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The Deprivation And Collusion In The Ban Of Fish Imports By Ugochukwu Ugwuanyi

January 6, 2014

Happy new year beautiful people and welcome back to our rendezvous.

Happy new year beautiful people and welcome back to our rendezvous.

Permit me to allow fish to engage our attention today. It seems the creature is angered by our letting goats, cows chickens and turkeys steal the spotlight as if it never existed. As if it wasn't what we relied on for our animal protein prior to the yuletide. It is justifiably irked that within the last two weeks we've helped our favourite yuletide animals exit this wearisome world without visiting the same favour on it. 

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Hence, fish has taken us on in protest as we can see in their current prices. Its kind is apparently revolting. Maybe, it figured that we have been this contemptible because it wasn't as costly as the others. That has led it to speak to us in that language we very much understand; when a commodity commands high price, it then becomes suitable to be offered to royals or served at special times.

That's exactly what it has responded to! As a result, its price has rocketed by 20 percent, spoiling to go even higher. To be clear, a carton of the species we call Titus has increased from N10,500 to N13,500, while a carton of the Kote variety now sells for N10,200, up from the N7,500 it sold at a month earlier. The locally produced catfish is not left out of the fray as the hike in its imported kind has made its rate far removed from the reach of average income earners in the country.

You may not believe this, but fish-kind has found none other ally in subjecting us to this 'correction' than the federal government. Yes, the FG you know! While we understand the grievance of fish, that of the FG which made it get involved in this matter is what we need to decipher. So let's now forget about the avenging and paranoid fish and focus our mind to better understand the relationship our FG has with fish.

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To be fair to the federal government, it did tell us before hand. This instance is no where near the ambush it perpetrated against us in the 2012 removal of oil subsidy where it caught us totally off guard in the most cavalier manner. 

It had in a letter dated October 29, 2013, to fish importers directed them to ensure that all Bills of Lading, conveying fish consignments, dates not later than October 2013 and arrived the Nigerian waters not later than December 31, 2013. This explains why major shipping lines such as Maerskline, Safmarine, Belmas etc stopped the transportation of frozen fish leading to the scarcity of the item.

Though government was fair in specifying exactly when this will happen, it fell short of fairness by not heeding the outcry that earlier greeted the policy. People have continued to argue that the directive was a ploy to deny the poor masses of their only cheap source of protein and enrich corrupt custom officers. Yet, the last has not been heard of it as the policy is targeted at an annual reduction of fish importation by 25 percent in the next four years by which time we would have attained zero importation of frozen fish.

The fish products that have become staple food in our country, that is the mackerel (titus) and horse mackerel (kote) are not farmed here. They  are caught in high seas in Asia, Europe and America, from where we import them. The variant that we cultivate locally is catfish. The problem with it is that it's a tad too expensive for the poor and not widely available. 

This situation caused the recourse to fish importation which costs government $600 million yearly. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Akinwumi Adesina is not happy that government is losing such money, hence, he is all about conserving the sum. However, in doing this, he and members of his team appear to be overlooking some vital issues.

For one, it is a basic understanding that the fundamental ground for import ban is import substitution. It then flies in the face of logic for a country to ban what it cannot produce locally. Where this occurs, it becomes deprivation! That is why it is difficult to fault Daily Sun's Steve Nwosu who, while commenting on the allocation of N34.5m for two animals in Aso Rock Zoo in the 2014 budget, wrote: "... the only assurance I can give those presidency animals is that any day any of them gets so over-fed that it strays into the streets, it would end up in our soup pots;" 

I'm sure most Nigerians would be more than happy to devour those pets in the Aso Villa whenever they have the chance. They wouldn't even mind if it be any of the 'unclean animals'. For when a person is denied something important, anything else that come close comes in handy. Even if not as substitutes, there would be people who think their health status will improve if they feast on them as that would afford them nutritional benefits that animals better fed than princes have to offer.

Aside from these Nigerians who just hunger for GEJ's pets, there will still be those who would gladly prey on the animals to free up the preposterous amount the government is spending on them. Who knows when they're no longer there to quaff such humongous public funds, Dr. Adesina may have to tolerate the $600million government spends to avail us of animal protein.

Be that as it may, another reason the ban is seen as ill-conceived which derives from the former is that the species of fish being banned have proven difficult if not impossible to be  bred locally. For they are either too expensive to cultivate or do not adapt to our local conditions. With this in mind, it then seems as if the policy doesn't give a damn about those with preference for the banned species of fish and would have none of the catfish brand.

You may say: heck, what do we care when their taste is milking the nation of $600million. But, remember we are practising democracy and if about 70 per cent poor Nigerians vote to have their favourite fish rather than conserving what is being spent on it for government to use and buy additional aircraft to its over-bloated fleet, why shouldn't that be respected?

Further, we have seen that it's not really that the catfish will come cheap when an embargo is placed on the others. The truth is that the unavailability of the imported brand will cause the price of the already expensive catfish to go up. We saw this happen and there is every possibility that it will get more expensive when the availability of kote and titus fish continues to shrink. Whence, then, should Nigerians go for cheap animal protein?

But, a major consolation most Nigerians have is that men of the Nigeria Custom will always play ball. Since it is in their DNA to play. After all, many years after government placed a ban on frozen turkey, you need not look too hard before you find out where they are sold. In the streets stalls and market shops they are displayed for sale.

Many other commodities had being banned by government but were un-banned by those at the customs. So, government still has to eventually spend the same sum it is working to conserve. Moreover, the smuggling activity that this ban will engender is sure to fester corruption and lead to more revenue losses to the government considering the porous nature of our borders.

With all this in mind, government should just tarry the policy till it had ensured that there is an alternative in place that the poor can relate to. Since we must have the titus and kote species, efforts should be expended on coming out with ways through which their production can be domesticated. Our academics should be engaged to research into ways this can be realised. 

No one is disputing the good intention of the government in this policy. It's just that it failed to properly do its homework before executing it. This has led it to unwittingly  play into the hands of fish kind that is now having a good time settling a score with us!

Ugochukwu, a freelance journalist can be followed on twitter @ugsylvester or reached via [email protected]


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters 

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