• States acknowledge receipt, silent on quality
• Some bags bad, majority good, says Lagos govt
• Customs absolves self as PDP flays agency
• ‘Spoilt rice may cause cancer, liver damage’
Whether the bags of rice the Federal Government donated to states in the South West are fit for human consumption, partially fit, or totally unfit depends on who takes the question.
In an attempt to cushion the pains of lockdowns across the country due to COVID-19, the Federal Government had instructed the Nigeria Customs Service to distribute bags of rice to states. But the rejection of the commodity by the Oyo State government on the grounds of poor quality has continued to stir political undercurrents.
Fresh facts emerged yesterday that only Oyo, and not all the South-West states, would return the allegedly contaminated bags. Investigations by The Guardian revealed that Ogun, Osun, Ekiti and the Ondo States did not see anything wrong with the product.
They, however, declined to comment on how to fit the rice is for consumption, fueling speculations that the matter has gone political.
While the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) controls most states in the region, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) holds sway in Oyo.
A source said: “If Oyo, Osun and Ekiti took delivery of the rice from the same source at the customs store in Ibadan, why would only Oyo State allege that the rice is contaminated and other states decline to comment?”
Mr. Taiwo Adisa, Chief Press Secretary to Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde told The Guardian via telephone yesterday that the rice was not only bad for human consumption but “a letter has gone to Nigeria Customs that we are returning the rice. So, it is not conjectured any more. The process of returning it will be finalised. The people who were there saw weevils all over the rice. They saw the ones that were very bad and black.”
But the Chief Press Secretary to the Ogun State Government, Kunle Somorin, said the state was not considering returning the bags. He also did not confirm if the product had been tested and found good for human consumption.
Osun State said it sent a sample of the rice for quality test and was waiting for the result. The governor, who spoke through his media aide, Ismail Omipidan, said a decision would be taken after the result had been received.
The Ekiti State government said it had no plan to return the bags. Commissioner of Information Muyiwa Olomilua said the bags were already in the state’s food bank. He declined further comments on quality.
The Ondo State government admitted it took delivery of 1,800 bags of rice and other items. But several attempts to speak with Commissioner for Information Donald Ojogo were unsuccessful, as he did not pick his calls or reply to messages sent to his phone. Special Adviser to the Governor on Agriculture Akin Olotu also did not pick his calls.
But a source within the Ondo Government House, who pleaded anonymity, said the state government was subjecting the bags of rice to a quality test.
Refuting the allegation that the bags of rice were spoilt, Abdullahi-Lagos Abiola, public relations officer of the Oyo/Osun Area Command, Nigeria Customs Service, said: “As a responsible agency of government whose function includes ensuring that nothing that could compromise the security, economy and general well being of Nigerians is allowed into the country, we cannot turn round and be associated with giving anything that will negatively affect our people.
“On the 21st of April 2020, the Oyo State government team came with their vehicles under the supervision of Mr. Jacob Ojekunle, Mrs. Saidat Oloko, Mrs. M.O. Lasisi and other top officials, in the presence of the Customs Area Controller, other officers and members of the press to witness the loading and exiting of the 1800 bags of parboiled rice allocated to their state.
“Incidentally, in the process of loading, few bags fell at different times and burst open in the presence of Mr. Ojekunle and Mrs. Lasisi, and there was no time any of the burst bags of rice had weevils in them. The warehouse had no signs of weevils, neither were their signs of weevils on the loaders or on the trucks under the scorching sun.
“Oyo, Osun and Ekiti States took delivery of the bags of rice allocated to them, returned their landing certificates to show delivery to the final destinations. Contrary to allegations by the Oyo State government, Osun and Ekiti States have not complained about their allocations.
“The command is therefore surprised, even embarrassed to hear three days later that the rice allocated to them was infested with weevils and unfit for human consumption.”
Lagos State Commissioner for Information Gbenga Omotosho said: “Lagos State government has not said it was going to return the rice. The truth of the matter is that the rice in the majority of the bags could be eaten; the authorities certified it to be good.”
Lagos is controlled by the APC.
Omotosho said: “Actually some are bad. But there is no plan by the Lagos State government to return the rice or throw it in the lagoon as some people are claiming. We are appreciative of what the Federal Government has done. We had been distributing rice procured by the state government even before the ones donated by the Federal Government came.
“You have to realise that even before the help from the Federal Government came, Lagos had spent a lot of money on palliatives, and we are not going to relent, bad rice or no bad rice.”
The commissioner said about a week after the rice arrived, the state government invited the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to look at the bags of rice. “This was because some members of the state executive raised the issue that the rice might have stayed long in the store and it (NAFDAC) certified that the majority was good.”
In different reactions, Secretary-General of the Yoruba Council of Elders Kunle Olajide said: “I will not blame Makinde if truly the rice is bad because he cannot afford to risk the life of Oyo people by giving them bad items to consume. His claim calls for a thorough investigation.” He added: “There have been complaints that the palliatives favour the North against the South and also that there is inequality in the handling of the Social Intervention Fund (SIF). If this is the case, then we shouldn’t dismiss Makinde’s allegation.”
National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere Yinka Odumakin said it was doubtful if the Oyo State government would falsely say the bags of rice delivered to the state were bad. “It is Afenifere’s opinion that a necessary investigation be carried out to determine the true position of things,” he said.
APC National Vice Chairman (South West) Bankole Oluwajana, who hails from Ondo, said: “The rice we received is good, and justice has been done to it without party sentiment.”
He cautioned against politicising efforts by government at containing the pandemic. He said if Governor Makinde was not playing politics, he would have complained that over 600 bags were bad and the customs would have replaced them.
APC South-West Publicity Secretary Dapo Karounwi said: “Ekiti State did not receive any bad rice as palliative from the Federal Government. Where Oyo got it, I wouldn’t know. It would be recalled that this same Makinde endangered the life of his people when the pandemic initially started by inviting all PDP members to hold a rally in the state where he even said coronavirus was not in the party but rather in APC. A week later he (Makinde) tested positive for the virus. Who knows if he is playing another politics with the rice?” Karounwi nevertheless called for an investigation into the claim.
The president of Yoruba Ronu, Akin Malaolu, warned that President Buhari should not be tagged in the matter since he only gave a directive to the customs to distribute the rice. According to him, the president would not know whether the rice delivered to Oyo was bad or not. “I will suggest that the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ibrahim Ali and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 be questioned over Makinde’s claim,” he said.
But the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) condemned the Federal Government for donating the bags of rice. Claiming they were part of seizures by the Nigeria Customs Service several years ago, it said the government should have instead bought food for the citizens using the donations it received.
The party, in a statement by Deputy National Publicity Secretary Prince Diran Odeyemi, said: “It is irreconcilable if, in the name of saving the lives of Nigerians against the coronavirus pandemic, the same Federal Government is giving Nigerians poisonous rice as palliative. We wonder how a government that claims to value the lives of its people will openly toy with the idea of feeding them with expired food items.”
Meanwhile, scientists have associated colour changes in stored rice and other grains with expiration and contamination by mycotoxins, warning that consumption could lead to cancers, liver and kidney damage, birth defects, and suppression of the immune system.
Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxic secondary metabolites produced by fungal species of the genera Aspergillus, Alternaria, Penicillium, Fusarium, Claviceps, and several others.
Botanically called Oryza sativa, rice is a key source of human calorie intake and is a staple food in many countries.
Studies have shown that rice, cultivated in flooded irrigation conditions and high moisture levels, is susceptible to infection by moulds and subsequent mycotoxin contamination. The situation is aggravated by inappropriate storage and climatic conditions such as floods and heavy rainfall at harvest time. Sun drying, usually practiced by most farmers, is insufficient to reduce the moisture content, making rice more prone to fungal attack.
According to a study, ‘Occurrence of major mycotoxins and their dietary exposure in North-Central Nigeria staples’, published March 2020 in the Scientific African, mycotoxins could be nephrotoxic (harmful to the kidney), immunosuppressive (suppress the immune system), carcinogenic (cause cancer), and teratogenic (causes birth defects in children).
The researchers were from the Department of Biochemistry, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State and Department of Biochemistry, Kogi State University, Anyigba, Kogi.
Also, a grain specialist and Vice Chancellor of Al-Qalam University, Katsina, Prof. Shehu Garki Ado, said many factors could be responsible for the deterioration of grains in storage.
He said if the grains had been kept in strategic reserves, they would have remained intact and wholesome even without chemical preservation. Storage in silos could last for a very long time, he said, though there is a limit in the timeline before consumption.
Ado said leased strategic grain reserves should be returned to the Federal Government and government should construct silos in each local government and ward, given the importance of food to national security.
Supporting the view, Prof. Samuel Olakojo, a specialist in grain breeding, production and post-harvest management, said because the Nigeria Customs Service is not trained to store grains, it should have moved the seized rice to the strategic grain reserves.
One of the conditions for proper storage of grains, he noted, includes less-than-12 humidity level. If humidity is higher, moulds would form on the grains and dangerous microorganisms like bacteria, fungi would grow.
Olakojo added: “Leasing out the majority of the strategic grain reserves is like leasing the armoury of the Nigerian armed forces to private security firms. Food is a national security matter.
“At best, those strategic grain reserves should be in the hands of a commission or agency if the Federal Ministry of Agriculture cannot handle them. The Federal Government should encourage private firms to construct their grain reserves and use for industrial purposes while the national ones should be used for food security.”