Silhouette of a new future
Let us go back and pick up the strings of time. During the Second Republic (1979-83) Shehu Shagari was the President; the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was the ruling party and an ebullient man called Umaru Dikko was the general factotum. Actually, he was the Minister of Transport but because he seemed to have such a strong voice and an overwhelming influence in the government, he came to be known unofficially as the Deputy President. There was no such office. We only had a Vice President and that office was occupied by Dr. Alex Ekwueme.
The most memorable quote attributed to Umaru Dikko was that despite the hunger in the land Nigerians had not yet started to eat from the refuse bin. He was such a formidable force in the government that when Major General Muhammadu Buhari sent that government packing on the eve of the 1984 new year Dikko was number one on the “wanted list.” But Dikko had escaped to England where he lived in haughty luxury. Buhari’s government, in a commando style operation, got Dikko kidnapped in London, put him in a crate marked “diplomatic baggage.” The “diplomatic baggage” was taken to Stanstead airport for delivery to Buhari in Nigeria. The plot was punctured and Dikko freed before the aircraft could taxi off the tarmac for a take-off. Dikko remained in exile for a long time and when he came back he looked exactly like a man who had so much power in the past but who had been hit by the strings and arrows of a life changing experience. Let’s roll back the tape.
During the Second Republic there was some bit of cash to throw around because crude oil was doing its duty well: bringing in the dollars. But there was not much food, not for the stomach, not for the refuse bin. The government came up with an answer. It had promised during the campaigns to usher in an unspoiled paradise. Time to deliver. It decided to import rice from all corners of the globe.
At the cabinet meeting where the proposal was tabled a young Cabinet Minister made a suggestion that the government should invest the money in rice production rather than importation. He was just barking up the wrong tree. His sensible suggestion was brushed aside. It was easy to yield to the importation impulse because rice importers were already on the queue, salivating and those who benefit from the kickbacks were also on their own queues, salivating. Nigeria brought into the country rice from every conceivable part of the planet – Uncle Ben’s rice from America and Thailand parboiled rice from Thailand. We made rice producers in other countries rich and rice producers in Nigeria poor from non-patronage. Our ports were choked. The press named it the “rice armada.”
The young cabinet minister who made that heretical statement must have had a stab in the heart when the imported rice choked our ports. That man is, today, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Audu Ogbeh. Ogbeh brings to the table his experience in politics as chairman of the PDP and in Agriculture as a cashew nut and poultry farmer. He now has a chance to step up to the plate. He is now swallowing his own medicine by turning vigorously to the idea of producing rather than importing food which in the last three decades or so has gulped about $22 billion yearly of Nigeria’s scarce resources.
I find the new agriculture architecture interesting. It seems to be organised in concentric circles. In the innermost circle is the Life Improvement Family Enterprise (LIFE), a programme that attempts to empower youths and women in the rural areas for subsistence farming. The target is to directly empower three million rural youths and women so that they can produce about 14 million metric tonnes of food in the 9,975 council wards across the 774 local government areas. The outer circle is populated by the state governments and private sector entrepreneurs who produce rice and other consummables in commercial quantity. States such as Kebbi, Nasarawa, Ebonyi etc are already making big strides in rice production. Private sector entrepreneurs such as Aliko Dangote, Cosmas Maduka and Olam in Nasarawa State are weighing in with huge investments in rice production. The state governments and the big private sector companies are engaged in mechanised farming which will vastly improve food availability. The Federal Government’s Mechanisation Intervention Programme, we learn, involves the distribution of 6,000 tractors and 13,000 harvest and post-harvest equipment units to the various states of the federation. With all these plans in place Ogbeh believes Nigeria will be self-sufficient in rice production by the end of this year.
The Agriculture Ministry has also ensured that the three Universities of Agriculture at Abeokuta, Makurdi and Umudike have been returned to the Ministry of Agriculture from Ministry of Education where it has been. The change means that there will be a rendezvous between town and gown and the utilitarian value of knowledge will be roundly appreciated.
A few weeks ago, when Ogbeh talked about the new vista that has opened: yam exportation, some screeches of delight erupted in me. Why? Because many years ago, I took the trouble of packing yams in my travel luggage to deliver to my cousin in Houston, United States. On my arrival in the U.S., the customs fellows just told me I could not take them into the town. I watched them drop the yams one by one in a huge trash can. I was deflated, devastated. I went through so much trouble to make my cousin happy and yet a little distance to his house I failed to deliver that gift of love and happiness. On my next trip to the U.S., I will not bother to take yams to him because he can now buy them in the local grocery store. Nigeria is said to produce 61% of the world’s total yam production but Ghana, a little producer, is exporting a lot. Now we are ready to compete for the dollars from those who live abroad and love their yams pounded, boiled, fried, roasted or made into delicious porridge. I ask my man the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, to please note that our yams, just as our jollof rice, are the very best in the whole world.
With this drive by Ogbeh and his team agriculture can be, once again, the mainstay of our economy whether crude oil makes a major upward swing in price or not. With soil specific fertilizer and access to high yielding species of crops we can conveniently say goodbye to shifting cultivation and yet still get full benefits of our exertion from our farms. Part of the problem with Nigeria is that nothing good lasts for long. Various governments in the past had parroted the message of economic diversification before now. They would announce elaborate programmes of diversification on television with fanfare and once the price of oil goes north, diversification goes south. If there is tenacity and there are no policy somersaults in the near future, the winter of our discontent in agriculture may be over soon and we would be heading to the happy shores of prosperity.
A component of our corporate life that is in the flux of controversy is the relationship between crop farmers and nomadic herdsmen. Both professional groups have an immense impact on our quest for food sufficiency and security. However, both of them are at daggers drawn and have actually engaged each other in bloody conflicts on the ticklish issue of grazing lands even though there is a plan for the development of 5,000 hectares of land in each of the 19 northern states for pasture and grazing reserves. The complication is that these pastoralists are in many parts of the country where there are no grazing reserves and as they search for pasture for their flock they encroach on people’s land and conflict ensues. This is a problem that needs a multi-sectoral approach and a show of firmness and evenhandedness by the Federal Government.
For many Nigerians imported products are an exhilarating status symbol whether the quality is better than the local product or not. Take rice for example. Locally produced rice is healthier and more nutritious than the imported, polished rice. Some people claim that the imported rice is less expensive than the local rice. It is up to our rice producers to ensure that they do not price themselves out of the market. It is also the responsibility of government to ensure that the country is not flooded with inferior food items from abroad that are sold cheaply at the expense of good quality local products. Did you not read of jollof rice imported from India into Nigeria?
Obviously, there are gilt-edged opportunities in agriculture for our young people to thrive. But are they ready to fish where the fish are? Or they prefer to be like the shoemaker’s kids who always go barefoot? Our young people need an attitudinal change. So do the elders. We all want items of quality but quality needs an unbelievable attention to detail. This takes time. Nigerian made products will continue to benefit from the gifts of refinement by technology and tenacity. Viewed in the calm light of reason, the current drive for a new vista in agriculture is the right way to go. Oil is still a cherished commodity but it is in the twilight zone of its life due to new discoveries and new technology.
If we get it right in agriculture it will be largely because there is profit in experience. Ogbeh has experience both in politics and agriculture and has the gift of eloquence to deliver his diversification message. Politics is a strange country. You must know how to navigate the bends on your way even if you are a technocrat. It seems Ogbeh knows how that land lies which is a good companion to his technical expertise in the farming business. That is why we are beginning to see the silhouette of a new and potentially rewarding tomorrow today. He has now taken his own medicine, the drug he prescribed in the Second Republic for our good health. Will it heal us?