BY Abdulsalam Wadud Olawumi
For over five decades, our nation has witnessed decline in agricultural practice, and has been struggling to feed her populace, losing billions of dollars which would have been incomes generated through agriculture. Where did we get it all wrong? This, we must address first before aiming at the solutions. The crux of this piece seeking solution to Nigerian economic problem from agricultural perspective, a commendable programme, but I must say that those at the helms of the nation’s affairs must realize that our national problems began from the very moment our attention drifted away from agriculture. To find a lasting solution to this problem, we must go to its root.
Since independence, successive Nigerian government has been doing the wrong things for the right reason; there have always been misplaced priorities. The discovery of crude oil in 1958 marked the beginning of the end for agriculture in Nigeria, gradually agricultural produce reduces and large scale production of cash crops waned to the point where the masses became disillusioned with farming. All attention, expectations and planning shifted from agriculture to other sectors. The importance of agriculture was gravely undermined, both by the government and the people.
Nigeria once started in the right tract shortly before independence. In the early 1950s following the 1946 constitution which led to the creation of the three regions, these regions diligently pursued agriculture with earnest intention of development. The masses were well fed; the regional governments were making huge income from which they developed their societies. Each region used to be renowned for different cash crops: in Northern region, groundnut, cotton, tobacco, and other crops were largely grown for exportation. In that region textile industries were established, the Arewa Textile Mill was notable, Tobacco Company, the groundnut pyramid became the emblem of that region. The Eastern Region was the center of palm oil production; in fact the name oil producing region attributed to the Niger-Delta of today is a misconception. The actual oil referred to by the British was palm oil not crude oil. The Eastern region lived off proceeds from rubber and palm produce. The Western Region was the home of plantations ranging from cocoa, coffee, and kola nut to rubber. The famous Cocoa House in Ibadan signified the peak of that glorious era. Unlike the virtual institutions of today, these regional government set up research institutes, such like cocoa Research Institutes, rubber research institutes, tobacco and fiber research institutes, to improve the production of cash crops, exporting boards oversee these affairs productively. Farm settlements were established in rural areas, the subsistent farmers were fully involved in the process and everyone benefited. During these glorious days when agriculture was highly upheld, the government of the regions were basically focused on social welfare of the people, mass poverty was not a known concept; infrastructure was developing at a steady pace. Life was good for the Nigerian people until the advent of crude oil.
1958 marked a sad turning point for agriculture in Nigeria. Like candy van on a street, government ran headlong towards it and soon abandoned agriculture. Slowly, cash crops began to disappear, the government’s focus shifted from people-centric to abstract visions the commoners could not associate with. Post independent government pretended to include agriculture in their national plans when in reality it was the least they were prepared for. Wide-spread poverty became the resultant effect of such misplaced priorities. Government programmes such as the National Accelerated Food Production of the early seventies, Operation Feed the Nation of the late seventies, the Green Revolution of the eighties, etc. were all parody. These programmes were not deliberate effort to the betterment of the rural settlers. Instead of exporting food Nigeria began to import food, a nation whose agriculture now depend on supplied rice and pastas from China, canned food from overseas. We have become a consumer-only nation. All the textile, rubber, tobacco companies are no more in existence; the research institutes are now hovels for unemployed erudite. Since the demise of agriculture in Nigeria we have continued to record wide spread poverty, corruption soars daily and the middle class is wiped out. In comparative analyses, the agrarian economy of the regions has a lot more to show than the oil-based economy of today.
How the Nigerian government can abandon agriculture without realizing the repercussion? The social science stated clearly the significance of agriculture in societal development. Every society begins at the hunter-gatherer age, stone/fire age, metal age, agrarian age, industrial age, computer age, jet age and now the virtual age. From the description, it takes only common sense to understand the role of agriculture in societal growth. How could we have committed such economic blunder? Advance nations understood this fact of society that is why they still upheld agriculture even in time of technological advancement. The United States in all her glory is a nation with sophisticated agricultural programmes; he has enough grains to supply other nations. So is China. Technological advancement did not deter or lure them away from farming; instead they soared in all types of farming.
Technology has done a lot to spur the agricultural sector in the past few years. The transition from subsistence farming to large scale production has been rather slow but steady for some farmers. However there are still a lot more of these farmers in the rural areas who still engage in small scale productions. A scenario where the reverse should be the case is necessary if we as a country plant to regain the glory we enjoyed in the 1960s that saw agricultural sector as the major source of foreign exchange earnings.
There is no doubt that the government has been doing a lot in the area of agriculture in Nigeria but there is still a lot more to be done. It is high time we look at the possibility of putting a stop to the importation of tinned tomatoes, frozen food and poultry. These are products that we should actually be exporting if we play our cards right. This leads us to an examination of one major area in agriculture that could do with some turn-around.
Educating farmers would create a lot of impact on agriculture in Nigeria. Farmers need to be brought up to speed on recent technologies and innovations that will assist them with production. This will ensure increased income on the part of the farmers, increased productivity which in turn leads to expansion over time and subsequently to the employment of more labour. The government should ensure that agricultural education cuts across the formal, informal and non-formal means of education.
Educating farmers means that they would be versed in the best preservation techniques of surplus foods. Waste is an issue that needs serious attention because if this area can be looked into, it would ensure the availability of seasonal foods all year round which would in turn ensure that the price of certain agricultural products remains stable no matter the time of the year.
Market linkage is another area that could be tackled by education. One of the major problems facing farmers in the rural areas is the inability to market the products being produced. Today, a lot is being said about ethanol which is a by-product of cassava. A lot of research has gone into the study of ethanol as a source of bio fuel. Cassava is one crop that yields a significantly large percentage of ethanol during process. Cassava is also one of the major crops being produced in Nigeria but ironically, most cassava farmers in the rural areas are not in communication with these research facilities that require their products.
Several governments and organizations over the past three decades have come up with various ideas and policies that sought to create a turn-around in the agricultural sector. The Oyakhilome administration in 1985, set up the school to land scheme in Rivers State with the mandate to; Promote self-employment amongst the youths in agriculture – Check the rising trend of rural-urban migration of school leavers – boosting increased food production for both local consumption and for export.
Over the course of its existence it has trained over four thousand people, which is quite commendable. During the civil war, General Yakubu Gowon initiated a similar project which was known as the National Food Production Programme. This programme was designed to feed Nigerians sufficiently. The question however is this: What has become of these programs and what impact have they made so far? How many of these people are gainfully employed in the agricultural sector? How many of them are actually utilizing the skills taught? How many of them are agricultural entrepreneurs?
It is obvious that the issue in Nigeria is not only execution, but rather the will to see these projects function properly in a sustainable manner. These programmes should be given the full backing of the government from the federal level down to the local government levels. These in turn should be broken into community outreach where various agricultural programmes should be initiated by each individual community depending on what agricultural product is peculiar to a specific region. The people should be part of their own success story. Cocoa, rubber, oil palm, tomato and cassava are just some of the few agricultural products that could reduce Nigeria’s sole reliance on oil as a foreign exchange earner while simultaneously reducing the rate of unemployment in the country. Suffice it to say that if all these are looked into, vision 2020 would certainly be achieved.