The food export initiative of the Federal Government, designed to generate foreign exchange and drive its economic diversification policy through revival of agriculture has stumbled upon legal obstacles.
While the government was basking in the euphoria of this breakthrough, there was sudden discovery of a set of laws prohibiting exportation of yam and other food items in the country, anonymous source from the Ministry of Agriculture, according to online newspaper, TEMPO.
The source said the development has gripped the government as a major setback to the Buhari’s Administration.
The Export Prohibition Act Cap E22 (1999) listed yam tuber, beans, cassava tuber, rice and all products or derivatives from them or other imported food items prohibited from exportation in Nigeria.
The source confided in us that government is worried in view of the magnitude of importance the law attracted to the exportation of these items that it stipulated life imprisonment as its penalty.
Citing Section 1 of the Act, Prohibition of exportation of certain goods, the law specified that; “Notwithstanding anything contained in the Customs Excise Tariff, etc. (Consolidation) Act or any Act or other enactment, including any statutory instrument or order, the goods specified in the Schedule of this Act shall be absolutely prohibited from being exported out of Nigeria.
In addition, Section 2 spelt that “any person who takes, causes to be taken, induces any other person to take or attempts to take out any of the goods specified in the Schedule of this Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment to life.”
But the punishment for the offence looms larger than just on an individual, in that associated tools and equipment such as the goods itself, vehicle, aircraft or other means of exportation, together with all movable and immovable assets of persons found culpable in this act shall be forfeited to the Federal Government on conviction.
According to our source, the implications of this is that if not well handled, the possibility of exploiting the lacuna in the law to effect the prosecution of the minister and all other government functionaries, including stakeholders, customs agents and even the Nigeria Ports Authority over their involvements in the promotion and exportation of these outlawed items may arise.
Asked if the Agriculture Minister was privy to the provision of this law before the yam importation adventure, our source denied previous knowledge by Ogbeh which informed the concern in the ministry over fears of the administration being accused of willful illegality.
Since becoming aware, government, we were told, has started working hard to reach out immediately to the lawmakers to cause a repeal of the hindering law.
Until vacated, government is considering suspending further importation of yam or any other item in the Act pending the success at repealing the Export Prohibition Act of 1999 which can only be tried by the Federal High Court.
This newspaper was told that vacating the law will be in the best interest of government and the bid to revive agriculture where farmers can engage in productive farming while at the same time, ensure food security in the country but early buy in and cooperation of the parliament will be of great value.
At the inception of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, the new government pledged its commitment to start a new economic plan where additional resources would be derived from the non-oil sectors; it therefore placed extra priorities on agriculture and solid mineral sectors.
In order to realise these plans, ambitious efforts were made to stimulate increased private sector investments in the solid minerals and agriculture and these have started yielding results in view of the recent yam exportation to the United Kingdom under the coverage of the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh.
Although the policy came under criticisms from those who felt the policy, although not bad, but may not be the best at a time the country is still grappling with recession and when citizens depend on foods like yam as staple food.
Others argued that government should have waited for favourable time when there would be enough production to meet local demand before pushing the remnants to the foreign market, at least to feed the people and guarantee food security.
But the Minister reasoned differently. At the commencement of the yam export on June 29 at Lillypond Container Terminal, Ijora, Lagos, Ogbeh said; “The yams we export will in no way diminish the quantity we have at home. Indeed, most of the yams we produce, rot away”.
The minister indeed argued that about 30 percent of yam produced in Nigeria rot away due to insufficient storage, therefore the trend could be arrested through the export policy where the nation could benefit in foreign exchange and farmers smiling to the banks.
During the exercise, 72 tonnes of yam tubers were exported to Europe. “Oil and gas cannot employ millions of people just like agriculture so we must work hard to move from oil to earning foreign exchange from agriculture,” Chief Ogbeh had said.