Chief Audu Ogbeh is the minister of Agriculture and Rural Development as well as a former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In this interview, Ogbeh who served as minister of Communications under the Shehu Shagari administration talks about his relationship with the late former president , his virtues, style of leadership and other sundry national issues.
What does the death of former President Shehu Shagari mean to you?
The death of Shehu Shagari struck me quite seriously because I was probably one of the very last persons to speak with him before he died at the National Hospital. When his children called me and said he was in the hospital, I ran there; and by the time I got there, he was not too conscious any more. Then I stayed with them for a while, and a few hours after I left the hospital, they called to inform me that he had passed away. So it was quite painful! We will all die someday!
The late Shagari was described as a man of virtues. What do you think the current crop of leaders can learn from him?
The reality is that such style of leadership is very difficult to find in Nigeria, today. First, the realities of Nigeria have changed drastically and substantially. The pressure and demands of society have changed so much so that a leader, who doesn’t dole out money from the treasury, is no longer popular in Nigeria. That is the presumption of the society; what they ask for is way beyond your capacity.
As a leader, they want you to share public funds to people. And if you don’t do that, you can no longer be treated, as a kind of leader the society wants. So it is getting more and more difficult, not only because individuals have changed, but the society also demands that a leader must be an ATM beyond his legitimate means. The community meets a minister, for instance, and says “We want N20 million to buy a car for our traditional ruler, he doesn’t have a good car,” and the minister says, “I don’t have N20 million” and they say “Don’t talk like. Thank God that you are a minister, so we can come to you when the need arises.” And the minister says “But I don’t earn N20 million. I earn N900, 000 monthly, including my rent, the salaries of my aides and what have you.” And the community says, “Don’t talk like that; do ministers live on their salaries? That is the presumption of the society!
He was your mentor. Can you share some of the things you learnt from him?
One of the greatest virtues of Shehu shagari was his simplicity. His simplicity was impossible to understand. One day in 1982, I was working on telephone exchange in some parts of the country and we were seeing him off on a trip at the airport and he called me aside and said, “Audu, I heard that you are repairing our telephone exchange in Sokoto.” I said, “Yes, Mr President.” And he said to me, “I am very grateful.
Secondly, Shagari will never call you and tell you to do a favour for anyone. He would always make it look like you were the one doing him a favour. Thirdly, there was a day I asked him, “Can I put a satellite telephone in your car because we may need to call you for an emergency,” he said, “no, it’s not necessary.”
But the most shocking of it all was that he left office with nothing. Yet he was placed under house arrest for two years. We went to his house to bury him on Saturday and those who were there were shocked to see that he only had four- bedroom bungalow; nothing to suggest comfort. The only asset he left behind is his farm, which his children have asked me to assist to keep it running.
This was the man who started building Abuja. I was minister of Communications; we used to fly him from Lagos to land on an airstrip in Suleja and then drive to town to inspect projects. Shagari started the Transcorp Hilton, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton. The first road construction was in Area 1 in front of International Conference Center. I commissioned the first post office in this town so also is the first telephone exchange in 1982 and 1983.
Now Shagari left with nothing. And the irony is when our leaders die, naturally, we pour encomiums on them. I heard everybody now is praising Shagari for his honesty and simplicity as well. At the time he was removed from office he had less than N60, 000 in his account and his wife had a three-bed room bungalow in Zaria. That takes me back to the story of our leaders and how we treat them. We are looking for the finest leaders in the world, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was murdered on January 15, 1966 and his body dumped in a bush on Abeokuta road. Aguiyi Ironsi succeeded him and was killed in July 1966. Then Yakubu Gowon took over from 1966 to 1975 when he was over thrown and sent into exile. And in exile, stories were told of how he was humiliated; he had no place to stay, no car and he would stand by the roadside and people would pass by and look the other way.
Even today, nobody can tell you that Gowon has an estate or shares in banks or land here and there. Then Gowon left and Murtala Muhammed came in. He was murdered on February 13, 1976. Then Olusegun Obasanjo took over and survived to the end of the period and handed over to Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979. Shagari was removed on December 31, 1983 on presumption of corruption that in building Abuja, he and his vice president, Dr Alex Ekwueme, stole billions of naira. He was in a solitary confinement for 24 months; this is the same man we are praising today. Ekwueme was detained in Kirikiri Prison in 1984, only for them to discover that Ekwueme did not make any money as vice president, but he had been punished. Then, of course, we had Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari who himself was locked up for three years when he was removed from office. It is a story of woes for whoever sits in that office.
Gen Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who took over from Buhari, manage to survive and handed over to Ernest Shonekan on August 27, 1993. Then, of course, Gen Sani Abacha took over and died in office in 1998. Now when Buhari was sick recently, there were people who prayed for him to die. I saw a text on the social media by a man who, obviously, by his name, should be a Christian, asking Nigerians to pray the prayer in Psalm 109, a prayer of death wish, on President Buhari. The prayer was “We wish his family, his wife to be widows and his children orphans.” This is the president of our country; we are enjoined by both the Quran and the Bible to pray for our leaders.
What do you think is the best way to immortalise late Shehu Shagari?
What will you do than to name one public institution after him? I think that is about all people can do when a great leader passes away; you put his name on something where people who didn’t know him can ask. There is not much the society can do than to name an institution or public monument after him. He is gone, so you can reach out to his family if you can be of help and show them kindness.
When this government came on board, one of its pledges was to restore the lost glory of agriculture. Looking back, would you say you have been able to achieve that?
Ask any Nigerian in the street what they think about agriculture. In fact, just a month ago, the CBN announced that we have cut down on food import by $21 billion in 34 months. I think that we have cut down rice importation by nearly 90 per cent. We were spending $5 million dollars per day importing rice. In reality, it means shipping $5 million abroad to create jobs and bring in along with the rice an invisible product called poverty and unemployment.
Today, the number of rice farmers has risen from 5 million in 2015 to nearly 13 million. Today, we are the second largest producer of sorghum in the world, after the United States. We are leading in yam and cassava production. And we are on our way to achieving the same in ginger. We will revive cocoa and coffee production this year. So in terms of food production, food prices may be high because people have little cash in their hands, but no Nigerian will tell you that there is no food in the market to buy. Prices may be high and many families may be spending more than 20 per cent of their salaries on food, which is something we must change.
The other thing is I have always grumbled aloud about the Structural Adjustment Programme. It was forced on Africa and the impact has been devastating; and I am not alone on this, even though I am not an economist. When the programme was forced on Africa in 1986, there was a big debate; some people said there was no alternative to it, others said we have other things to do. But we can all see where it has brought.
I think it is necessary for Nigerians to know why there is no enough money to buy the plenty foodstuff in the market. We would have expected that with the success story in rice production, the price of rice would have crashed by now. Why is it so?
The cost of production here is much higher than anywhere else in the world. The issue of interest rate is a serious one. In Thailand, they borrow at 3.5 per cent interest rate. Here, we borrow at 9 per cent interest rate.
Secondly, the rice miller has to run his generator on diesel. Six months ago, diesel was N164 per litre; it is now N300 per litre. And there is nothing that the Ministry of Agriculture or a farmer can do to bring down the price of diesel. Then transportation, to move a trailer of rice from Kebbi or Jigawa and Kano to Abuja, Enugu, Onitsa or Lagos, cost a lot of money because the transporter is hiring a truck. It will cost N350, 000 to N400, 000 to load one trailer to these places.
More so, Atiku asked a question that Nigerians should choose between poverty and prosperity. How do you proper if you don’t produce? Where on earth is that done? Why are we poor now? It is because for so long there was no production. A society that wants wealth without work is doomed to fail. That is precisely the philosophy here, which we are saying has to be corrected. We have to bring down interest rates.
Ask farmers in the villages today about their views on this government. Out of the 56, 000 people that went on hajj last year, nearly 90 per cent of them were farmers who bought tickets for themselves and their wives. Go to Kebbi, Jigawa, Anambra and Ebonyi and see what is going on. If we don’t open the avenues and the opportunities to create wealth there can never be prosperity. You work to earn a living; even in the scriptures.
APC promised to strengthen all-year-round farming and what that means is to boost the irrigation system and you cannot have the viable irrigation system without dams. In the last two years, I understand no dam has been constructed…
With effect from two weeks from now we are going to start the construction of 8 dams and water racing facilities to do two things-to deal with the problem of cattle rearing and provide water for dry season farming. Let me also quickly add this, there are many states in the federation. When we talk about government we tend to look at only the president and his cabinet. We have 36 governments plus FCT making 37. We have 774 local governments and I am asking you in the media to find out are they working? In agriculture we are pursuing, less than 12 states are serious. I can name a state in the south west with 22 dams not one is being use for irrigation on the other hand when you go to Kano, there are 23 dams and all have been put into use. Some of the states are not interested. So these grow with the cumulative efforts of the federal, state and local governments. As for the local government system, it is dead. Funds don’t get to the local government. A paltry sum goes to the chairman and his members, nobody is there until month end they come to collect salary and yet 22 per cent of Nigeria’s revenue is meant to be shared to 774 local governments.
How much does the government intend to spend on these dams?
We have about N7 billion now which the president has approved. We will start and keep adding, the idea is to slowly make sure the cows don’t roam anymore because in roaming and walking to peoples’ farms, farmers grain and this fuels crisis. I don’t want any life lost and there is no reason why the herdsmen should walk around with guns. They should stay where we can provide them with grass and water and provide security against rustlers.
Why is government suddenly silent about the national ranching policy?
We are going to pursue the ranching policy. We forgot all these things long time ago, we even forgot that the herdsman is a farmer and now I hear the argument about why should government be involved in helping them construct ranches. Then once can well ask why is government involved in helping farmers grow cassava and beans and rice.
What is going on about the yam export policy?
A lot of things are going on there. Last week the commissioner of agriculture from Anambra came here. They fly yams from Anambra. Some of the problems are those of transportation. We produced 70 percent of the world’s supply of yam and Ghana produces 5 percent but Ghana yams are famous in world market and people said once you export, there will be scarcity of yam, has there been scarcity? We lose 30 percent of the yam we produced in this country every year because by June when new yams are coming out, the old ones are still in large quantities in our shelves but we try to export and this is something some people are attacking. I don’t understand, just to prove that everything is wrong.
There is still this concern about deplorable state of rural roads that farmers need to transport their produce to nearby markets…
We are called the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development but what is our budget? We are talking of a country with 12,000 communities, villages and so on. Those who have responsibility for rural roads are the local government and they are doing nothing, not even a culvert. I go to my village and the villagers come to me that I should help them do their culvert. All the needed is just to grade. I don’t know any local government in Nigeria today that have a grader but when I was young, local government gave scholarships to people in the same secondary school where I went. Something went wrong, the local government system is dead and amazingly when the National Assembly did Amendments to the constitution recently, they restore the autonomy of the judiciary and the financial autonomy of the state Assemblies but they forgot the local government because in the constitutional amendment, the governors didn’t allow local governments get their autonomy. Imagine a local government that’s supposed to get N140 million in a month gets N20m and the rest of it is somewhere not reaching the local government. So they can’t do rural roads and I know when farmers harvest their crops, they have difficulty taking it to the market
The truck owners are the ones who make the profit so they sit there in pain. We are looking at that now to see if there is a way of even buying machineries and intervene in amending critical. We have many challenges but let each tier of government be allowed to do its work and that is the issue I have been shouting over even when I was the Chairman of PDP. Allow the local government to function because they are not functioning.
Is there no synergy between the states and the federal government? Recently, the Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom claimed he left APC because the party did not support his policies.
Does he have policies? Which policy is he talking about? I called his commissioner in 2017 January and asked him how many tractors do they have to support farmers and he said not one.
And to tell you, all we do is support states. We have a general program we coordinate.
The federal government said it will create jobs for youths who are willing to go into agriculture and one of the critical issue is that if access to land…
As it is today, land belongs to states and the governor is the chief manager. When you request states governments help us clear land, most of them will tell you, let the federal government do the clearing and claim they don’t have the money. Before I came, there was and agency called Nigerian Agricultural Land Development Agency (NADA), which was cancelled by Obasanjo. We just restored it. The MD of the Agency will do the land clearing. The states governors in partnership with us will do the allocation, we will guide them how to do soil tasting. NALDA as a specialize agency did very well then so now we got some number of states about 15 are ready, the same 15 that we are willing to give land for the ranches to be restored the rest said they will not key in and others said they have no land some did not reply. So again we have to talk to them. You say something about marketing, we have a marketing board in Nigeria and they were abolished in 1974 by the military. Since I came in, I have been talking to farmers I meet a few from the South West and some of them said we don’t want marketing boards back why? They said the marketing boards short-change them. The farmers said to me we don’t want them anymore because they were under pricing our produce and selling at high price and making money for themselves so the federal government try to create something called the commodity Companies, gave them some money for some reasons it never took off, it was under IBB. So I am trying to hold the workshop shortly to raise the question again, to be or not to be. Should we have the marketing boards back or find an alternative. Whatever policy I decide without consulting them will be attacked.
This year, what should Nigerians expect from the agriculture Ministry in terms of restoring the lost glory of agriculture?
Better planning, more resources, lower interest rates for agriculture, procurement of agro industrial machines and agro industrial establishment, adding value to our crops because it is not enough to just grow cassava, yam or tomatoes if you don’t add value to them it can’t last. For instance, we are the largest producers of cassava in the world and yet we spent 650 million dollars importing starch and starch products. Since we are trying to re-establish the textile industry we must have industry starch and cassava provide a good source but to start a small starch factory of one tone a day will cost you about 1.2 million dollars and how many Nigerians today can walk to a bank and borrow 1.2 million dollars at the current interest rate of 27-28 per cent and if you must do that you must have a house in Asokoro, Maitama or the likes to pledge plus your life insurance. Now you go and borrow 1.2 million dollars which is about N500m at 28 per cent how do you pay, then buy generators and buy diesel so what we do now is to import some machines and sell to people and that has helped a lot to increase the capacity of Nigerians. The Ministry is doing that now with the ministry of trade and Investment through the bank of industry.
Nigerians have been complaining about the promised change by this administration. Do you think Nigerians will still vote APC in 2019?
We will win. The debate is between city based and the rural populace. Go and ask them what they think; talk to any farmer in the village. The shock is that the change has begun where people didn’t expect it and from the philosophical point of view, a tree is as strong as its root and the roots of any society are the lower people, unfortunately, over the years, we the elite naturally we really haven’t reflect much on the plight of our people in the villages so when they suffer nobody hears because they are not in the media. Now change is happening at that level, we move economic wellbeing to them and they are selling more food than they do before. I went to my old secondary school; St Michael’s Aliade and the principal said to me the only parents who paid school fees on the resumption date are the farmers. He said, “The civil servants write us letters asking us to be patient because the salaries have not been paid”. I just told you about those who went on hajj. Change is happening. It is not noticeable because the village community is not loud. It is hard for the city brothers because cash is not flowing the way it is. The other change is that the biggest weapon against corruption in government today is the TSA. It is impossible now for loose cash to hang around within the CBN and the banks. It is almost impossible for anybody now to deep his hand in the treasury and steal fund, you can’t even if you want to. Now how do you run a country where government finances are so lose that people have access to take large sums of money and walk away.
Secondly, this election you are talking about, have you notice how quite the whole atmosphere? The parties are broke, this will be the quiet election in our history and that is going to turn attention to issues not to cash because you cannot go and buy people. You cheat the villagers by buying their vote for N100 because you must win and yet you are a glorious failure in the assignment they gave you. Now there is no cash, both APC and PDP are broke and the president is in no hurry to go and look for money for anything. So it is change, we hope it last long so that in future people have something to talk about not that they have a big war chest to bribe INEC and win by all means.
In 2015 it was change, which you actually said is taking place. In 2019, you are talking of the next level. In agriculture what does next level entails?
Reducing the cost of production, increasing agriculture processing, increasing export of agriculture produce to replace oil eventually because we had a civil war here 1967 to 1970, Chief Awolowo was Finance commissioner and vice chairman, federal executive council to Gowon, we couldn’t export one barrel of oil. How did we win the war? It was through agriculture produce. What Awolowo did was to close the Nigerian door to export. No new air conditioner was allowed here, no new fridge, no red or white wine, only necessities-books, medications, essential food. The war cost us from what I was told, a million dollars a day for 36 months, yet we survived, that is exactly what we should have done in 1986. The measures that will be necessary to reform this country’s economic situation are the measures Nigerian will not accept. So the change Buhari promised is a painful process, actually not really acceptable because people are asking why is he making life difficult for them. He doesn’t like it either. I don’t like it either but if it is necessary for us to do it before we get there. India did it so the change, they shut their doors until prosperity set in because they had a big internal market, they were producing for market not depending for outsiders to produce for them, they create their own jobs. As long as you are transferring your jobs to other people and your children are crossing the desert in such of those jobs, you will never find prosperity and peace.
- NEWS21 hours ago
ASUU Strike: FG Releases N163bn
- FEATURED10 hours ago
JUST IN: Council Of State Approves N27,000 As New Minimum Wage
- NEWS20 hours ago
PMB Express Sadness Over Collapse Of Pavilion In Maiduguri
- NEWS20 hours ago
Borno: Over 40 Wounded As Supporters Scramble For Glimpse Of PMB
- COVER STORIES22 hours ago
Supreme Court Reserves Ruling On Rivers APC Crisis
- POLITICS17 hours ago
God Will Not Forgive You If You Don’t Vote For Ortom- Senator Mark
- NEWS12 hours ago
El-Zakzaky To Remain In Custody, As Court Adjourns Trial
- NEWS21 hours ago
At 49, Keyamo Has Earned Public Respect – PMB