By Musa Mohammed
When news of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approval of Nigeria’s ratification of the protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products broke on 23 May 2018, the public health community within the country and beyond went into spontaneous celebrations. It was one long wait for Nigeria to join other countries to collaborate in efforts to combat illicit trade and duty not paid by tobacco companies among other trans-boundary illegal movement of tobacco products. The FEC approval was indeed, long overdue, coming six years after the protocol was initiated.
The protocol, under the auspices of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC), aims to eliminate all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products and provides tools for preventing illicit trade by securing the supply chain, including by establishing an international tracking and tracing system. It will also counter illicit trade through dissuasive law enforcement measures and a suite of measures to enable international cooperation.
Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole who made the announcement at the end of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting in Abuja said that the move would enable Nigeria control smuggling, track tobacco marketing and raise taxes on tobacco products.
At the time of the FEC approval Nigeria was primed to be the 35th country to ratify the protocol and the race was on for Nigeria to be among the first 40 countries whose deposition of the instrument of ratification would make the treaty enter into force. All Nigeria would have done to merit that list was to process the ratification through the Ministry of Justice exploiting a 90-day window period and deposit it with the WHO.
Unfortunately, Nigeria missed that one in a life time opportunity. The United Kingdom which went ahead to ratify the protocol and deposited the instrument of the ratification with the WHO is officially recognized as the 40th country to do so. The protocol is now in force without Nigeria’s name on it.
As of this moment, it is still not certain that the Ministry of Justice has processed the ratification instrument .
The protocol proper contains provisions that requires, inter alia:
• The licensing of all entities involved in tobacco supply chains;
• Tobacco companies to apply due diligence measures to its customers;
• Secure track and trace of tobacco products and production controls in factories;
• Record-keeping obligations in respect of tobacco manufacturing equipment; and,
• Restrictions on the sale or purchase of tobacco manufacturing equipment.
The WHO FCTC adopted the Illicit Trade Protocol in 2012 to check smuggling. The big stick that the protocol wields is a “track and trace” system, which would ensure every pack of cigarettes or other tobacco product would be marked so that it can be identified on its journey from manufacturer to the buyer in any part of the world.
But as would be expected, the tobacco industry always has Plan B.
Philip Morris International (PMI) swiftly created a track and trace system called Codentify around 2005 which it licensed for free to British America Tobacco (BAT) and other tobacco entities. PMI also created the Digital Coding and Tracking Association in 2011 to promote Codentify to governments.
Anti-tobacco groups were however quick to insist that the tobacco industry should have no part in tracking and tracing owing to the industry complicity in smuggling of cigarettes. Public health groups reference a recent study by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath which exposed tobacco companies as being behind tobacco smuggling, while also lobbying to control the global system designed by the WHO to regulate it.
The study perused industry documents which showed that tobacco companies went to great lengths to control a global track and trace system and to undermine the Illicit Trade Protocol.
Prior to this, tobacco companies deliberately failed to control their supply chain especially with cases of over-producing in some markets like in Ukraine and oversupplying in Belgium with the full knowledge that the products will end up in the black market.
Here in Africa, leaked documents show that BAT staff suspected Japan Tobacco International (JTI) was facilitating smuggling into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and then clandestinely moved millions of dollars in cash from Uganda to the DRC to buy tobacco leaf which was presumably then illegally exported
These among a host of factors informed the conviction of Nigerian activists that BAT Nigeria’s romance with government agencies like the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to supposedly checkmate tobacco smuggling is ill-motivated.
Groups like the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) insist that tobacco corporations are actually behind the smuggling of cigarettes and only put up a farcade by signing agreements with agencies of government to whitewash their soiled image. The ratification of the illicit trade Protocol would have marked a new beginning to genuinely curtail influx of illegal tobacco products into the country.
It is another negative commentary that Nigeria announced to the whole world that it had ratified a UN protocol whereas months after the announcement, the instrument is yet to be deposited at the United Nations. It bespeaks of a nation not to be taken seriously. In fact, the conduct of the Nigerian government on the ratification of the Protocol is condemnable as it impugns on the credibility of our system in the global community. Issues such as international relations need serious attention rather than being left in the hands of some slothful government officials.
The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and indeed the Ministry of Health would do Nigeria some good by ensuring that the instrument of the ratification of the Protocol is deposited speedily to save the nation from avoidable embarrassment.
Musa Mohammed is a public affairs analyst based in Kaduna