The Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) under Dr Vincent Isegbe, the current Coordinating Director, has no doubt, come under significant radar. This is more so, as the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has placed a lot of premium on agriculture.In this piece, EMMA OKEREH attempts to dissect salient roles played by this agency vis-à-vis the new thinking and focus of the federal government.
The Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) is a regulatory agency under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. It was created for the harmonization of Plants, Veterinary and Aquatic resources Quarantine in Nigeria to promote and regulate sanitary and phytosanitary measures in connection with the import and export of agricultural products with a view to minimizing the risk to Nigeria’s agricultural economy, food safety and the environment.
The main objective of NAQS is to prevent the introduction, establishment and spread of animal and zoonotic diseases as well as pests of plants and fisheries, and their products. The agency’s other mandate is the facilitation of international trade. This can be a tall order, considering that these two mandates appear parallel. The challenge therefore is the ability to deploy requisite expertise and experience in order to maintain balance in carrying out both mandates. This is exactly the task NAQS officers are faced with daily: that of maintaining the delicate balance between enforcing regulations aimed at preventing the introduction of pests and facilitating international trade to aid economic growth.
Recently, the Nigeria Customs Service intercepted an illegal consignment at the Cross River/Akwa-Ibom sector, shipped from Cameroon, containing lizards, wall geckos and other reptiles. Many of such animals are on the prohibition list and require CITES certifications before they are shipped across international borders. This is in addition to other permits and health certificates geared towards checking the decline of endangered species. No one knows this better than the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS). This is why the Customs Service did the right thing in handing over the consignment to NAQS for further investigations.
Much as the news of snakes and scorpions interception sound dangerous and eye-popping, this is merely routine for the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service. For every eye popping, news-making consignment intercepted at Nigeria’s borders, there are hundreds of other potentially more dangerous illegal consignments that are intercepted, confiscated and destroyed by NAQS on a daily basis.
NAQS also undertakes emergency protocol to control or manage new pest incursions or disease outbreaks in collaboration with key stakeholders. The agency ensures that Nigeria’s agricultural exports meet international standards in line with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the Office International des Epizootics (OIE) representing the World Organization for Animal Health, World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This also includes meeting the Sanitary and Phytosanitary conditions of the importing countries. The NAQS operations are guided by the enabling legislation enacted by the National Assembly and SPS regulations and schedules.
Over the years, the NAQS has evolved in the delivery of its services. Within the last couple of years, following the emergence of its current Coordinating Director, Dr. Vincent Isegbe, the agency had made the issuance of its certifications available online a matter of priority. The establishment of the “e-Phyto” makes it possible for exporters of agricultural commodities to obtain the requisite permits without necessarily having to appear at the physical offices of the agency. This has helped to fast track the process in line with the Executive Order 001 of 2017 issued by Nigeria’s Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, on the ease of doing business.
In addition, the agency has made significant strides in creating farmer awareness and combating diseases that cause huge economic losses. A few examples are the scourge of Tuta Abosluta, a pest that destroys tomato, Army worm that attacks maize and recently Banana Bunchy Top disease that affects banana. The agency did this by collaborating with relevant stakeholders whilst launching a robust media campaign and engaging farmers at the rural areas with a view to preventing recurrence and spread. More importantly, NAQS takes proactive action towards preventing the incursion of other pests and diseases, like the Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease, that are already devastating neighbouring African countries.
The issue of Mycotoxin contamination in our food has also been taken up. Enlightenment campaigns and workshops for market men and women in several states of the federation by an NAQS/Chinese Embassy collaboration has been ongoing and had already taken place in Kano, Benue and the FCT. Furthermore, effort at ensuring zero-reject of Nigeria’s agricultural products and the domestication of the Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) standards are all being championed by NAQS. Pest Survey and risk analysis for Pigeon Pea had opened Nigeria export, worth about 100 billion US dollars, to the Indian market following a trade facilitation visit to India recently.
Now that the nation is working on diversifying its economy towards agriculture and other sectors, NAQS’s activities have become even more strategic to the implementation of government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). In response to the policy thrust of the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe, in launching the export of Nigerian yam last month, and that of rice by the end of 2017, the agency has increased its capacity to facilitate the processing of export permits and creating farmer awareness for increased investment and the maintenance of international standards for those and other emerging agro-commodities for export trade. These include honey, Cinnamon, African Giant Snails to mention but a few.
As an agency at the forefront of Nigeria’s agricultural economy, NAQS is not without its challenges. Poor awareness and understanding of its role by the general public and some stakeholders constitute some hitches towards smooth operations at the international airports, sea ports and land borders where NAQS operates. For instance, a poor interpretation of the Executive Order has led to officers of the agency at the airports being positioned in a way that makes it increasingly difficult for proper screening of agro-produce moving across Nigerian borders. This has to change, since it will be counterproductive to the Nigeria’s economy for agricultural commodities that fall below acceptable international standard to cross our borders.
Although the case has since been made for a rethinking of this decision, and the government is currently looking into the issue, time is of the essence if Nigeria is to achieve the ambitious goal of full economic diversification and growth.