CONGRATS CBN GOV BUT THERE IS WAHALA
“Fighting for lost causes is a sure way to destruction.”
VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ p 60.
Travelling, for the first time in more than three years through Epe- Ijebu-Ode-Ibadan road on May 25, 2019 provided another reason why the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, must answer the question: “what will cotton replace among the current basket of crops now cultivated in Nigeria?” An area which from time immemorial had been known for cassava cultivation, for gari, fufu and starch is now over-run with watermelons. As usual I stopped to ask questions about the transformation. And the answer was alarming. With more kids going to school in the South West (Ogun State has the largest number of accredited universities in Nigeria and Ijebu area of the state alone has more tertiary institutions than six Northern States), the kids of older farmers are no longer interested in inheriting the farms. So, they have leased them to non-indigenes who are more interested in cultivating watermelons instead of cassava for the burgeoning Lagos market. Even the young children in Ijebuland have largely abandoned gari, fufu, ebiripo for indomie, rice and bread. So, there is decreasing incentive to plant cassava in the area.
Many of our older readers should recollect how under President Obasanjo, cassava was heavily promoted by the Federal Government, FG, and how Nigeria soon became the world’s largest producer of cassava. There was even report about Obasanjo exporting large quantities of cassava to China. Whether true or not need not delay us here. What is important is to note that after Obasanjo and the waning interest of the FG in cassava, farmers diverted to other crops. Some went into yams when it was announced that Ghana was exporting yams and earning foreign exchange from the commodity. Finally, in Buhari’s first term the FG reversed itself and rice, which was top on the agenda under Babangida (1985-1993), has again climbed to the top on our list of crops.
Each and every time the FG has announced preferential support for any farm produce, it inevitably results in millions of subsistence farmers substituting that crop for whatever they were planting before unless they receive support to continue with the existing product. When IBB left and Abacha abandoned the Wheat Programme, farmers stopped growing wheat. Farms on which cassava was planted have largely converted to rice. The reason is not hard to discover. Announced preferential support invariably means there is “free” FG money about to start flowing in that direction and corrupt practices will soon follow. One of the richest men in Nigeria has made an art out of waiting until FG’s purse is wide open to announce a major investment in that programme. With that he obtains concessions, duty waivers and other advantages which are thoroughly abused while smiling all the way to the bank. He is also the first to leave once FG loses interest. But, meanwhile, those making huge investments in the new direction would have acquired vast areas of land in many states, displaced hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers planting several crops mainly for domestic consumption, and turned the vast territory into a mono-crop area. Where before sorghum, millet, maize, pepper, onions, tomatoes and dozens of vegetables grew, only one crop is now planted. Because large scale farms are also mechanised, they employ few people to do the work of thousands and the yield is one item in our basket of farm products.
That was the lesson we learnt when in 1984/5 General Buhari ordered breweries to start using local crops to brew beer instead of importing malt and hops. Mr Felix Ohiweri is still alive among my contemporaries in the brewery sector at the time. Nigerian Breweries, GUINNESS and our own North Brewery Limited, Kano, were the three largest breweries in Nigeria at the time and we all literally went into the bush to start farming ventures. All the breweries eventually selected sorghum as the local grain to plant. I don’t know how many hectares NBL and GUINNESS acquired, but North Brewery leased for 99 years 10,000 hectares in Karu, Nasarawa State, and we were on course to add another 10,000 hectares in Agatu area of Benue State. Work started first at Karu. Nothing less than 15,000 small scale farmers, planting over 150 different crops had to give way, sometimes forcefully, in order that one company employing less than 200 people can plant one crop! That was bad enough.
With the change of government in August 1985 and a change of policy, all the breweries soon abandoned their farms. Whereas in 1986/7 GUINNESS Farms vehicles dominated the road between Mokwa and Bida, Niger State, by 1990 there was none to be seen. And for years, the farms were left idle – taken out of production. The economic losses to the nation are totally unquantifiable when that sort of policy reversal occurs.
It will require years of persistent support from the FG and state governments for Nigeria to attain the level of cotton output that will sustain the revival of our textile industry. That is more years than Emefiele has in his second term as CBN Governor. A new Governor and the reversal of the current policy would result in the sort of disruption which the nation has experienced repeatedly each time FG selects a favourite crop to support. There is already a whiff of scandal attaching to the rice policy. The result is far from what Mr Audu Ogbeh told the country we should expect and some smart individuals had made out like, well, bandits on the existing rice policy. Rice self-sufficiency remains as elusive as ever and the treasury had been raided. Farmers had substituted rice for other crops in a bid to cash in on the “free” government money flowing into the rice sector.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to have noticed that the nation is now sliding backwards on cassava, on yams, on vegetables and pepper – among other crops. Most likely when Emefiele goes, cotton will also drop from the top of FG’s agriculture agenda. Then, we will be where we were before it all started.
From corporate intelligence reports available to us at North Brewery, if NBL, GUINNESS and NBL(K) had continued with their sorghum farms, Nigeria would have become the world’s largest producer of sorghum and if a sorghum malting plant had been established, as was being contemplated at the time, Nigeria would not today still be importing malted barley and losing so much in foreign exchange. Without an iron-cast guarantee that the Cotton project will receive FG support for at least ten years, it will most likely be abandoned before we experience the benefits promised to the country.
Clearly, the risks are high on this one and right now, there is insufficient guarantee that it will work.
POSER: The skilled manpower required to manage the farms and the Northern textile mills are mostly Southerners. How many of them are ready to go North to work now when they might return in a coffin?