WEDNESDAY COLUMN by USSIJU MEDANER
It is quite inexplicable how Nigeria, enormously blessed with rich arable lands, aquatic resources and huge agrarian population to utilise for both farming and livestock production, will be groaning under the burden of food scarcity.
The reality of the food insecurity in Nigeria has overtime, since the abandonment of the agro-economy, been that of a nation and its citizens struggling to afford three square meals a day. The citizens are at the stage where there is a heightened uncertainty about their ability to obtain access to food. The ability of Nigerians to obtain food has been reduced significantly reflecting in the quantity and quality of food they consume because of lack of access to preferred food materials due to the very high cost and low availability of the food material among several other factors that have made the food stuff inaccessible to the people. Consequently, the nation is highly at the risk of diminishing dietary quality, normal eating pattern, and increasingly hampered wellness of the citizens. Summarily, hunger is fast increasing in the land, with all its attending consequences including vices.
Agreed, there is food shortage globally, arising from acute famine across some regions of the globe, and ravaging insecurity that has crippled agricultural practices. Yes, globally, it is estimated that over 2 billion people do not have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, while another 1.3 billion, representing 17.2 percent of the world population are experiencing moderate food insecurity; not having consistent access to nutritious and sufficient food. The combination of the two, thus brings the population of starving people around the world to about 27 percent of the world population. But these are not supposed to reflect in Nigeria the way it does; the blessedness of Nigeria is a factor that naturally should exempt the country from hunger, all things being equal.
However, today, the reality is a general lack of access to food premised on increasing cost of food materials across the country. In the last three years, the cost of food stuff in the country has increased by an average of 350 percent, and is still rising. The price of normal measure of beans increases from N200 to N650; garri from N120 to N450, and no other food ingredient or supplement is exempted from the trend that has refused to turn. In Nigeria of today, a family of five, that hitherto could manage N40, 000 on a monthly basis to meet the family food demand, now would not do the same with a N80,000 budgets in a system that is gravely fighting against salary increase, and is permeated with conditions that makes self sufficiency a herculean task.
The nation is largely becoming underfed; malnutrition becoming the reality, existing in multiple forms. We recorded as consequences of lack of access to normal feeding routine, an increasing number of death traceable to maternal and child undernutrition to the tune of 45 percent of the deaths of all children under the age of five in the country; then, low birth weight, child stunting which often result to overweight and obesity later in life.
But beyond the hunger crisis itself are the social vices and crimes precipitated by the desire to find alternatives to survive in a hunger prone society. The figure of crimes among the young population is in the increase in the country. From petty theft, robbery to sophisticated crimes in the order of armed robbery, kidnapping and the likes; Nigeria has become embroiled in damaging vices and crimes that have continued without abating to engulf the fabrics of the nation. Nigerians have gotten to the point where they freely hate on the country, and would do anything regardless of its negativity and consequences on the country to meet basic survival needs.
The nation’s food problems started as a consequence of the total neglect of the very sensitive agricultural sector of the economy; a sector that, at a time, was producing as much as 70 percent of GDP of the country while accounting for the bulk of the nation’s export. We must all begin from the point of realisation that every developed nation did not become developed until they first attained agricultural sufficiency and development. Agricultural development comes first with food sufficiency which is the primary need of individuals and nations but it does not end there; with food sufficiency comes tradable surpluses that become raw materials for industries. When a nation maximally develops its agricultural sector, processing industries naturally spring up to process farm produce into finished products; jobs are created; crimes are minimal and people generally complain less.
Going into independence, the major contributors to Nigeria GDP and individual incomes; the major employer of labour, the major source of raw materials to several industries was agriculture. The federating regions were self-sufficient with incomes generated from agricultural practices. The West was the great cocoa producing region; every village in the region was a beehive of activities, the product turning out in tons and the cynosural Cocoa House in Ibadan completed the story. Hundreds of thousands of westerners were doing really well. Today, we ask, where is the Cocoa House? Where are the acres of cocoa plantations all over the South West? What becomes of the value chain, the opportunities along the cocoa business? The jobs created and the prospect of the cocoa processing industry in Nigeria. They are gone, down the drain.
The groundnut pyramid of the North has become only a theoretical subject in Nigeria. Once, we prided ourselves as the largest producer of palm oil in the world but what about now? The southern Nigeria that used to be the beacon of palm oil production does not remember how to plant and process palm oil any longer. That was the time in the history of Nigeria when every Nigerians, regardless of their occupation, was also a farmer; when access to food was considered normal and natural because it was always readily available and cheap. The time in our history when government commitment to the sector was obvious; a time when the GDP and national income of the country was principally dominated by returns from agricultural exports to as much as 70 percent.
Then suddenly, beginning from the late sixties, at the emergence of crude oil, the attention of everyone including the government were off the sector; agricultural extension officers that were a common sight in all our villages gradually phased out until they do not exist any longer. We have lost so much abandoning the sector. Today we grapple with the burden of unemployment when a flourishing agricultural sector alone can employ over 40 percent of our population along all its value chain.
Nigeria, a country of over 200 million people blessed with good arable soil that supports almost all crops suddenly becomes almost a zero producing and a major food importing nation. We were then until a few years ago consuming approximately 7 million tonnes of rice yearly yet we were not taking advantage of our capacity to produce rice. We ignore our capacity to be self-sufficient in rice production and still cater for almost all nations in our subregion and become the dumping ground for Thailand rice; from a country with one-third of our population.
The list is endless; for instance, we import rubber tyres to the tune of $309 million annually while our rubber producing capacity lay wasted; Nigeria, once a global palm oil giant, now imports palm oil to the tune of $199 million yearly. We import raw sugar to the tune of $406 million yearly; we even import wheat that we can plant in the north to the tune of $1.09 billion yearly; needless to talk about fish, pork, beef and poultry importation. Between 1990 and 2011 only, records show that we spent about N1.0 billion per day on imported food and drinks, while at the same time groaning under the hard hit consequences of choosing importation of foods over home grown food.
Maintaining a strong and an efficient agricultural sector would have enabled the country to feed its growing population, generate employment, earn foreign exchange and provide raw materials for industries. The benefits of the multiplier effect of the agricultural sector on the nation’s socio-economic and industrial sectors would have rubbed on the country, if well sustained.
Poor economic principles on the part of our past leaders led to the abandonment of the agricultural sector and all its potentials for our economy, at the emergence of crude oil. Managing the two at their maximum capacity would have meant effective diversification of the economy with the accompanying employment opportunity and economic stability; but instead, we chose to neglect the prospect of the fertile land that can support all crops, all season rivers and coastline bordering the Atlantic ocean, the livestock industry and others to the detriment of our economy.
The neglect of the agricultural sector began the paralysis of the nation industrial sector as raw materials production dwindle and are no more forthcoming; bringing about stagnation in the industrial sector performance. With the contraction of the economy and decline in disposable incomes, there came a substantial drop in demand (domestic) for more industrial goods, mass retrenchment of the industrial labour force and drop in the level of investment in the country.
The mistake that has been with us since the early 70s becomes more exposed as we allow unnecessary insecurity fetters and grows in the country; Boko Haram and the recent banditry, allowed by our actions and inactions, dealt a huge blow to freedom of movement of farmers in regions that have largely become the food base of the nation, and we become vulnerable to food insecurity as our insufficiency becomes largely exposed. The problems of the herders-farmers that we prefer to politicise rather than solve have all returned back to haunt us all. We had the opportunity to take the herders off the streets and farms almost 3 years ago, as was already decided by the past administration of President Jonathan, but our political intolerance, hatred and fixation on political oppositions and selfish advantages would make us rally against the RUGA program. Today, the volume of food production in the country has massively and drastically dropped, leading to astronomical inflation on food products.
So, what is the way forward? What are the decisions that must be made? I think we must unanimously agree that we must at all cost attain sufficiency in basic food production, increase local processing of export crops, increase agricultural raw materials for industries, generate gainful employment through agriculture and grow to rationally utilise all our agricultural resources among others.
And how do we achieve these? First, we must know and agree that we can produce almost all the food we eat because we possess the capacity. We must all become serious, beginning from the government at all levels; we must identify all the food items we import; we must give a time frame for total stoppage of their importation; we must encourage and mobilise farmers to the farm, creating and allowing an enabling environment for safety of farmers and farm products.
The problems currently are twofold: one insecurity, and two extremely low agricultural practices in the country; and for any solution to be feasible, we must consciously and simultaneously address the two problems. Up till now, it remains that the only feasible and practicable solution to the affective herders’ problems is to take the herders off the streets and farms, like it is done in other developed nations, and while how this is achieved would be our challenge; we must recognise what our priority should be. If we keep musing on against government to take the responsibility of taking off the herders from the street, when we are conscious of the fact that the herders do not either posses the wherewithal to undertake such withdrawal on their own or the immediate will to do so, we will only succeed at perpetuating the problems we are facing, while creating room for more problems.
The constitution of the country as currently disposed allows the free movement of herders across the country, but a gazette of government executive order supported by the states and Nigerians across the board, in the form of pastoral settlements would take the cows off farmlands, and ultimately stopped the destruction of crops mostly in the north central region of the country and ultimately all over the country.
And then comes the urgency of a national resolution to the insurgency in the Northeast and banditry in other parts of Northern Nigeria. Last week, I suggested acting out of the normal; it is high time we respond simultaneously on all fronts to bring to a closure the menaces of the duo of Boko Haram and bandits in the country. The continuous perpetuation of these menaces has continued to prevent food production and movement in the affected regions, which coincidentally produce the bulk of food for the country, by as much as 60 percent; and forcing price increases that affect Nigerians daily. The government cannot afford to delay these actions and responses any longer in the face of the biting hardship of hunger in the country.
And having taken off the impediments, we must find a way to return Nigerians to the farm. Operation Feed the Nation, a measure to increase participation in the agricultural sector and simultaneously create jobs for Nigerians must be prioritised by the government at all levels in the country. Declaring a state of emergency in the sector might just be the starting point; giving the states and federal agricultural departments the marching order to engage in and increase agricultural practices in their jurisdiction – taking cognizance of their endowed capacity. This will be achieved through the departments’ direct engagements in farming and animal husbandry, engagement of willing youths and others in a supervised farm program like in the days of the agricultural extension officers of the past.
We must make effective usage of graduates of departments and institutes of agriculture in the country. The nation boasts of colleges, universities and departments of agricultural sciences and related courses across our tertiary institutions, turning out tens of thousands of graduates every year. It is time, the country made use of this population as a tool for the nation’s agricultural revolution. Rather than roaming the streets looking for non-existing jobs, the government should restructure the mandatory NYSC scheme to annex the knowledge of these graduates. Instead of sending them to schools to teach, the NYSC system should mandatorily engage all graduates of agriculture related courses in agricultural practices.
The states and the federal government should make land available for massive NYSC farm settlements to be established across the country and all corps members with biases in agriculture should be sent to the farms to produce food for the nation on a farm and benefit agreement.
And after the end of service year, every graduate willing to go to the farm must be fully supported by the government; I suggest a partnership that guarantees land availability, resources, market, storage and conversion and processing facilities.
Then, we must be patient. I have seen Nigerians complaining that they prefer the imported products because they claimed locally produced items are more expensive and of lower quality. Yes, they may be more expensive today but they are our own and if we persist, one day, the prices will come down and the quality will match any other and jobs would have been provided for our teeming unemployed youths. We will surely get there if only we will all agree to bear the pains of today.
GOD BLESS THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA!