Nigeria Needs Smarter Banning Policy on Commodities

Nigeria Needs Smarter Banning Policy on Commodities

By Samuel Nwite

A few days ago, we woke up to the news that Sniper, a Dichlorvos or 2,2-Dichlorovinyl Dimethyl Phosphate, which is used in Nigeria as pesticide because of its effectiveness has been banned in open markets, due to the alarming rate that people use it to commit suicide recently. The move was widely commended by people in many places, after all, it’s the fastest way to curtail its accessibility that is wrecking a fatal havoc on the populace.  So on the claim of “suicide prevention” Sniper took its place among other banned commodities, like the Codeine Syrup that was banned on the ground of substance abuse.

There are over 100 commodity items that are under ban in Nigeria, each supported by the claim of “solution” to economic sabotage, public menace, health concern or suicide. Items ranging from food products, certain medicines, industrial products such as glass bottles and textile fabrics and consumer products that includes footwear and furniture are all in the list. And there is always a large number of people applauding from the side of the ban, not because it’s the solution to the problem, but because it offers some advantage.

In 2015, when president Buhari banned the importation of rice, it was in a bid to curtail the country’s spending on imported foods, and to create opportunity for local producers of rice to thrive. The N7.92trn spent on food importation annually, which rice alone took N.59trn, was a voluminous evidence that there’s urgent need to cut the spending, and Nigeria needed to produce more than it’s importing. And for these reasons, the ban was justified. Rice Farmers went ecstatic, even though they didn’t have the production capacity that will bridge the gap of food insufficiency that the ban would create, or the farming mechanism that will beat the challenge. However, there’s going to be more sales at higher prices, and that’s all that counts. The hunger and economic hardship on the other side of the ban will have to be borne until the experiment totally fails or succeeds.

So the brute spikes of the ban hit home with audacious consequences. Prices went up from N7, 000- N9, 000 to N19, 000- N22, 000 per a bag of rice. With no redeemable option from local producers, or increase in wages for people to keep up, hope waits in starvation. Businesses started weighing their survival choices, which hung on only one solution- Smuggling. And Nigerian porous land borders said Amen to their quest. Traders who couldn’t keep up with the illegalities of smuggling, and don’t have the political connection to secure limited import licenses simply went out of business.

Today, the Rice Processors Association of Nigeria (RIPAN) is lamenting that in the last 3 months alone, over 20 million bags of rice were smuggled into Nigeria, and called for tougher sanctions, even on the supposed watchdog, Nigerian Custom Service (NCS), who they believe is enabling the inflow by taking bribe from smugglers. Rice is the most consumed type of food in Nigeria, and exploding population keeps increasing the demand that local farmers are not yet ready to meet. And Nigerians practically can’t depend on the farmers’ insufficient produce. (In Nigeria, food items takes the largest share from household expenditure which is over 67 percent of total household expenditure. And over 18 percent of that is on the products affected by current import ban. As for non-food household items, over 14 percent is affected by the bans.)

In 2018, when the federal government of Nigeria announced a ban on the production and import of cough syrup containing codeine, it was received with resounding applause. The epidemic resulting from the abuse was escalating, especially in the North, tearing through the future and mental wellbeing of the youth. And on this ground, the ban was plausibly executed. A cheap solution to a deep-seated problem.

The enforcement took effect immediately, although, pharmaceuticals were allowed to sell off what they had in store, but no more production of the syrup and no more importation of codeine. The next week the price shot up from N2, 500 to N5, 000, it has become gold. But it beckons misfortune for the more than 20 pharmaceutical companies producing and selling it, they may suffer huge financial loss, cut the size of their workforce or liquidate. Other people on the spikes menu are patients on the syrup prescription, who have to find alternate drug that may not be so effective and their health will bear the consequences. But then it doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is that the menace has been slowed down in the meantime, in the easiest way possible. It’s window dressing, never a solution. The project coordinator at Youth Rise Nigeria, an organization that researches drug-policy reform, Adeolu Ogunrombi, captured it well when he told Washington Post, “the cough syrup challenge is just a symptom of a faulty system, if we are just banning the cough syrup to try to solve the problem, then we are actually missing the point.” And he’s absolutely right.

We are talking about substance abuse epidemic that is beyond one product, we are talking about people who can try anything to get high: from sniffing a pit toilet to chewing Tramadol to mixing Paracetamol with hot drinks. The list goes on. It’s only a matter of time before they discover another substance to abuse to a high concentration, and the government will proffer the only solution it knows- “ban it.” And thereby put people out of business, creating another problem, ‘depression’ and eventual suicide.

Sniper is everywhere in the shops, with N500 or less you can get a bottle for yourself- a cheap way to die. But beneath the cheap sniper assisted suicide lies the “why” question that the government is not looking for its answer because the “how” question has easily been answered by shop owners who are only trying to make a living. In an era where over 42 Nigerian students have committed suicide, it’s obviously an epidemic beyond Sniper. Sniper is only the most famous among its contemporaries, and there are a thousand ways to suicide. If you ban ropes because people hang themselves with it, suicidal people will take to knives, electric wires, jumping the bridge etc. And if the ban is extended thus, it will become a sphere of fatal misfortune.

On the other end of the bans is economic misfortune that is evenly shared between the government and the people. Since apparently the bans don’t stop the products from being in circulation, they promote economic hardship by forcing households, individuals to pay more for the needed products from the little earnings they are trying to survive with. Because the products become more expensive in domestic markets than they are in international markets, and it is depriving consumers the right of variety to choose from: Only producers stand to benefit from this. And it shows that the welfare of consumers is never considered whenever the government moves to ban a commodity item. For instance, building material ban has yielded more pains than joy. The cost of building has tripled, enabling the vacuum in the housing sector by depleting the number of affordable houses and jobs that could have been created thereof.

On the other hand, the government is losing a great deal of revenue to private pockets. Duty fees generated through ports and borders have been significantly aiding government’s revenue generation. But no thanks to bans, the revenue has been cut in half by rogue ports and border officers who rake in millions allowing banned goods to be moved in to the country, and smugglers who would not pay to any of the parties, and government is the ultimate loser.

In the government that sees ban as a solution to the negative side of every product, goods and services, tariff is a rescue option. As the World Bank recommended, if bans are replaced by tariffs set at levels that reduce product prices, then the cost of living will fall and the welfare of domestic consumers will rise. And if regulation is used instead of ban, people will stay in business and government will generate more revenue.

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