Nigeria will accelerate rice imports in a move to ease food security concerns caused by soaring global prices. The government has suspended duties on rice imports for six months as part of the package to control rising prices. But some opposition elements are not impressed, as Gilbert da Costa reports from Abuja.

Nigeria says it will continue to aggressively buy rice in the international market to feed its 140 million people, for many of whom rice is a staple food. Nigeria, Africa's top rice importer, last week ordered imports of 500,000 tons of rice from Thailand and the release of 11,000 tons of grains from strategic reserves.

This time, the government expects the private sector to take an active role in rice procurement. Under the package of incentives announced by Agriculture Minister Abba Ruma, import tariffs on rice have been suspended for the next six months to encourage massive importation by the private sector.

"We are contending with two paradoxically contending situations," said Ruma. "One is to make sure we have assisted the Nigerian rice grower, while at the same time, in the next two to three months, there must be efforts to cushion the effect of the rising cost of rice.

"And it was on account of that the government now considered the option of suspending the levy, which is about 100 percent, such that importers will feel free. It is a private sector affair and the federal government is repositioning the private sector to undertake the procurement," he added.

The government sees rice imports as a short-term solution and has outlined plans to boost domestic food production. Nigeria, once an exporter of rice, is grappling with shortfalls occasioned by a lack of investment in agriculture, inconsistency in government policies and poor harvests.

The Action Congress, one of two main opposition parties, says food imports are not the solution to the looming crisis.

"It is not a well thought-out policy," said Lai Mohammed, who speaks for the party. "By importing rice you are attacking the symptoms, not the disease. Secondly, it was the same thing we did when our refineries broke down. Rather than fix the refineries, we started importing refined products and today we are addicted to [imported] refined products. So if we do not fix the real problem, which is agriculture, then there is now way we can attack the real problem."

The prices of grains, beans, and rice have doubled in Nigeria in recent months. The national bakers union started a nationwide strike on Monday to protest the rising cost of wheat flour and sugar. Bakeries will remain closed for one week.

Protests and riots over spiraling food prices have occurred in a number of African countries. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States has scheduled a meeting to discuss the food crisis in the region on May 19 in Abuja .