How states cripple rural development, escalate food, herder-farmer crises, by Audu Ogbeh |

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Audu Ogbeh. Photo: NAN

• Says N12b ready for construction of ranches next month
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, in this exclusive interview in Abuja, speaks with the Head of Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA, on the levels of rice and other crops production; the farmer-herder crises and the way forward; how states have crippled agriculture with dysfunctional local government; impact of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) on the current economic situation and steps to grow and stabilise the economy. Excerpts:

Recently, a U.S. Agency claimed that Nigeria was a mass importer of rice. Can you shed more light on the controversy and on the smuggling of rice?
First, we heard the statement by the U.S. Agency and we asked them to give evidence. They had none. They based the statement on satellite images of ships heading towards West Africa. The figures we had from the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) letters of credits were 5,000 tonnes of rice officially imported because rice is not banned, but the duty is heavy. So, genuine importers find out that they cannot import rice and make profit. So, it is not true. They may have miscalculated, giving figures which are not accurate. We have cut down rice importation through the ports by 90 per cent.

What about unofficial importation through the borders and the proposed shutting of some borders?
That has reduced too. Rice seizure done per day is huge. I announced that we were going to shut the borders. But the president of the Republic of Benin came here to make an appeal. And he said he would activate a memorandum of understanding we signed during the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency, when I was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chairman, to prevent the smuggling into West Africa, and Nigeria in particular. By and large, the quantity has reduced but they have not stopped. There were other considerations too. Nigerian business men and women go through buses to Ghana, Togo and other countries. If we had shut the borders, it would have affected innocent Nigerians doing their legitimate businesses and work. So, we had to re-consider our position.

For instance, Dangote conveys cement to Togo, and the trucks pass through the Republic of Benin. So, it is a two-way thing. We are upset about the smuggling, but we are also conscious of the fact that many Nigerians live through their trades across the borders. Number two point is that we are a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). So, we are trying to persuade, rather than use force. If our efforts at persuasion fail, we will shut that border, and if we do, we will not be in a hurry to re-open it.

Is smuggling through only the Benin Republic border?
Yes, mainly, and then Niger. They go by road to the Niger Republic, and there is a no-man’s land between the country and Daura, from where motorbikes and small vehicles bring in rice regularly to Nigeria. Many bags of rice are seized and destroyed.

The third factor is that Nigeria’s land border, according to the Ministry of Interior, covers a stretch of 4,037 kilometres from Badagry to Sotokoto, Sokoto to Chad, and Chad to Cameroon and back to Cross River. The sea coast is 892 kilometres long. Now, effectively patrolling the borders is humanly impossible. We either take up a policy of building a fence, which is too costly for this economy now, or we have to devise other means of patrolling those borders. It is extremely costly, but some days, decisions have to be taken on what to do with those borders, because they are posing serious economic threats. As of today, we don’t have the resources to do it. You can read or hear what is going on between the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump on about $5 billion for a fence. It is not cheap and it has other implications. These are the challenges we face.

Now, what is the level of rice production, for if we produce enough, there would be no need for smuggling?
We have been in government for three and a half years, and I know people are in a hurry to see solutions to our problems, but these problems began so many years ago. And I will later mention some economic steps in the past which consequences will be with us for the next 30-40 years, negatively.

We gave up production of virtually everything in this country and became a nation of traders and importers. Banks were not lending to the productive sectors, and where they did lend, the interest rates were such that nobody could pay back. Agriculture was the first victim.We reached a point where we were buying rice worth $5 million a day. Everything was being imported. Nigeria became a very sweet source of foreign exchange earnings for other countries. And it was all looking so rosy because oil revenue was being used to support importation; and Nigerians felt happy. But a day was going to come, and it came finally, when oil revenues are no longer as big as they were. And the challenge of how to pay for these imported goods became a reality, and we had to take a decision.

If you want to continue shipping in other people’s products, how do you pay for those products? That is a question the Nigerian elite are not willing to ask. We became the biggest consumers of champagne, and a French champagne ambassador here said in your newspaper that Nigeria was the biggest consumer in the world, that Nigerians love living. But we should ask ourselves: is that our priority? Red wine, white wine and champagne, are those things for a country whose people are poor? So, this was expected. And it has come. And let me say this, nobody anywhere in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, can solve these problems created since 1986 when the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was dumped on Africa.

Nobody can solve these problems in the next 30 years. It will take a while, and in trying to solve them, we will create some pains at home, which our citizens may not be willing to accept. On rice production level, there were only 5 million farmers who were members of farmers’ associations when we came in, but today, there are nearly 13 million rice farmers. The output of rice this year is almost 6 million metric tonnes, but our consumption is nearly 7.2 million tonnes.

But Africa Rice Centre in Ibadan says Nigeria produces 5 million, and consumes 7.8 million tonnes?
Let me also tell you that if you see what the Department for International development (DFID) and U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) say, the consumption figures are higher. It is very difficult here to be accurate because there are so many farmers spread all over cultivating rice. No single person or group can be accurate. Our data comes from associations of farmers who have their tonnages supplied to processing mills. We are close to self-sufficiency in rice, because the number of large mills is increasing. Jigawa State alone has 27 large rice mills. Kebbi State has four larger ones; Kano State has, altogether, 1,042 rice mills; 80 per cent of them are small and 20 per cent large. There are nine large ones in the Kano metropolis. One of them does 300 tonnes daily. There are mills in Ebonyi, Anambra and Nassarawa states. And after the Charismas, we would get the figures of rice sold through these mills.

We have a tragic situation in our country where people rather believe the negative. It is a problem with the elite. If anything positive happens, they would say no, it is not true. If they describe us as the poverty capital of the world, yes that is a slogan on the mouth of the elite. Where have they placed India in poverty? How many of them have been to Delhi and seen families living on pavements? We do not desire that. How many have been in Venezuela, a country with a big oil reserve as Saudi Arabia? What is going on there now?

I also want to tell the Nigerian elite that there is a tendency to say ‘nothing good happens here.’ That is the worst form of lack of patriotism. You poison everybody’s mind by saying nothing good happens here, and the international community picks it.

Coming to the issue of crises of farmers and herders, what exactly is this government doing?
In 2016, six months after I became the minister, I raised a warning that there could be trouble emanating from herders and farmers and that the problem would escalate if we did nothing. And I wrote a letter to every governor in the country, asking if they would allow us to create ranches within their territories. Only 16 of them replied. Of the others, some said they were not interested and others did not respond at all. But I saw it coming. And people forget that a herdsman is also a farmer. If we are helping rice, cassava, beans and cocoa farmers, we should also help the herders. But the attitude is ‘no, this is a private business. Why should the government be involved?’

The cassava farmer is a private farmer; he does not grow cassava for the ministry. Cocoa and rice farmers are not growing them for the government, but we help them. The elite are like saying, “when it comes to cattle, don’t talk about them. Why cannot they build their own ranches?” Building ranches are not cheap. People forget that we all need beef and that Lagos consumes 7,000 cattle per day. The cattle are grown somewhere else. The cattle are not the best; they are not properly grown and they walk too much. Some of them are infected, poorly fed, drink less water, and we produce the lowest quantity of milk, about one litre per cow daily.

When the states rejected the proposal, the next question is what do we do? We have 451 grazing reserves in our record as far back as 1960, and about a half of them were on the gazette. They are still there despite encroachments. Of what is left, we have over 4 million hectares of land mainly in the north. There are a few in the Southwest, precisely at Akunu in Ondo State, and in Isheyin in Oyo State. I have been there. The governor of Oyo State is not too keen, but the governor of Ondo State is interested.

What we must do now is reviving the remnant of the grazing reserves, and governors of about 11 states are willing and ready. We have tried to raise money for the project. We have secured a World Bank approval to get to work, and the Federal Government is putting together about N12 billion to start work.

And you believe this project will resolve the crises?
It will, instantly. First of all, we will provide water through deep well rigs and dams to store water. A cow needs about 50 litres of water per day. Then we will plant the grass.

You were proposing to import some varieties of grass and people kicked against such…?
Again, I am sorry to say this. It is seen as a Fulani thing, not as an economic activity. So, some of the attacks are not rational. The National Animal Production Research Institute (NAPRI) in Zaria is headed by a professor from the Southwest. He would tell you that they have always imported some varieties of grasses from Congo and Europe to grow for cattle here, because not every grass is suitable to livestock; not every grass fed to livestock is nutritionally good. We need different grasses for growing the beef and milk. So, when we said that, there were attacks.

One tragic thing in Nigeria is that whatever topic you bring up, there are some commentators who know next to nothing about the subject, but would be the first to criticize. I do not mean to be rude to them, but how many of them know about livestock? Clergymen were on the air attacking from the pulpits. People say all kinds of things. But Saudi Arabia imports grass from South America to feed cattle because they cannot grow grass. Qatar just brought 10,000 milk-producing cattle to their country because they have been isolated by their neighbours. They flew in the cattle and they are shipping in the grasses to feed them. I met a minister of Saudi Arabia in Germany, who said if we were serious about growing grasses, they would buy from us.

They cannot grow the grass, and so they must buy. A cow eats up 10 kilogrammes of grass daily. Most of the attacks to our ideas are not based on logic. I keep some cattle, but I am not a Fulani. A son of the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, was here last week to see me. He has a ranch in Osun State, with 198 cattle. He has 18,000 chickens. He is not a Fulani. There are many Nigerians who keep cattle who are not Fulanis. But it is still talked that anything cattle business is Fulani. It is not.

Of course, I do not like the idea of herdsmen wondering around and eating farmers’ crops. I am a victim too. I cultivate yam and cassava. I do not want any herdsman to carry a riffle, enter a farm, kill a farmer and rape a woman, because he wants his cattle to feed. That is condemnable. And I saw the danger. When I wanted to work on it, I did not have access to funds immediately, and the reaction from the society was by and large, repulsive. So, I had to take my time and now, many more are convinced that we need to take drastic actions, if not, the conflicts may not stop. Once the rains stop in the far north, Chad and the Republic of Niger, in their desperation, they will start coming down.

I once met with herdsmen at the palace of the Lamido of Adamawa, who is a Fulani. He told me that that was the first time any highly placed government official would do something on the business of herdsmen. When I met with him, he got an interpreter and I sat with about 300 herdsmen interacting for nearly two hours.

I asked them why they were carrying guns and killing farmers. They bought these guns from ex-fighters from Libya. They said they bought the guns to tame activities of cattle rustlers. They accused rustlers of attacking them, killing their wives and carting away their cattle. But I told them they were using the guns against farmers, and they admitted that some of they did, not everyone, saying most of the violent ones came from Chad and Niger Republic.

But are these herdsmen ready to be confined in ranches?
I asked them what exactly did they need, and they answered that if they had water and grass, they would stay in one place.

So, they are ready, are you saying?
Yes, they are ready. They also asked to be protected against rustlers. And the rustlers, ironically, from the gangs they caught so far, were led by Fulani men; the drivers were Hausas, and the end buyers are sometimes Igbos. They work together. They steal the cattle, load them into the articulated vehicles and move southward in the night.

Having said these, when are you starting in Nigeria?
We are starting in January 2019. Some money has been approved and we have access to it. We will construct earth dams, and deep wells for water, plant grass, and supplement with agro-wastes so that the herders and cattle can stop roaming around.

Cocoa was a major income earner for Nigeria, but production is stagnant and processing factories are closing shops. What are you doing to revive the cocoa, cashew and other cash crops production and value chains?
We were a leader in cocoa production. But what befalls every other sector has befallen the cocoa sector. During the Udoji award of 1972, General Yakubu Gowon meant well, gave every worker a year salary arrears, and then cocoa farmers/workers found that it was better to be a security guard than being a farmer. People did go from my place in Benue to the Southwest to work on the farms. They all left farming and the cocoa production went down.

From being the number one producer, we have now dropped to number seven in the world. The indigenous cocoa processing factories also went under. But now, we have a plan to revive cocoa production in 2019 by bringing in special fertiliser ingredients to mix with the local materials and by multiplying new seedlings. We are planning to add coffee. Wherever cocoa grows, coffee also grows. So, it is a major programme coming up in the southwest and the southeast in 2019.

What are you doing about reviving commodity boards? Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have and are doing well in cocoa production?
The boards were abolished in 1974 by the military government. But I have talked with some cocoa farmers. Some of them don’t like the idea. They said boards would shortchange them. But some people say we should go back to it. I will hold a national summit on this matter. I do not want to take a unilateral decision. We will invite people for a seminar to determine which way we should go, because a commodity board guarantees quality, and could direct the farmers on what to do on quality for export.

Talking of cashew, we have a cashew association. I am a cashew farmer. Today, Ogbomoso produces the finest cashew, because they have been trained how to do it. But there are traders who would even soak the nuts in water to increase the weight, but on getting to Vietnam, they reject. Indiscipline and greed among Nigerians also cause some of these problems. We may grumble about a government, but most of us are one of the most unorganised peoples in the world. When it is done, whichever government is coming in will continue the matter. We need to get back an arrangement where the quality control, mobilisation, an increase in production and standardisation become the rule. Whoever does not fit in does not come in.

Some farmers complain of lacking irrigation facilities in the south. Do you have any plan for them?
Why don’t farmers ask their state governors about agriculture development? There are state governors who are totally indifferent to the sector. Oyo has 22 dams. Ogun has about 12. Kano has 23. There is no dam in Kano that is not being used. Not one in the southwest is being used. Some governors don’t have interest in agriculture. And the Federal Government really, apart from some big dams it did in the north in the 1970s and 80s, does not provide these facilities for the states. In Kano, Kebbi and Jigawa states, they are there. So, in some parts of the country, investments in the sector are very poor. In the North Central I come from, our performance in agriculture is not too good. So, the states have to get involved and ask us for interventions. We don’t have enough resources in my ministry. What is my budget proposal for 2019? They say 80 billion, but I may not get a half of that.

Are you saying these state governments are not really interested in the sector?
I am telling you the truth. I have told them. Many of them simply do not have interest. The land in the state, by law, is in the hands of the governor. He can persuade the community to give land for irrigation and dams. They can revive farm settlements of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I was in those settlements, but I walked away depressed. Some of the structures he put in place are still there, but the roofs have gone. We can revive them. Why not? Get young people in. They are interested in agriculture but have no money. Help them and walk them back to agriculture. But only a few governors, fewer than 12 states, are seriously committed to agriculture as I speak.

About two to three years ago, you said you would recapitalise the Bank of Agriculture. When will the restructuring and re-capitalisation be done?
The question is familiar, that nothing has been done. We are privatising and commercialising the bank. The processes are long. The Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) is handling it. We have to get a transition adviser, and replace the board. Their work will finish by February 2019. We are trying to throw the bank open so farmers can become shareholders. We are looking for a capital base of N260 billion, because the bank has been in trouble for many years. It has no money to lend.

The Vice President is the chairman of the committee. Once they finish their work, and the new structure is ready, farmers will become shareholders. When it is done, we are looking at a bank of agriculture similar to that of China. And once it becomes the farmers’ bank, we want the interest rate to be 5 per cent.

Will it be managed by the public or private sector?
Once the restructuring is completed, we will advertise and select the managing director and the directors of the bank, and the AGMs can be held. The CBN will inspect their books as it does to every other bank.

The Nigerian agricultural products are rejected in Europe and America. What are the problems?
Beans were rejected because of chemicals. Farmers and traders put snipers into the bags of beans. There is no way I can check every bag of beans nationwide, but we are spreading the awareness among them. We don’t need snipers. Just put peppers in the sacks, weevils cannot survive there. The other thing is what kind of chemicals are farmers spraying on the field? But luckily, a professor here in Kogi State has produced an organic chemical from local plants. It is now approved by the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC). These harmless organic chemicals can help us and the crops can be safe for human consumption.

Then we will go back to the European Union (E.U.) and we will check each consignment going out. But some Nigerians are crooked. They would want to beat the standards and when it gets there, they reject, and we will be blamed. The National Agricultural Quarantine Service should be the last to inspect the products going out, but sometimes the Custom would not allow them in the ports.

Importation of fertiliser has been included in the items restricted. Are we capable of producing all we need?
It is not all kinds of fertiliser. It is NPK 15-15-15. Inputs into fertiliser are not banned. Blenders will inform us of the components they want. To revive cocoa, we need boron. We have to import some of the micro-nutrients required in fertiliser blending. Those are not banned. NPK 15-15-15 is useless to our soil and useless to any crop. We sometimes have NPK 20-10-10, depending on what you are growing and the locality. Sometimes you have to increase the lime to mop up the acidity in the soil. But when people ship in NPK 15-15-15, thinking that it is a magic fertilizer for every crop, they are doing the wrong thing. If farmers are telling you their yield per hectare has gone from two to four or seven tonnes, it is a result of new blends of fertiliser.We have over 400,000 tonnes of fertiliser in warehouses, yet some people still go to import NPK 15-15-15 fertiliser. We have a penchant for importation, but we must start cutting down our importation.

Is the locally blended fertiliser as affordable as the imported one?
Fertiliser has never been cheaper. It is now about N5,000 or N6000 per bag. It was N12,000 before now. We have 27 fertiliser blending plants. The only zone we do not have a plant is the southwest, and we are trying to encourage two plants to go there, because carrying fertiliser is difficult. It is heavy.

What will you say this government has done to really diversify the economy from oil to agriculture, as the GDP is still hovering around 24 per cent?
Nobody can argue against the fact that we have made an impact in local rice production. Very few people now import rice through the ports.

Like what quantity are we importing now, officially?
In 2018, it was 5,000 metric tonnes of rice. That is a miserable figure compared to the figures we were doing two or three years ago. We are now Africa’s largest producers of maize, even though a few people still want to import maize. We are the second largest producer of sorghum in the world after the U.S. We are the second largest producer of sesame after Ethiopia. We are the biggest exporter of zobo flowers. We are the largest producer of gum Arabic after Sudan. We are the biggest producer of yams in the world. 70 per cent of the world yam is produced in Nigeria. We are the largest producer of cassava. We still need to increase production of certain crops like soy beans, beans and maize. For maize, we are almost there, but when we start processing and doing value addition, we need to increase production. We have to cultivate more cassava to produce ethanol, which we can use as a supplement to petrol. We have to do more work on syrups and sweeteners from cassava. We have to do industrial starch since we want to revive the textile industry. And in that sector, by the way, a new breed of cotton is here now that can give you three and a half tonnes of cotton per hectare instead of one tonne.

So, we are growing in agriculture, and the most important achievements are first of all, the reduction in price of fertiliser, and the excitement that a lot of young people are showing in agriculture, which is good news for us. We have to improve on our mechanisation, buy more tractors and clear more land, especially in the southwest. It is very costly to clear land there because of the heavy forest in the south west, south-south and the south east.

So, what have we achieved? We created a national awareness and excitement about agriculture. We have got more people going into farming, including civil servants. We have made people realise that they can make money from agriculture. The money we were transferring to sustain other economies abroad is now being distributed at home. Kebbi State, for instance, was rated as the poorest state in Nigeria by early 2015. Today, there are more millionaires in Kebbi villages than some of the cities in the country, producing rice, maize, sorghum, millets and rams. Jigawa and Kano, for another instance, are producing millionaires out of farmers.

Again, many states have not responded to this trend. Many more should come on board. Agriculture is the largest job creator in the country. No matter how much money we make from oil and gas, it will never employ a million workers, even if you add all the petrol attendants. The oil sector earns us the money, but does not create the jobs. It is a high-tech sector.

The value chain developments of all crops are hampered by inadequate power generation and distribution. The rural infrastructure is not there to support farmers too. What is this government doing about power and rural development?
We are pursuing the power agenda as vigorously as possible. I think, without hurting anybody’s feeling, we are improving on the power sector. It still goes off and on, once in a while. But the big challenge is this: rural roads, culverts and water supply are local government functions. Though my ministry is called the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, we do not have resources to do that aspect.

I urge the media too, to help us deal with this matter. Why are local government destroyed by the state administrations. They were created precisely to give the people clean water, roads, build hospitals and markets and repair them, run primary schools and create means of livelihood. It is the most strategic of the governments. Today, their revenues are held back by state governments. They pay salaries, give the chairman N1 or N2 million a month and keep the rest of the funds. And all of us, all of us I said, the elite, pretend that nothing is going on.

My budget is not enough to service 12,000 communities in the country, to do culverts in every local government…. The local governments are dead. The National Assembly just got autonomy for the judicial systems and states assembly, but they forgot the local government. When I asked them why, each one of us comes from a local government. If you go home you see nothing as development. And that is a major unfortunate situation in our country.

Until we revive the local government system, the rural areas may not develop.
The farmers grow cassava, but a pick-up van cannot go to the farm to bring the roots. A truck can’t enter the village, for there is a gully. These farmers are not slaves. They are the ones we are now rushing to for votes. They are not slaves. And we treat them as if they were not humans. They work, much harder than many of us, but we lock them down because of, I don’t want to use the word ‘irresponsible,’ imagination of the elite. We think they do not exist. We must free the local government from the bondage in which they are today, and then we can hold them accountable. After all, the chairman of a local government has no immunity. So, if he steals money, we arrest him and have him tried. To pretend that every time we give them money, they steal is not an excuse. They must be given that responsibility. Otherwise, you might as well revoke that level of government. So, this is where the trouble is.

So, some of these problems can be solved but we, the political class, have never paid attention to them. And when you raise them, they say you are being academic. Local governments must be made to function and perform their duties. Then, this act of locking out the rural people, forgetting them in their misery and carrying on as if life is about Lagos, Abuja and Kano, Ibadan and Port Harcourt, would stop.
Deactivating local governments is a major disservice of the political elite to the people of Nigeria.

Have you fully privatised the national silos now?
We did concession. We have concessioned them, and they have been taken over. We left seven of the silos for the Federal Government to store grains.

Who buys the grains from the farmers?
The government will buy them. The private sector operators too are buying and storing in silos. In the event of a shortfall, we will release them to the buyers and stabilise the market.But one thing I am saying to you is that we are going through tough times now because somewhere along the line, we were forced into an economic situation that was most unfriendly to Africa. It was called the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of 1986, dumped on Africa by our powerful friends from elsewhere.

I was on a visit in Hong Kong in April 1986 when a friend of mine told me on phone that the auctioning of the dollar began that day. He said the exchange rate was N3 to $1. I told him, for he was a senator, that it was the beginning of Nigeria’s journey to economic disasters. I added that the naira would exchange for N300 to $1. But he said no, that I was exaggerating. We actually got to N527 to $1 before we panicked. And Jeffery, who was a special adviser to Kofi Annan on economic matters, and Paul Koroma, a Nobel Prize winner, at a seminar in Washington, condemned SAP as the worst assault on Africa since the slave trade. It will take a long time, 10 to 20 years, for us to recover from its effects, because it has turned us into a nation of importers, deregulated interest rates to the extent that nobody can borrow for production here, killed all our factories, including the textile factories in Kano and Kaduna, Apapa, Ikeja and Aba.

But Malaysia, India and China rejected the SAP proposal. What they did was to cut down on import. We refused to do this, because our consumption habits are harmful to us, and everybody is still looking for dollars. I do not see how any regime, no matter what they are going to tell us during the campaigns, can solve the problems overnights. You cannot.

We were buried in the sand with this policy. It increased poverty, and today they can turn around to tell us we are poverty capital. So, you the younger generations are my concerns. How are we going to solve our problem is my greatest concern. The population is galloping, and foreigners can borrow at two per cent in their countries and invest here.

That is why I am pushing for five per cent interest rate. I like to say, while I am not claiming sole proprietorship, that one of my emphases has been on reduction of interest rates. Thank God the CBN reduced it to 9%, which has produced a lot of good results on the farm. And I am hopeful that before I finish, we will get to 5% interest rate for agriculture, and from there, wriggle our way up slowly, otherwise, we cannot survive.

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