The absence of quarantine checks at some Nigerian borders may impede the successful implementation of African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, the Director-General, Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service, Vincent Isegbe, tells Okechukwu Nnodim in this interview
How are you addressing the inter-agency differences at the nation’s borders, especially between the NAQS and the Nigeria Customs Services?
It is not a prominent issue as far as the quarantine service is concerned. We know there are few overlaps here and there but we have an understanding that our mandates are quite clear concerning what product we (NAQS) should inspect and what product they (Customs) should inspect. So whatever it is, we are always discussing at the top to be able to resolve them if there are areas of overlap or concerns. We are resolving that and it is not really an issue that is of serious concern to us.
There was this concern about the export of Hibiscus recently, how was it addressed?
On the issue of Hibiscus flower, we have long resolved that. And in fact, as of June 2021, we had exported 1,111.4 metric tonnes of Hibiscus to Mexico already. So we have long resolved the issue. The primary issue then was the detection of pest but we have been able to resolve it and have discussed with the Mexican authorities. There is even a work-plan in furtherance of that to ensure that the processes are perfected. We are building so many chambers for specific fumigation. They have requested that we use Methyl Bromide for the fumigation, which is what we are doing right now and we are good to go.
In monetary terms, how much has that export attracted to Nigeria?
I’ve not done that yet because of the fluctuation in prices and the foreign exchange rates. However at the point we did that export, it should be noted that it was not just in one month, rather we are talking about a period of about four to five months that we were able to export that commodity. However, I can give you an idea, in pre-2017, we exported about 1,970MT and the export value then was $35m. It is quite substantial and that is why we are insisting that as a nation we should imbibe the export certification value chain. This will enable us make as much money as we can for the country because there are quite a lot of commodities that we can sell and make so much money for the country.
What are some of the agro-products that we are still having issues with in terms of exports?
We do not have any issue with any product as of today. What the media is reporting as having issues are incidental cases where probably somebody carries a consignment for personal use and it is intercepted. And, of course, you know that when that happens, that interception will be reported within the 27-member EU nations and somebody who does not know the reason for the interception will say ‘oh, so much has been intercepted.’ Now, there are other prohibitive items such as the bark of woods used for local medicinal needs. That one is completely prohibited. We don’t want people to export that. But we know that as Nigerians many of us like our indigenous products, especially those of us in diaspora. So when such happens, again it will be reported and people will not wait to know what product was intercepted and the reason for its interception. So far in all the records that we have, of all the interceptions, between 80 to 82 per cent are all prohibited items. I know your next question will be why is it happening? It is because the quarantine service is not at the specific point of checking those things. There are two government circulars that delineated the quarantine service from operating at those points, saying that it is only Customs that will invite the quarantine service. And, of course, the Customs have their own duty to perform, in fact, so much to perform. So those are some of the issues that the government is looking at to be able to review.
Now that we are in AfCFTA, what are the implications of this?
For AfCFTA to be successful, the quarantine service must necessarily be at all the entry and exit points across the country. Nigeria has about 205 million people, that market is massive and is going to attract the entire African nations because they want to sell. So, if the quarantine service is not there to checkmate what is coming in, Nigeria will become a dumping ground for those commodities. We are specialists in identifying, sensing, certifying agricultural produce coming into the country. And we are the national quarantine agency for the country, not any other one. So nobody can be conscripted into doing that job except you are a trained quarantine officer. That is why the government saw the light of it and signed the legal document to establish the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service as a legal entity.
Are you saying that the NAQS does not have its officers at all borders?
We are in those locations because we want to stand close by, so that when they call us we will be available. But we’ve been delineated from some locations at the airports and seaports and we can’t operate. And that is the reason why those two consignments of beans that resulted in the ban on Nigeria; first a ban for one year and the second, a three-year ban, which was supposed to end in 2019, happened. The people who did that export confirmed that they did not pass through quarantine. So it is a very serious issue that the government is looking at.
Is the NAQS speaking to the necessary authorities about this?
We have taken it to the level that it is receiving attention because it is quite a very serious matter. This is an industry that we are hoping will help in reviving the economy of the country. The quarantine service is strategic and the quarantine service of every nation plays a statutory role in the survival of their economy. Now you have heard that it took Namibia about 20 years to allow meat into their country. And for now, no meat from Nigeria or animal product is going outside of the country because there are issues of health involved. And the people that will check that are those in the quarantine service. We have the animal component, which is the veterinary component in the quarantine service, we have the plant component and the aquatic resources component, which is the fisheries. So it is a complete agency of the government meant to do everything that we are supposed to do. Therefore we are supposed to be there. It is not a matter of we pleading to FAAN (Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria), which is the controlling agency at the airports or the NPA (Nigerian Ports Authority), which is the controlling agency at the seaports. But you see, government works through a process. If they receive the proper directives, we will be in the proper place to do what we are supposed to do or else the success of AfCFTA will be in doubt.
Can you quantify what Nigeria is losing annually due to the absence of the quarantine service at the ports?
It would have been easy for me to quantify that in naira and kobo or in dollars, but it is a little bit difficult right now. This is the reason why I said so; we need to know how much is being exported. For now, the quarantine service is not there, so there are a lot of exports that are going on which we don’t have in our records because they did not pass through us. The ones that pass through us, yes we can quantify, like the ones for vegetables, we have complete statistics on a month-by-month basis. From the Lagos end, the kilograms or metric tonnes of vegetables we’ve exported every month through SAHCOL and NAHCO. We have that statistics. So those that we have control over, we have that piece of information. I could give you that of Mexico later because it is strategic to us. We did the fumigation and so we know what quantity we fumigated that were for export and so it is easy.
So, we are working assiduously to draw the attention of the government to the fact that we should be there. We are not impeding trade, we are trade facilitators by our mandate. So if we are not there to facilitate that trade and somebody else does what quarantine is supposed to do, trade will be impeded. This is because at the final destination, they will find out that something wrong has happened. And then they will bring this issue back, making us come back to square one.
How many defaulters have you sanctioned or is it that you lack the powers to sanction?
We don’t lack the powers to sanction. Now, this is what is happening. Because they (defaulters) are doing so illegally, all the addresses they put on their papers are fake. We checked in Lagos the other time and we realised that the addresses are fake. We have checked them and found nothing. So we intend to meet the clearing and forwarding agents. I mentioned that in Port Harcourt when we had our summit there, that we want these clearing and forwarding agents to have their approved lists given to us so that we can put the lists on our website. So anybody who intends to clear agricultural produce will have to go through that list for us to be sure that we are dealing with genuine and official clearing and forwarding agents. And so if we have an issue, all we need to do is to send a mail to the association and say we have an issue with this agent and need some explanation. But for now, they are not there.
Article first published on the Punch Website