Nigeria’s president moves to block food imports

President Muhammadu Buhari has directed the Central Bank of Nigeria to block food importers’ requests for foreign currency in a bid to boost local agriculture.

He said the country’s foreign reserve should be conserved and used strictly for diversifying the economy not “encouraging more dependence on foreign food import bills.”

“Don’t give a cent to anybody to import food into the country,” his spokesman tweeted him as saying.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy but relies on food imports to feed its nearly 200 million inhabitants.

Mr Buhari, who won an election earlier this year for a second term, campaigned on the promise of boosting the local economy, which went into a recession in his first term.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the tax and export revenue from the oil industry are vital to its economy, but most of that is spent on importing food, basic items and heavy machinery.

In the first quarter of 2018, the country spent $503m (£416m) on agricultural imports, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. That figure rose by 25.84% in the first quarter of 2019.

In his first term, Mr Buhari also blocked importers of rice, a staple in the country that is grown in several regions, from getting foreign exchange.

The move was to encourage local production but led to tonnes of smuggled rice coming in through its porous borders, mainly from neighbouring Benin.

Two weeks ago, the central bank stopped importers of milk from getting foreign currency, arguing that local production should be encouraged.

The bank is independent and it is not clear how it will would take the president’s directive.

If it goes ahead with it, the move is likely to lead to an increase in food prices as importers look for alternative sources of foreign exchange, mostly from the black market which sells at much higher rates.

Many Nigerians blame similar monetary policies and a clampdown on black market traders for the economic downturn and “hardship” that characterised Mr Buhari’s first term.