Milk Forex Restriction: A Needless Debate
By Ademola Oyetunji
Nigerian elite class never cease to exhibit its selfish position on things that affect the commonwealth of the nation. This entrenched interest was exhibited over the CBN Governor’s pronouncement to place milk and dairry products in the forex restriction list.
Recently, the CBN Governor announced at the end of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting, the decision of the Bank to include milk and dairy stuffs in the forex restriction list. He had earlier hinted when he added two more items to the initial 41 that more items may be added if and when the Bank, in consultation with stakeholders and the authorities considers such necessary. This was at the twilight of his first tenure.
The pronouncement from the Bank after its last MPC meeting may have left a sour taste in the mouth of those who had been feeding fat on the importation of milk and dairy products. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) were of the view that manufacturing process as simple as that of the dairy products can easily be carried out in the country to save the huge forex spent every year on milk importation. If we must remember, importation of milk into the country dates back to the colonial days, but for the nonchalant attitude of foreign multinational to transfer milk and dairy production technology to the locals in spite of the abundance of cattle in Nigeria. For good yield, crossbreeding of local and imported foreign cattle can be encouraged and ultimately create jobs and wealth. In fact, most development economic pundits have argued that such backward and forward integration between agriculture and manufacturing have proved a sustainable path towards meaningful industrial take-off that guarantees employment and higher income level for the citizens.
The debate is raging ferociously, but is it about the health of the economy or individual interest? When the restriction of 41 items (now 43 pending when the restriction of milk will take effect) was announced, it was greeted with stiff opposition. The Bank however stood its ground and provided funds to value-chain operators under the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme in production of rice, wheat, sugar, fish, cotton and textile with the aim of boosting local production of these items which the country has capacity and comparative advantage to produce locally, and ultimately boost exports. The Governor was attacked by powerful entrenched interest who had been feeding fat on the importation of these items. The restriction of access to official forex for importers of rice and attendance massive rice production locally, has proved the Emefiele-led CBN right. Breweries in the country now engage in farming of grains and wheat, and also patronises local farmers for their beverages production inputs.
The hues and cries that have greeted the pronouncement by the CBN Governor to place milk on forex restriction list is therefore not surprising but expected. Obviously, and with the steeled character of Godwin Emefiele, the antagonists are bound to fail. It is about their selfish interest and misrepresentation of every decision taken by the Bank since he mounted the saddle. One underlying fact that is very instructive about this new policy pronouncement was that, the Bank must have done due diligence in its consultation and the outcome. Emefiele said “About three and half years ago, when the policy on restriction of forex started, we considered including milk on the list of items under restriction from forex, but we conjectured that based on sentiments some people are bound to express, that we should be careful”. He did not stop, but added, “we called on the management of the oldest milk importer into Nigeria, WAMPCO into Central Bank Office in Lagos. We held at least three meetings with them and we told them this would have happened but we decided not to allow it to happen, and that we are trying to use the opportunity (of the meetings) to appeal to them to do backward integration. Integrate backward and begin the process of developing and producing your milk in Nigeria”. But unfortunately, and after three years, nothing happened. For over 60 years, Nigerian children and adults have been feeding and heavily dependent on imported milk.
Midway into his first term, he embarked on an initiative known as Produce, Add-Value and Export(PAVE) which seeks to reduce the country’s huge import bill in order to conserve foreign reserves and generate employment. To this end, the Bank had undertaken to provide funding to value chain operators in some selected commodities such as rice, wheat, oil palm, cotton and textile, sugar and fish with the aim of boosting local production and exports. Similarly, the decision to expunge milk from forex access must have been hinged on the successes recorded on the 43 items, but the milk importers were apparently not ready to start local milk production.
Shocking as it may look, however, is the vociferous opposition to the pronouncement by the ‘Lagos Chamber of Traders’ and ‘Manufacturers Association of Traders’ and its trading members who were not alarmed that Nigeria spends between N1.2-N1.5trillion every year on importation of milk, and its huge drain on reserves, believing that ‘the policy will do more harm than good to both investors and the citizens’. Their leaders have been quoted to have said that the ‘policy would trigger avoidable disruption and dislocations in the investment environment and further undermine investors’ confidence, as well as create huge supply gaps in the market with severe harmful consequences’. The Chamber and its associates-in-trade took a similar stance on the 41 items and other intervention policies of the CBN, but today, they have swallowed their words on 41 items and the investors and exporters’ window (I & E). If the milk importers approached over three years ago by the CBN on backward integration and economic development of the country are reluctant to heed and support the monetary authority and the government on economic emancipation, why should any patriotic Nigerian cry over a policy meant to benefit all, grow the economy and provide jobs.
As it was in 2015/16 when economic imperialists were on rampage attacking and distorting the policy initiatives of the bank on 41 items, entrenched interests have begun the peddling of misinformation meant to discredit the initiative aimed at promoting the local production of milk in the medium and long term benefits of policy. The whole essence of the subterfuge being canvassed is to cow the CBN to abandon the laudable initiative in order to maintain the dependency status quo.
The Director of the Bank in charge of Corporate Communication, Isaac Okorafor, in a press statement corroborated the Governor that in a search on Google it was revealed that West African Milk or Friesland Campina have been importing milk into the country for the past 60 years. He stated further that critics as they did with previous decisions of the Bank, are back engaged once again in their trade of ‘misleading the general public by misrepresenting the ordinarily unassailable case for investments in local milk production and the medium to long term benefits of the planned policy’.
Okorafor did not hide the fact that some of the Bank’s policies may have hurt some business interests, but the management of the Bank thanked Nigerians for the buy-in and intense interest in the policies of the Bank, by saying “We therefore, wish to reiterate our policy case as it relates to the planned restriction of access to foreign exchange for importers of milk that Nigeria and the welfare of all Nigerians come first in all our policy consideration”.
It is indeed time we stopped paying lip service to backward integration, and if we are serious in getting Nigeria back to her glorious days of yore, the time is now. In fact, among all agencies of government, the Central Bank of Nigeria is leading the fight to rescue the economy from the clutches of these economic vampires. With the earlier items restricted from access to official forex and the impending milk to be added, one can boldly say that it is about the strongest policy fit enough to drive backward integration. The CBN with this policy, is driving the economy into that direction.
Ademola Oyetunji, a public Affairs analyst writes from Abuja.