40,000 Millionaires: Matters Arising

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Nigeria is proud to welcome the newest set of 40,000 millionaires created in two years in Kebbi State through the ongoing agricultural revolution. The figure was released by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh. He is a man not given to frivolity. He talks straight and challenges anyone to take him on. If he said it, then, it is true. It is just that he should not have limited his assessment to only Kebbi State which, as the take-off point of the Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele‘s Anchor Borrowers’ Programme, is the face of the success recorded by the agri-business policy.

The Minister should have taken the pains of doing a nationwide holistic assessment of the programme so as to give the Nigerians a comprehensive figure of the outcome of the policy thrust that is set to restore that sector’s lost glory. We know it is not only in Kebbi State that the agricultural millionaires are springing up in multiples. Almost all the states in the North West, some in the South East especially Ebonyi and Anambra as well as other parts of the country, are holding their own in the effort to place agriculture where it belongs in the nation’s economic scheme of things.

Chief Ogbeh has every right to blow his own trumpet given that since he came into office and with the cooperation he is receiving from the CBN, the nation’s food import bill has gone done remarkably. Nigeria is now exporting farm produce like yam and many others. It is, on all counts, a success worth celebrating in the hope that there will not be a policy somersault that will set back the hands of the clock. It has happened before in this same agricultural sector and we are not talking about the abandonment caused by the discovery of hydrocarbons.

We recall the celebration that visited the perceived success in the revival of the cocoa business in the South west in the 1990’s soon after the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Cocoa farmers then were so successful that Peugeot 505 Evolution was their car of choice to announce their arrival on the fast lane of wealth and fame. But it turned out to be a flash in the pan because sooner than expected those cars began to find their ways into the nation’s home delivery car market because the policy that produced the cocoa millionaires could not be sustained on a prolonged basis and in a manner that could have ensured their ability to survive any shocks in the economy.

It is important to point this out now that the new agricultural policy is still undergoing shock tests. The military administration at that time gave that policy all the support it needed to succeed. But it failed regardless because the real farmers were short-changed as big business and friends of government officials moved in to muscle them out so as to position themselves to grab the money the administration was pouring into that sector. The same scenario may be playing out now. And that will be unfortunate.

In our opinion, we think that one  way the government can ensure that this agricultural policy stands the test of time is to take agri-business off the political threshold because it is too important for the actualisation of the economic diversification policy that includes solid minerals’ exploration and exploitation. We are familiar with the shenanigans of politicians. They are adept at manipulating every policy not with the intention of growing it, that would have been reasonably tolerable. They go on to exercise controlling influence that would end up not only suffocating it but also killing everything linked to it.  The information filtering out of those farms are that the farmers see the loans they are getting through the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme fund and other financial inputs by government at all levels as political largesse that they do not have to repay. Local farmers treasure their integrity to be that daring. We hope it is not correct because soon, if those loans are not repaid for others to benefit, the government may not have the resources to sustain such a scheme.

We argue that the government must not wait for the loans to go bad and then, for political reasons, is restrained from moving in to do the needful to recover what is, to all intents, a facility given out strictly on business terms. It must begin now to monitor the beneficiaries, put machineries in motion to recover substantial part of those loans so that we can see what is left and if it is enough to classify the farmers as millionaires.