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FG, Oyo war of words over Covid-19 rice

For the people of Oyo State who are eagerly awaiting the distribution of the COVID-19 palliatives by the state government, hope for the planned welfare package appears far-fetched as blame game and controversies take the centre-stage. Apart from the heated criticism from the All Progressives Congress, which is the major opposition political party in the state, the controversy between the state government and the Nigeria Customs Service, Oyo/Osun Command, over the quality of the 1,800 bags of rice donated by the Federal Government to the state is a subject of contention.

The arguments back and forth on the quality of the rice being given to the state have attracted reactions from the public even as the long suffering masses of the state continue to express dissatisfaction and loss of trust and confidence in both the state and the Federal Government, and the Nigeria Customs Service, its agent.

As of Wednesday, when the state government made attempts to return the rejected bags of rice to the warehouse of the NCS where it took the product from last week, there was a near crisis situation as the men of the service turned the state team back from their office. After several minutes of arguments between the two parties, the state Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Jacob Ojemuyiwa, who led the team, said they had decided to report the development to the state executive council for advice.

Earlier, Governor Seyi Makinde had made clear his administration’s position on the action to be taken on the donation. According to him, the state government would not distribute bad and unhealthy food product to the people in the name of palliative as that would pose a greater risk than hunger. Makinde, who expressed disappointment over the donation indicated during an interview with Fresh 105.9 FM that the bags of rice would be returned to the Customs, “because I would not use the money of the state to assist the Nigeria Customs Service to destroy the bad bags of rice.”

Indeed, for the governor and his cabinet members, as well as the Peoples Democratic Party in Oyo State, the donated bags of rice from the APC-led Federal Government were nothing but ‘mere Greek gifts’. The opinion in some quarters within the state is that the consignment of rice in question was deliberately given to the state to embarrass Makinde and his party.

The people of the state, who had hoped for the windfall of palliative, last week as indicated by the governor, said they were utterly disappointed by the development. The hope of members of the public was raised earlier last week when the governor said the distribution of the palliatives to 120,000 households would begin. But up to time of  filing this report, the exercise had not started.

The governor said he personally called some of the people on the list to ascertain if there was any colouration to the data.

He said,  “I started from Saki East/ Saki West and Afijio Federal Constituency and then, I moved to Olorunsogo/Irepo and Oorelope Federal Constituency. In terms of the 14 federal constituencies, at least, I have an idea of who those people are and quite frankly, there is a shocking revelation. About 40 per cent of the people I spoke to were farmers. And they told me, yes, “it’s good for you to send us these palliatives but the real palliative that we want you to send us is to help us get to the farm. Assist us in clearing our land and then we are ready to go out there. So, there will be a second set of palliatives designed and targeted towards the farmers.”

However, as the day went by, the people expressed reservations on the delay and the blame game describing the posturing as mere excuses on both sides.

A cross-section of the people of the state said the drama between the state and the federal governments over the palliative was political and did not connect with their quest for survival.

One of them, Dele Ogunsola, said although the idea of giving palliatives to the poor and those who were economically distressed at this period was laudable, giving bad food products as and delaying the distribution of the materials were uncharitable and questionable.

Mrs Tope Babatunde, a trader at Apata Market, said, “We have been hearing that the state government would donate some relief materials to some households in the state and Governor Seyi Makinde had promised that the process would be transparent but one wonders how long the distribution would take. We learnt that the distribution would be done this (last week) but we are surprised that the distribution has not started till now.

“The question is how long should the people wait? Are we going to wait until COVID-19 is defeated before having the items? At least, we were told that apart from the bags of rice that was rejected, there are other materials; let the governor be alive to the task.”

The APC in Oyo, while registering its misgivings on the rejection of the rice from the Federal Government, said the governor’s response did not come to the party as a surprise, “because the Government of Oyo State was not the only state that was given the palliatives but we know the rejection has political colouration. This is another point to buttress our observations of unnecessary politicking of COVID-19 pandemic by the Oyo State Government.”

The party through its Publicity Secretary, AbdulAzeez Olatunde, had earlier registered its regrets over the governor’s failure to lock down the state and reluctance to use the African Genomic Laboratory at Ede, Osun State in the wake of the viral infection among other things.

However, the state PDP argued that the governor’s decision to return the bad bags of rice to the Federal Government was in the best interest of the state as it was in consideration of its health implication on the people.

The state PDP Publicity Secretary, Akeem Olatunji, said, “It is unfortunate that the opposition has allowed itself to be blinded by sheer desperation to pull down Governor Seyi Makinde at all costs. Despite the difficulty brought about by coronavirus pandemic, Governor Makinde has continued to show exceptional courage, gallantry, and qualitative leadership by placing the welfare of the people on its topmost priority and will continue to do.”

While reacting to the criticisms that greeted his government’s perceived mere politicising on the palliatives and why he  rejected the Federal Government 1,800 bags of rice, the governor  said, “Our plan had been to include the rice which we received from the Federal Government through the Nigeria Customs Service as part of the palliatives to be distributed.

“Of course, we checked everything we receive before distribution. An examination of the rice showed that it was infested with weevils and unfit for human consumption. I mean it was only logical that we report this to the people of Oyo State.

“In fact, when we made this discovery, I called the Governor of Ekiti State, who is the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, (Dr Kayode Fayemi) to find out if the problem exists in Ekiti or whether this was limited to our state and he confirmed to me that they had the same problem with the rice that they received. Even reading the papers, I saw that the Ondo State Government also stated that they had a similar problem and they will be returning theirs also.

“So, since we are not distributing the rice, we have to return it. I won’t spend Oyo State money to get rid of rice given by Customs. So, they should find the means to destroy it by themselves. They seized it in the first instance.

“So, I really don’t get the criticisms. Those criticizing us, are they saying we should precipitate another problem in Oyo State by giving people rice that is not fit for consumption?”

According to his Chief Press Secretary, Taiwo Adisa, it was confirmed after careful checks it was discovered that the rejected bags of rice were truly bad and unfit for consumption.

Adisa, who stated that there was no basis for claiming that the consignment of rice was bad when it actually had not gone bad, said, “As said by the governor, no government that is worth its name would agree to serve its people with food items that are infested with weevils that are clearly visible to the eyes. We needed to have a careful check on the rice as we did regarding other donations done by the donors, after carrying out the check; we discovered that the rice is bad. The evidence is there.

“…The weevils were clearly noticeable as each of the warehouses was opened. Television cameras were allowed to film the bags of rice just to show the clear reason why the bags were being returned.”

However, during a telephone interview with the Public Relations Officer, NSC, Oyo/Osun Area Command, Abiola Abdullahi-Lagos, on Thursday, said claims by the Oyo State Government that the 1,800 bags of rice distributed to the state as palliative by the Federal Government were weevil-infested and not good for human consumption, were wrong.

He said the NCS rejected the bags of rice that were returned by the state government because the state did not follow the required process.

He said, “Well, we rejected the bags of rice because to everything there are laid down procedures. Before the bags of rice were returned the state government should have written the headquarters of the NCS which would give us directives on what to do.

“Besides that, we said earlier that the fact that there were weevils in some of the bags of rice did not mean that the whole bags of rice were not good for consumption. We were shocked to hear that the bags of rice were not good for consumption. The rice has not expired. How can we release expired rice for the public? This is very annoying. As said earlier, the Oyo/Osun command has two warehouses, so the government’s representatives chose the rice that they wanted. Oyo State was the first to evacuate their rice before other states came.”

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