INVESTIGATIONS: THE ROTTEN TALES OF THE ONLY PLANT QUARANTINE STATION IN NIGERIA

Reading Time: 15 minutes

[INVESTIGATION]–For two months and 15 days in the second quarter of year 2016, the industrial training (IT) students at the post entry station of the plant section of the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service already had as part of their morning chores to clear a forest where a signpost reading “Nigeria Plant Quarantine Service Plant Introduction and Germplasm Conservation field” — On this field, trees of oranges, mangoes and Coconut were the only visible crops, others were thick grasses and shrubs.

Yours truly, an IT student at that moment also joined them to water the wilting crops in the glasshouses and screen houses, where the air conditioning system and other facilities are resting in peace and they have turned into ‘green leaves houses’ with the help of the rapid growth of shrubs and grasses.

Aside the director, chief laboratory scientist, IT coordinator and of course the gate keeper who comes to work before 8:30am; throughout my 3-month stay at the Post entry station, it was hard for me to record if 50 percent of the staff resumed work before 9.00am.

Some members of the staff already had a roaster of how they come to work; either twice or thrice a week, even the IT students were instructed to sign in at 8.00am before doing their morning chores — slashing and watering — and ‘resume at our’ various units by 11am. Well, are they to be blamed? What would they have done, when there is nothing to do?

Throughout my stay, all I can hold on to were the tales of the prime time of the post Quarantine station with many narratives pointing hands at federal government for running the place on a very low budget.

THE ABANDONED JOB

According to the brief history of the plant quarantine given to us on the first day at work, March 21, 2016; before, it assumes the name ‘Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service’ few years back to form a body that controls all agricultural produce, by-produce, parts and products from the plants to animals and the aquatic as well.

It was formerly called Nigerian Plant Quarantine Service with the only post entry station and headquarters at National Cereal Research Institute Compound, Moor Plantation Ibadan.

As we (IT students) were told by several staff at different units, we were told that the Plant Quarantine station, Nigeria as today is a vision of Dr. M.O Aluko who wants the country to checkmate the importation of agricultural produce — which were mainly for research to improve our parent stock– coming in into the country to avoid the escape of foreign pests and diseases to ravage the crops in the country.

This was what brought to life, the introduction of the seed health testing laboratory, Glass houses, the screen houses and the plant introduction and Germplasm conservation field before the exportation of agricultural produce (crops) which needs to be checkmated to meet the International standards— by being free from pest and disease, non-injurious to human health and also of high quality.

So, at the post entry quarantine station, after scientific examination has been carried out on all samples of proposed exported plant materials to meet international standards as set by the International Plant Protection Convention; a phytosanitary certificate is issued with certain conditions for receiving country to meet.

Also, an import permit is issued at the plant quarantine station or any other office of the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service to farmers who intend to introduce certain plant materials into the country.

Even with an import permit, such plant material would be intercepted at border where the pre entry station is located to do preliminary findings of any immediate or visible pests and diseases. If there is, it would be totally seized from the importer and if not, such plant material is expected to get to the Post entry station for proper examination before introduction to the farm.

HOW COME WE HAD TOMATO EBOLA?

When he (the director) was asked on how Tomato Ebola Tuta absoluta managed to escape into the farms, he said, he does not know and that investigation is in process to uncover how it came into the country.

“From my own little investigation, I discovered that the insect, high fly (vector for Tuta absoluta) flies through long distances and it has been discovered to be ravaging farms in other West African countries and Nigeria do not take precautions because Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service do not have any serious emergency response. This can only enter the country through human activities moving in and out of the country,” a top staff secretly told me.

Even though the director at the post entry quarantine station claimed not to know if it came into the country; the answer is obvious.

 It wasn’t one day that tomato Ebola entered the country; it was an accumulation process of allowing different pests and diseases when the main job was neglected.

Throughout my industrial training, the first week of work was a productive one; a kolanut farmer brought his produce to the station for treatment and to collect the Phytosanitary certificate when it was ready for export to Brazil.

We joined them in treating the kolanut just before going on Easter break on March 25-28, 2016. This was the only practical engagement we had as regards the processes involved in treating plant materials before export.

On resumption, back from Easter break, during one of the leisure hours, a staff came towards our gathering— the industrial training students—where my colleagues and I were discussing on the deterioration that has happened to the Plant Quarantine Post Entry Station.

He said something that struck me, but we all laughed it off. He said: “It was conscience that made me requested for a transfer from the pre-entry station to the post-entry station.  I no longer want to be under the influence of the Nigerian customs.”

“While I was at Sokoto and Akwa Ibom, every night, trailers of the same size and design will always pass through the border, and when we stop them, we only check the first one which will be filled with agricultural produce like beans and groundnut (in Sokoto) and palm oil, plantain and cashew nuts (in Akwa Ibom)

“When they are going out of the country that night, I know I’m on duty; I will collect the charges on the export items by multiplying it by the numbers of trailers and in Akwa Ibom, we multiply it by the number of ferries loaded”.

“These smugglers get back into the country in the early hours of the morning with slippers (in sokoto) and vegetables leaves, the one they use for Edikaikong soup (in Akwa Ibom).”

My stay did not witness one body or someone to either come for import permit or bring in any plant material into the station for examination.

The only similar situation to bringing import materials to the station was when IITA brought in some soil samples into Nigeria for research purpose. They didn’t release the soil samples for testing and sterilization, the station had to appoint a staff to test it in their office at IITA.

That alone makes it easy to know the kind of vote of confidence passed on the equipment at the quarantine station not to talk of the shame the staff that went there told us that they (IITA) did not allow her to operate on the soil; rather she was a spectator throughout the process the sterilization process was carried out.

THE ONCE UPON A TIME LABELLED ‘LABORATORY’ ROOMS

On the first day at work, the director introduced us to all the units in the post entry station: The Admin and Finance; Estate Department, Import Section, Export Section, Glass and Screen Houses, General Research Laboratory, Biotechnology laboratory, Seed health testing laboratory, Entomology laboratory and Nematology laboratory.

Subsequently, we (Industrial training students) were being moved from one unit to another except that we were not posted to the admin, finance and estate unit.

 My first posting was to the General Research Laboratory; during this period, we had a relative amount of “the Nigeria’s” power supply. This is the best laboratory at the post entry station, though when compared to international standards, it is nothing; this is where I gained most during my Industrial training.

Yet! We could not finish detecting what disease and its causal organism that was affecting the rice samples brought before us as we could not finish sterilizing our equipment- it took days due to the erratic power supply.

 To identify the disease, we need a microscope which definitely uses electricity and working with bacteria or fungi, we need a sterile (a clean environment free from germs) condition which would also require power.

All these hindered the rate of the experiment because they were several days we only go to the Laboratory and chat.

 The import section was my next posting; I finished my work in this section on my first day at the unit. The staff in this unit told us how it used to work there, and she introduces us to different tools used there.

I went choking and one of my mates was vomiting when we pressurized her (unit head) to open the seed store room for us to view. It was rotten and the smell coming out from there was highly concentrated and could even kill.

She said: “this seed store room is meant to be cold at all times; this is to ensure the viability of the seed all year round.”

“But this is the situation we find ourselves- no power and no imports are coming in. So, why must it be opened? The last time I opened it was last year (2015) for IT students like you.”

The seed health testing laboratory was no different from the import section. The choking smell is what welcomes you from the entrance. We had several attempts to practice all the tales we were told but no available samples for us. And even at the time samples were gotten, the technologist in charge was not always available.

The seed health testing laboratory should have been called a seed museum; there is a refrigerator –not functioning though—where several samples of different seed species are kept. They are not good again for research neither are they good for planting purpose.

The export section is just a chat room, since nobody comes for phytosanitary certificate; no wonder the European Union ban 40 Nigerian food items among which are Beans, melon seed, Palm oil and fruit, shelled groundnut and bitter leaf.

 The entomology laboratory is no better than the rest. This place is very cool for sleeping and hiding away from work. We had to conform to her (Unit head) work timetable of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She theoretically introduced us to the National Agricultural insect pest in her laboratory, and then the control methods and we were done in that unit.

The nematology laboratory: from the look, it is visible to deaf and audible to the blind that this is a newly built laboratory. When we were posted to this unit, those of us who never offered nematology as a course of study in school were already pairing with those who did nematology so as to assist us on how to pick nematology under the microscope.

All these were only imagination, the unit head only repeated what other units have been doing; introduced us to the basics and tell stories of the glory days of quarantine post entry station.

The Glass house is another rot entirely, there are more than 20 glass houses with installed air conditioning system and 5 screen houses. None of these houses are functioning today.

We were being assigned by the director to cut the shrubs and grasses growing inside and around these houses.

 “The last time we had a working glass house was 2004, then we don’t wear shoes inside the glass house, we dip our legs in disinfectant solution to eliminate any means of carrying pest inside the house,” the glass house unit head said to us.

10 YEARS AGO, THE ROT STARTED

It is very easy to predict that the training centre of the quarantine station no longer functions; right from the entrance, there is a conspicuous coaster bus, 1990s model with its tyres deflated and probably do not even have working engine already abandoned. Also, at the reception downstairs, there is an abandoned NITEL telephone wire probably developed in the 1980s not in use again; the reception has turned to be a store for menial tools.

A high ranked staff sat me down and told me the “classified secret” that led to the rot which started 10 years ago when the training centre stopped training and empowering her staff with the latest technology.

 He said: “the training for staff which was suppose to be for 3-months was reduced to 14 days and the last time we had training for our staff was 9 or 10 years ago”.

“We have staffs that needed adequate exposure in terms of capacity development for them to function properly but many of them don’t have it”.

“We had staffs that have retired, but there are no replacements for them”.

“Before the government policy to scrap the use of drivers and messengers, we had many that aided the activities of the Post entry station. But now, we only have one operational vehicle.

“The director will have to send all administrative report and any letter that needs to get to Abuja via courier services, the headquarter at Abuja said they should not send it via e-mail again because it does not look original when they print it out.

“There are more than 1500 illegal borders into Nigeria and NAQS is only monitoring 56 border entries.

“We had sufficient power supply for the scientist to carry out their research and also to regulate the glass house temperature. And as you can see the Air conditioning system installed there and once there is power outage, we put on our diesel engine generator. But that is all gone now.

“When you create an organization and staffs are not well trained or they do not have the right equipment to work. What will happen to that organization?” he finally asked in a rhetoric manner.

EVEN FOR THOSE WHO SUBSCRIBED TO ‘CHANGE’, THERE IS NO HOPE

 The top official revealed that there are several staffs who had further their education and gone for more researches to boost their capacity and working potential, but there are no recommendation, motivation from the government.

 “Lack of staff motivation is another great challenge; staffs come to work every day. No motivation, no incentives to encourage them and because of that, they are getting discouraged,” the top official said.

“Lack of promotion is another discouragement among the entire staffs because most of them are due for promotion and many of them are due for conversion.”

 “Many of them went to school, bring back the certificate. Instead of converting them on time it became another issue.

“Once you seat for an interview, it takes one and half years before the result of the interview is released and the civil service is counting age in service.”

“And most of those things you were expose to or trained for and you are back and you cannot apply them, what will happen, it will affect the brain.”

 I later found out that the chief laboratory scientist has completed his Ph.D in phytopathology and he is yet to be promoted.

The junior laboratory scientist is currently doing her Ph.D in phytopathology, as well as the IT coordinator, who is doing her Ph.D in seed health and even the director just finished with his postgraduate schooling too.

A FARM THAT ONCE STRENGTHENED THE NAIRA

Germplasm Conservation and introduction farm—a field where crops that have long maturity period are transferred from the glasshouse.

“This Germplasm conversation is to curb incessant influx of a particular variety of a crop and any possibility of having escape of pest”

“For example, you come to us for import permit to import a particular variety of sugar cane and when you bring it, we collect samples to ensure pest-free, adjust them to our tropical condition and also conserve some on the permanent field.

“So, next time another client comes around for the same variety of sugar, we won’t give the import permit rather produce from what is on the conservation field instead of using hard ear”.

“So, by this we build up our foreign exchange and increase the strength of naira against foreign currency”.

“This farm was being maintained by staffs that go on shift rotation but they are old and they have retired and there are no replacements for them”.

“That is why the director uses the IT students to clear the field so that anybody won’t set the field on fire”.




Copyright 2017 The Page. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.thepageng.com as the source.

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