Crunching Figures, Chewing Food

Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh
The launch of the agricultural policy of this administration two days ago is, at least for one reason, cheery news from Abuja. The public presentation of the policy document is an appropriate response to the clamour for policy articulation on the part of the federal government. Critics have rightly insisted that the 15-month old administration of President Muhammadu Buhari cannot bring about change in a policy vacuum. The nation should be shown a direction using the instrumentality of policy.
The fact of the Nigerian condition is that people’s patience is running out fast regarding the meeting of the huge expectations in different departments of national life. For instance, given the scourge of hunger plaguing the land, it would be expected that the roadmap, entitled The Green Alternative (Agricultural Promotion Policy 2016 – 2020), should have come a year earlier. However, it is better late than never, as they say.

Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh
To be fair to the Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh, snippets of the policy have been public knowledge in his valiant attempts to articulate the agricultural policy of the Buhari administration in the last few months. You may say that there is no food yet on the table, but you certainly cannot deny that Ogbeh has eloquently crunched some numbers when diagnosing the malaise afflicting the agricultural sector. If farmers in the field could do well with production as Ogbeh is doing with agricultural statistics, hunger would be banished in this land.
Here is Ogbeh in his usual number crunching mood: “Food has many species and varieties; we import about 40 to 50 per cent of the rice we eat; at a time it was almost 100 per cent, costing $5 million daily. That has been the situation in the last 20 years.
“We still import almost 70 per cent of wheat for bread?. We import about five million eggs per day from South Africa and some other countries. But we don’t import yams, garri and we don’t import beans. We use to import beans from Burkina Faso but that has stopped. We don’t import chicken although smugglers are quite busy every day. We import fish worth $600 million annually, but this is on the decrease because local fish production is increasing…
“We import honey to the tune of about $100 million per annum; we still import cookies and biscuits and even toothpick but all these did not happen in one day. The idea is to reduce these imports.”
The administration intends to negate this trend of grim statistics with the alternative green policy. Among the thrusts of the policy, which farmers have welcome heartily, are self-sufficiency in food production (another phrase for food security); job-creation; diversification of the economy in the agricultural sector; export of agricultural exports and discouraging food importation.
The policy targets include growing the agriculture sector at the rate of between six per cent and 12% yearly. Other targets include raising the agriculture share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 23% and increasing the share of the labour force to 70% to In practical terms of implementation, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said 100, 000 of the 500, 000 persons to be employed by the federal government would be trained as agricultural extension officers to train farmers in how to boost productivity. The Bank of Agriculture (BoA) would be repositioned by the federal ministry of finance to provide loans to farmers at single-digit interest. Local production of improved seeds would be encouraged.
Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh
According to Osinbajo, the new policy “is built” on previous ones. This is also a welcome development. Although statistics might have varied over the years, the diagnosis of socio-economic ailment in the agriculture is as old as the Nigeria’s development debacle. Today’s policymakers should be sober for a reason; there is nothing being said about the problems of agriculture now that was not said decades ago. Yet the problem has stubbornly persisted. Interestingly, senior journalist, Mohammed Haruna, reproduced in his column last Wednesday a June 29, 1974 editorial of the New Nigerian, which stressed the primacy diversification into agriculture.
The important editorial said inter alia: “We could deploy considerable energies and resources in producing a commodity which is more important than oil: food. We must at all costs get agriculture on the move again. There are millions of acres lying fallow when they could be used to grow food for our burgeoning population. The setting up of two River-Basin Commissions is a great step in this direction (although the staffing has ensured that the two schemes would not take off for some time)… We may not have oil in 50 years. But to survive we must have food. The ground work can be done now.”
Since that editorial written 42 years ago, different administrations have articulated agricultural policies. The military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo had his Operation Feed Nation Programme (OFN) in the 1970s. The OFN suffered from serious policy disarticulation. The Second Republic administration of President Shehu Shagari came up with the agricultural policy called Green Revolution.
The River Basins located in some places in the country remain a monument of that agricultural “revolution.” The late Marxist sociologist, Professor Nkenna Nzimiro, made a sharp critique of that policy in a book entitled “Green Revolution or Modernisation of Hunger?” Incidentally, Ogbeh was a young minister in that administration. Economic diversification in the agricultural direction was a strong aspect of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida. There was the emphasis on agricultural exports. In the process, commodity marketing boards were erased.
Indeed, Babangida established the Directorate of Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI). Some DFRRI projects such as boreholes in remote villages remain footprints of the Babangida era. More recently, the policy objective of the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in his Agricultural Transformation Agenda was to make Nigeria an “agriculturally industrialised” nation. The policy targets of the Jonathan administration of reducing food imports while boosting local production are very similar to what we have on display now. And Ogbeh’s predecessor, Akinwunmi Adesina, did a quite a lot of number crunching admirably too during his own time.
Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh
So the problem with agriculture is not what some experts have just discovered in a policy laboratory. This administration has, however, taken a wise step by paying attention to what happened before now in terms of agricultural polices. The administration should clinically ask the question: what went wrong? The errors of the past in terms of policy conceptualisation and implementation should be avoided for the success of this “alternative green revolution.” That is why the farmers and other stakeholders involved in giving effect to the policy must be robustly engaged as partners in progress by the government. Government should work with those in the field and not seek to impose things on them. At least, that is one lesson that could be readily learnt from the past policies.
Besides, what Ogbeh is doing in the agricultural sector would only make meaning in the light of the overall strategy of socio-economic development that is yet to be articulated by the administration. Food security is one of the goals of such a strategy within a framework. There are also linkages between that goal and the strategic goals in other sectors. A good reading of Nigeria’s economic history would show that policymakers in the past had played with statistics of agricultural development. There is still an ominous gap between the agricultural statistics reeled out by policymakers and the reality of food security.
What is, therefore, expected of this administration is the change from the practice of policymakers merely crunching figures of agricultural production to making policy result in people actually chewing some grains at the dinner table. It is in the supreme national interest to wish Ogbeh well in performing this all-important task.
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