BY ONYEKA AJUMOBI ONOCHIE
The Minister of Environment, Alhaji Suleiman Zarma, has denied links with syndicate which specializes in the smuggling of illegally felled woods out of Nigeria. He said he is also not involved in the current activity of unscrupulous Nigerians who, together with their foreign counterparts, engaged in unpatriotic activities aimed at depletion of Nigeria’s forest reserves for commercial gains.
Alhaji Zarma, in a chat with an official of the Maritime Reporters’ Association of Nigeria, MARAN, in his office at the ministry’s headquarters at Mabushi in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, reacted to insinuations about his alleged involvement in smuggling at the nation’s seaports, saying that he was yet to append his signature on export documents for timber products since his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari recently. He said those who engaged in the unlawful export of woods were criminals who suffered from get rich quick syndrome and must be dealt with by security agencies.
According to him, ‘‘I have not signed any document to allow the export of whether processed or unprocessed timber out of the country, since my appointment.’’
In his reaction to insinuations that some top officials of his ministry formed part of the syndicate which felled trees indiscriminately and unlawfully exported them as woods from Nigeria, without recourse to extant laws of the country, Alhaji Zarma explained, ‘‘may be, the approvals were given by some of the directors in the ministry on certain kinds of trees, but I will find out and let you know; but left for me, I have not signed any document.’’
Specifically, those who accused officials of the Federal Ministry of the Environment alleged that they formed part of the smuggling ring of timber products, as they alleged that the officials issued members of the syndicate the Nigerian Export Proceeds Form, NEPF, which they needed to perfect the illicit export of the wood. Officials of the Nigeria Customs Service at the Apapa and Tincan Island Ports also blamed the ministry for issuing the export document to those who felled trees illegally. The customs sources said it was not in their position to stop the items from being exported, particularly, when customs’ requirements for export were met, in addition to presentation of the NEPF which is issued by the ministry. They explained that the export of processed woods is backed by law and attracts no export duty from the shipper, while that of unprocessed timber is on the federal government’s export prohibition list.
According to the customs sources, one of the cardinal reasons for issuance of this export document to wood exporters by the Ministry of Environment was for government to ensure that cash proceeds from the transactions were repatriated to Nigeria.
But, in spite of Zarma’s refutal to the allegations that linked his ministry to wood smuggling at ports, industry sources maintain that some top officials of the Ministry of Environment who have, for some time, been visiting the ports, always came with some expatriates who, alongside inspected heaps of woods for export at the Tincan Island Port, the last being very recently. It was reliably gathered that during one of such visits to the Lagos port, the highly placed officials of the ministry held meetings with various port stakeholders, including customs officials, shipping companies and freight forwarders, who were involved in the export of timber products.
It will be recalled that in 2016, armed personnel of the Federal Operations Unit, FOU, of the Nigeria Customs Service, Ikeja, Zone A, in Lagos, arrested about 63 export containers with illegally felled and unprocessed trees along Ijebu Ode-Sagamu-Ore Express Road. The customs service accused officials of the ministry, including forest workers of complicity in the smuggling of the item. A Superintendent of Customs, one Mr. Abdullahi, who at the time, led the operation revealed that about 33 other containers with woods were forcefully discharged by his men from a foreign vessel at the Tincan Island Port in one of the nights of operation.
He disclosed that during his surveillance of the forest areas of Ogun and Ondo States in the South Western Nigeria, his team stumbled on unapproved sawmill factories that were set up by some unscrupulous Chinese nationals in the forests where unlawfully felled timber was processed at night. According to him, it was some criminally minded Nigerians, including forestry officials that connived with the foreigners to perpetuate the criminal act.
Following the indiscriminate felling of trees and illicit export trade in woods across the Nigerian sea borders, meteorological experts and environmentalists have continued to solicit government’s intervention to halt the trend in the country. Mr Desmond Majekodunmi, among others who have been at the forefront of global campaign for the preservation of nature appealed to Nigerians recently to end indiscriminate felling of the trees. He said forests are natural habitats that provide humans and the planet earth the oxygen they required for sustenance. They said Nigerians should instead complement government’s tree planting programmes by planting more trees. Other sources also appealed to Nigerians to embrace what they described as shifting cultivation which allows plantation of more trees whenever trees were cut down.
What may have incensed the appeal, according to reports, is that in the middle belt and southern parts of Nigeria, the age long rain forests are fast depleting. In the northern parts of the country, the nation is faced with rapid encroachment of the desert while the Lake Chad water is reportedly shrinking in size due to effects of climate change caused by desertification.
According to experts, other effects of climate change include; violent storms, rise in temperature, sea level, drought, floods and food shortage, among others. These are problems, which experts say Nigeria is already facing in its efforts to combat the effects of climate change.
Forestry sources revealed that in the past few years, several trees that stood tall in Nigeria’s ancient forests and official reserves have been unlawfully cut down and exported /smuggled to Europe and China, where reports said there are ready markets. Per week, dock labour sources revealed that at least eight container vessels loaded with about 50 containerized illegally felled trees were exported through the seaports in Lagos. At the eastern flank of Onne and PortHarcourt Ports in Rivers State, the sources said close to similar numbers of containers and ships sailed abroad weekly with the illicit cargo. At the last count, no one could quantify the number and cash values of this illicit cargo that has left Nigerian port over time.
Apart from the ministry’s officials who were alleged to be beneficiaries of the racket, sources unveiled that others who smiled home with bundles of naira notes as bribes allegedly collected from the syndicate. These include; customs officials working at the various export terminals at the ports, the port police, among other security agencies that operate at the ports. Since wood export appears to have become a big business in the country, no one seems to have been punished by law enforcement agencies for unlawful cutting down of trees and their export from Nigeria illegally. For a long time, observers said this has been the case among Nigeria’s forestry officials, the police, the plant quarantine, customs and the ministry who looked the opposite direction for financial inducement.
Against the expectations of the government that wood exports would generate scarce foreign exchange for the country, this lofty plan might remain a pipe dream. Sources revealed that some genuine exporters of wood may not have been remitting proceeds of the transaction into government’s coffers. Information sourced by the reporter revealed that some of the proceeds from this business were diverted as use of payment for imports such as used cars, electronics, and dairy products, among others. This means that the forex might not have been remitted into the Federal Government’s account. If this has been the case with proceeds from wood export over time, it will be left to be confirmed by the Central Bank of Nigeria.