Let us, first get a glimpse of the rot in this critical sector of the Nigerian economy believed to have “unmatched credentials”. Take infrastructural decay. Almost all the large earth dams built during the First Republic in the 1960s and sustained in the 1970s by General Yakubu Gowon and by General Obasanjo’s military governments with the help of the World Bank and other development partners to boost agricultural productivity and generate electricity, especially in the North have broken down and are today breeding places for snakes that terrorize the host communities. Often, in the rainy season, a huge volume of water bursts through the dams’ spillways, flood entire villages, killing people and destroying crops.
The case of the nation’s 12 river basin development authorities is even more sickening. They are the Anambra-Imo RBDA, Benin-Owena, Chad Basin, Cross River, Hadejia-Jamaare, Lower Benue, Lower Niger, Upper Benue and Upper Niger. The rest are Niger Delta, Ogun-osun, and Sokoto-Rima. Created to enable all year farming, livestock development and power generation, these RBDAs have instead become “sinking holes” through which hundreds of billions of naira have disappeared over time. For instance, N40 billion was appropriated for them in 2009, N37 billion of this for capital projects alone. Recently, appearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture to defend his ministry’s budget, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, revealed that the performance of the RBDAs had been dismal so far –a result of mismanagement and corruption. But then he shocked the senators when he said the federal government planned more of them. What he got were stares of utter shock.
Take another area: silos. There are 12 scattered all over the country, with a combined storage capacity of 300,000 tonnes of grains and cereals. They are supposed to store farm produce the government buys from farmers for the rainy day – which could be the time of poor harvest. But today, with the few farmers still engaged in farming producing barely enough to feed their families there is nothing to store and silos are virtually empty. Again, another irony, we hear that the government is planning 20 more silos. To store what? Clearly, the foundation for agricultural growth laid at independence has been allowed to collapse. The farmers” cooperatives, cattle inoculation centres, rural roads to transport produce, dairy, livestock, pastures and all the initiatives mentioned earlier have all been abandoned.
It is disheartening that just nine years to deadline for actualising Vision 20 20: 20, the nation is still without stable electricity, no viable railway links, no functional coastal waterways etc. It is therefore a wonder how the government expects to achieve this lofty objective. The collapse of the agriculture also invariably contributed to the collapse of the traditional institution as matters of land ownership which were hitherto in the purview of traditional rulers were taken away from them and in the process, denying them an active role in agricultural activities in their areas.
Dr. Abdullahi, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Agricultural Foundation of Nigeria (NAFN), describes agriculture as “clearly the most neglected and most underdeveloped sector in the country”. The results of this “neglect and underdevelopment” of agriculture are all too glaring. Abdullahi again: “Today, Nigeria has lost its pride of place in the export market to other countries. Far worse, the country now cannot feed itself and has to import food items, even those it can produce in abundance.
“Nigeria now yearly imports foods to the tune of over 3 billion US dollars. Imports of wheat, rice, fish and sugar alone cost Nigeria 1 trillion naira in foreign exchange annually. And the imports are growing at an alarming and clearly unsustainable rate of 11% per annum.”
The former governor is not a lone doomsday prophet. An official of the United Nations Food Programme (UNFP), visiting Nigeria, in September warned of imminent famine in the country.
Food insecurity has its own dire implications for the economy and national cohesion. Dr. Abdullahi puts it better this way: Food insecurity has “serious negative implications for our economy (especially in terms of inflation, production and employment opportunities), for our politics (in terms of the tensions and conflicts that poverty and hunger can generate or fuel and for our sovereignty and independence as a country.
“We cannot seriously talk of being an independent country when we cannot feed ourselves and have to import food at the very alarming rate that we do now. We cannot have peace, and so cannot develop at the rate we should, when local production is falling and our farmers are being displaced; when inflation is being fuelled by food imports; when the unemployment rate is rising; when poverty is increasing among the population; and when hunger is ravaging the land.
“Obviously, the current situation is as inexcusable as it is unacceptable, and must therefore be changed for the better”.
Luckily, all hope is not lost as there is a foundation to build on. No doubt, agriculture is still the “biggest sector and the largest employer in this country”. What is required is to go back the way we have come to see where and how we got it wrong. Abdullahi calls it “pausing, retracing steps and changing course and direction”. In this regard, the Jonathan-led Federal Government’s agricultural transformation agenda seems to capture this sense of urgency about reviving and restructuring our agriculture in a way that weanes Nigeria off food imports and makes it a key, possibly the number one player in the food export market. For it to have been endorsed by genuine farmers like Dr. Abdullahi the agenda must be close to the “right thing”. Its goal is to grow the sector in a way that will free the country of hunger, “drive income growth, ensure food and nutritional security, create jobs and wealth for millions and transform Nigeria into a leading global player in food markets”.
A key and practical strand of the agenda is the government’s decision not to have anything to do any more with the purchase and distribution of fertiliser, a key farm input the supply of which has been politicized and mismanaged, to an extent that it is hardly available even though it is heavily subsidized.
However, it is one thing to have a good policy and another to implement it faithfully. Policy somersault and poor implementation have killed many a good government project. It is hoped that the Jonathan administration will muster the political will to do what it has professed – to give our agriculture the turn-around.