In this special report, second of five –part, our reporters across the federation, investigates how this policy change is in line with the believe that Nigeria cannot attain its true potentials by simply importing everything into the country, as well as how the apex bank will continue to be vigilant around this policy, keep reviewing the list of items as it becomes comfortable that these items can be produced locally if we apply ourselves sufficiently.
The Politics Of Abakiliki Rice Production
Rice farming though the major source of livelihood in Ebonyi state yet farmers live in poverty says most farmers in the state. Chief Benson Ewa, a rice farmer in Ikwo community in the state explained that they labour in the farms and end up getting peanuts because they rely on manual labour.
He said that continued manual labour by the farmers could only assure them of meals at the end of the season, more so as they have insufficient funds to buy fertilizers and pesticides to ensure improved yields.
Another farmer, Mrs. Gertrude Ogodo said the land tenure system only enables them to share a few parcels of land, a situation that makes it impossible to practice mechanised rice farming alleging that the government had really not shown commitment to improving the agricultural sector.
Indeed, the Abakaliki Rice, a brand name for the varied species of rice grown in the area that is today known as Ebonyi state is more popular than the state that was created in 1996. The various species of the Abakaliki Rice include max, 306 and R8, so respectively graded.
It is on record that people of the South East geo-political zone, majorly; the Igbos rely on the Abakaliki Rice as the major staple food during and after the Nigerian civil war.
Also, because the soil of the agrarian Abakaliki communities are salty, the rice is especially sugary, so, most times preferred by consumers hence it has become even preferred to polished foreign rice such that buyers throng the Abakaliki Rice Mill located at Oga Road within the Abakaliki metropolis. The brand has attracted international attention that buyers from nearby countries at the peak of the rice season come into the mill, buy off the rice, polish same and rebrand for sale at higher price. Furthermore, as the legal battle between the Abakaliki Rice Mill Company Ltd. and Ebonyi State Government rages on, the rice millers are insisting that leaving the environment is near irrevocable.
The chairman of Abakaliki Rice Mills, the biggest rice mills cluster in the southeast geo-political zone Hon. Deacon Joseph Ununu says relocation of the millers would be discouraging to the private sector operators and cause sharp increase in the cost of rice in Igbo land.
State Politics Infiltrates Rice Mill
However, akin to the scenario painted in the acclaimed novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’ authored by the late Professor Chinua Achebe, in the twilight of the governor Martin Elechi-led administration things were indeed falling apart, and the centre could no longer hold in the Abakaliki Rice Mill.
Governor Elechi allegedly put a knife in the strong hold of the rice millers, tearing them asunder. At that time, two persons were claiming leadership of the millers. While Deacon Joseph Ununu said he was in charge having been duly elected to lead his members, another miller, Mr. Patrick Mbam said he was the helmsman having been installed by the state government as interim committee chairman for the millers.
The trouble started when the Ebonyi State Ministry of Environment, in a radio broadcast mandated the rice millers to relocate from their present location on or before 31st day of March 2012. That did not go down well with the millers most of whom were non-indigenes of the state.
Consequently, the rice millers applied for ex-parte motion to restrain the Ebonyi state government from ejecting, interfering with and/or mandating them to relocate from the industrial area among other things as the court may deem fit in the circumstances.
The millers stressed that they were morally constrained to file a lawsuit against the State Government, as a last resort to make ends meet, besides not allowing their years of labour at their present location to be in vain.
Their chairman, Joseph Ununu told Daily Independent that: “Our worries have been the fate of the Rice Millers and how to save the lives of the poor masses whose investments are whole and entire at the Rice Mill and who depend on same for survival. “This is the rice mill that has existed for so many years, the summation of our individual and collective investments running into tens of billions of Naira from our fixed assets like filling stations and so many operational infrastructural bases; besides the different concrete buildings at the industrial area.
Rice Millers Demand Compensation
“The implication of the government’s relocation directive implies an end to our businesses. He reiterated that they were not in any way antagonistic or opposed to the state government’s developmental policy thrust in building the Ultra Modern Satake Rice Mill for the people of Ebonyi state. Since it will be producing world class rice from this part of the country, we will abide by government’s directives and relocate to any of the alternative locations provided by the state government, but we should be compensated for such huge loss”.
Ununu pointed out that; “our compassionate appeals have always been for government to engage the services of property evaluators that would take stock of our individual and corporate assets for considerable compensations. It is from the proceeds of the anticipated compensations that will be used by our embattled members to provide alternative accommodations and rebuild structures for the reinstallation of our milling machines, fuel stations, lorry parks besides other conveniences as we have presently and which are essential basic infrastructural necessities at the present rice mill”.
The Rice Millers’ Chairman bemoaned: “If going by the deadline of 31st March last year when we were earlier directed through frequent radio announcements to vacate this industrial areas to an unspecified location, what should we have done? Were we to dismantle and carry to our respective homes, the over 3,500 parboiling and milling machines which some of them are individually and jointly owned?
“As am talking to you now, all our warehouses are filled with stalled milled and non-milled rice belonging to our numerous members and customers cut across the nation. If we are to relocate anytime, where can we park the non-milled rice till such a time of milling them for sale despite the attendant heavy costs of transportation?
He added; “In the face of the avoidable losses that are bound to cause us much economic loss and difficulties, if that such directive was enforced harshly without human face, certainly, it would have enthroned drastic fall in rice supply that will cause rise in price of the product and other food stocks within the state and across the country. Trust the way Nigerians act in a frenzy, when prices of commodities sky-rocket for any reason, it takes time for its reversal”.
Mr Ununu narrated how the rice milling business in Abakaliki commenced in 1957 from number 57 Gunning road with one Mr. Bestman Anekwe who purchased the first milling machine till when it relocated to its present location under Mr. P. O. Nwike, the then Council Chairman of old the Abakaliki Local Government Area under old Anambra State Government.
He added that the present rice mill was leased to the then Rice Association on the November 15 1977 by the old Abakaliki local Government Area Council for a term of 99 years upon payment of valuable consideration.
On the September 7, 1989, the Rice Mill Association was incorporated as Rice Mill Nigerian Limited with Registration number Rc: 136, 800, while on January 1st 2000, its Customary Rights of Occupancy (C of O) with respect to the entire area measuring 1, 938, 464 square metres occupied by the company was issued by the state government.
Mr. Ununu disclosed that the Rice Mill Company further entered into an agreement with the host community upon fulfillment of other traditional rites and business responsibilities, which have been observed till date. The Chairman noted that it is disheartening to note that from the outset of the rice mill industrial area, there was yet to be any meaningful assistance from government except its access road construction and landscaping of the area awarded by President Olusegun Obasanjo during his visit to the area.
The then state Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Mr. Emmanuel Onwe had at a forum explained that the decision to relocate the rice mill arose from the executive council meeting of the state government saying that the government would be ruthless on any persons/person who ventures to thwart the order.
Onwe dismissed as unsubstantiated the allegation that the policy was targeted against none indigenes of the state who make up greater percentage of the owners of the Abakaliki Rice Mill explaining that the mill was located too close to the city centre, Abakaliki metropolis.
The Commissioner said that there could have been no better palliative than the provision of modern rice mill for the millers adding that for those of them that found the state of affairs unpalatable, “It means it is time to go”.
Now, a new administration led by the then deputy, Engineer Dave Umahi is in the saddle as the new governor of Ebonyi state who has watched and followed the trends in the rice sub sector. Being a business man administrator gives him the leverage to drive the sector to a greater height that should rather encourage private sector participation than the suspected antagonism of investors, most of whom are none indigenes of the state.