Denham after the release of September inflation figure.
While food prices are rising, incomes of households have been declining. About 83 million Nigerians are poor, according to the NBS, with four out of 10 people having real per capita expenditure below N137,430 per year, which translates to N376.5 per day, still below $1.
COVID-19 has pushed many Nigerians out of jobs and protest is expected to worsen that.
The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has asked the government to re-open the border to cut rising prices at a time when the economy is lagging.
Toki Mabogunje, president, LCCI, explained at a dialogue session with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo recently that the closure of the land borders had enormous implications for the economy.
“The indications are now that the closure is indefinite. While we share the concern of government on issues of security and smuggling, we believe that the indefinite closure of land borders is not the solution to the problem,” she said.
While the border remains shut, price of local rice has been rising rapidly.
“It means that quantity has not improved. Apart from the fact that agriculture supply is inelastic, the fundamental issues in agriculture have not been addressed,” said an economist, who does not want to be quoted.
“The best bet for Buhari is to re-open the border to allow free flow of goods and food. Then, make local producers compete. You do not make them competitive by shutting the borders, because you are shielding them from competition, which is a bad strategy. If you close the border till 2025, there is no evidence that local production will rise.”
Analysts see border closure as a strategy to enrich some classes of farmers at the expense of the majority of consumers. However, supporters of the policy say it is yielding results.
“Lots of rice farmers are increasing their production areas because there is a huge market for paddy since the border closure,” Aminu Goronyo, national president, Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, told BusinessDay earlier in the year.
Gro Intelligence, a data firm, estimated Nigeria’s rice output at 4.9 million tons in 2019, less than 7 million tons demanded. Data show Nigeria is yet to attain food sufficiency on any crop.
Data from Agriculture Ministry show that Nigeria is the largest producer of yam with 40 million metric tons per annum, but yam demand in the country is 60 million metric tons per annum (MT), leaving a gap of 20 million MT.
Nigeria produces 42 million MT of cassava but has a demand of 53.8 million MT of the crop, leaving a gap of 11.8 million MT.
National supply for Irish potato is put at 900,000MT per annum but with a demand of 8 million MT and a gap of 7.1 million MT.
Similarly, local production of sweet potato is estimated at 1.2 million MT, while demand is 6 million MT, leaving a gap of 4.8 million MT.
More so, Nigeria produces 400,000MT of wheat annually but with a demand of 4 million MT, which leaves a gap of 3.6 million MT.
Maize production in the country is put at 10.5 million MT but demand is 15 million MT, leaving a gap of 4.5 million MT.