“Mr. President, you are feeding Nigeria and the international community recognizes your efforts and leadership in feeding Nigeria”. That was Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture’s remark to his boss, President Jonathan. Curiously, Adesina – not a top official of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – was presenting an award from the FAO to the President. According to media reports, the President was recognized by the FAO for his government’s effort at reduction of hunger and chronic poverty in the country. The FAO believes (more like speculates) that the federal government has reduced by half between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of Nigerians living on less than $1.25 a day! Talk about a culture of low expectations, apologies to Okey Ndibe. The reference to 2015 underscores how less seriously one is inclined to take the source of this information, not to mention even the reference to 1990. No one is under illusion regarding Nigeria’s socio-economic profile in the 1990s. Against all odds to the contrary, even if we try to spin that era on a positive light, we quickly realise that the President’s political career had yet to take off in the 1990s. It is then reasonable to suggest that the President received the award for himself, his successor, if any, in 2015 and partly for Babangida, Shonekan, Abacha, Abubakar, Yar’Adua and Obasanjo, our yesteryears heads of state. So, what the FAO is saying is that the collective years of these men in power made us to crawl on a nano scale out of the tunnel of hunger and poverty in which they either met the nation or interred it by their policies.
This award to the President raises more questions than answers. I doubt if many Nigerians, even the President himself, took it seriously. The President’s measured and less enthused response was more important. A detached review of the award presentation on television indicates that the President’s body language reflected disguised embarrassment. I suggest that such a posture was more commendable than the award, a fact nuanced in the President’s remark. Even the fact that the FAO did not choose a more auspicious strategy or forum to present the award has its own symbolism. If the FAO seriously and truly wanted to showcase the government’s positive impact on hunger and poverty eradication, it probably could have flown in its Director General, Jośe Graziano da Silva, to present the award to the President. It could possibly have chosen a more visible global arena, in Geneva, New York, Rome or elsewhere to celebrate the President and lift him onto a global pedestal as a model for other leaders, especially in Africa, on the issue of hunger and poverty eradication and the Millennium Development Goals.
This opinion is not about the unanswered questions from the President’s award. It is a reflection on Nigeria’s agriculture, one that seeks to open a debate of some sort. All said, I personally think that we have a hard-working Minister of Agriculture. I have reason to believe that his leadership of the sector is comparatively refreshing. He needs to be encouraged. The potential of Agriculture as an engine of Nigeria’s national rebirth is great. We need to move beyond potential. In the last couple of decades, global agricultural transformation presents opportunities and challenges for developing countries, especially in Africa. We have seen the full-blown introduction of the wonders and dangers of modern agricultural biotechnology, through genetic modification of crops and even animals. We have also witnessed the introduction of living modified organisms of various kinds and large scale international trade, domestic marketing and consumption of genetically engineered food. With the global expansion of free trade, the trans-boundary movements of these goods and various novel food and agricultural products have continued to increase.
Add to that, the aggressive presence of China in Africa and Nigeria, has continued to boost questionable foreign direct investments, not only in resource extraction but also in the service industries, notably restaurants and downstream retail and sundry services. These eateries and retail outlets serve and sell all kinds of foreign and culturally sensitive dishes and agricultural products. Sometime one wonders how those stuff make their way into Nigeria. With a feeble but noticeable revival of the middle class in Nigeria, our consumption pattern and taste continue to change in very predictable and unpredictable patterns. While Nigerians in diaspora long for local food, some of their compatriots at home make consumption of foreign cuisine a status symbol. Vegetarians and carnivores alike are competing for consumptive space after their divergent fancies. Local crop, animal and fish farming are barely struggling to rise to these challenges. Yet, I see opportunities for self-employment and entrepreneurships for our graduates in the agriculture and allied sectors.
Nigeria, like most African countries, is a site for foreign agricultural land grabs. Pristine agricultural lands in Africa are increasingly targets of foreign acquisitions, especially since the 2008 global financial crises. Africa is a new destination for foreign biofuel farmers and adventurers. The continent is now at the crosscurrent of forces that seek turning poor peoples’ food into rich peoples’ fuel. In Africa non-traditional trading partners from the influential bloc of regional and emergent powers such as China, India and Brazil look set to out-compete western powers with their eyes not only on extractive industries but also in agricultural investments. The Obasanjo administration literally gave Robert Mugabe-displaced Zimbabwean farmers free pass into prime agricultural lands in Nigeria’s agricultural belts. Led by Kwara State’s Saraki, other sub-national governments in Nigeria jumped into the bandwagon of courting foreign industrial farmers into Nigeria. All of these have happened in ad-hoc fashion, at a time when there is no strong legal and policy frameworks for mapping the future of Nigeria’s agriculture. Save for Botswana, Ethiopia and South Africa (the latter is also part of the land grab syndrome within sister Africa countries), Nigeria’s situation is not different from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria has an ecological diverse richness that makes for sustainable agricultural production. In addition to its immensely youthful population, Nigeria has invested quite significantly in manpower development in Agriculture. With several research centres, mid-level colleges of agriculture, polytechnics, and universities of agriculture, the expectation was that Nigeria’s agricultural revolution will be driven from within. The success of the fairly new privately-owed Afe Babalola University in practical agricultural and food production is evidence of what is possible when corruption is bridled in public institutions and when there is a will to follow through with set target. Government can learn from the private sector. Agriculture is multi-layered solution to a significant measure of Nigeria’s hydra-headed problems: youth unemployment, dependency on petroleum, hunger, poverty and all aspects of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Collectively, national failure on those scores is related to persistent national security crisis, radicalization and religious brainwashing of idle and unemployed youths across all religious divides in the country.
Can Nigeria afford to let so-called foreign direct investors and agents of industrial agriculture and international trade dictate its agricultural road map? In Africa, certainly in Nigeria, agriculture is a way of life as well as a cultural process. It is not an exclusively industrial and production process as it has since become in the western world. Our agricultural practices reflect our worldview and our relationship with our environment. From all nooks and crannies of this country, traditional farming communities, mainly led by women, are custodians of the culture in agriculture. The diversity of the agricultural crops and the millennial innovation of our farmers on the farm fields from season to season perhaps compares to the various claims of test tube or laboratory agriculture. These folks are the true custodians of our food security. They grow culturally relevant food and have a good mastery of our ecosystems. For every civilization, food is an extension of culture and identity. Despite the abundance of foreign cuisine in Nigeria, our food security lies in locally-grown food by local people, especially women. With necessary support to these segments of our economic strength through access to land capital and market coupled with strategic support for young agriculture graduates, Nigeria’s agricultural revival will be under the control of ordinary Nigerians.
When it comes to shaping agricultural policy, Nigeria and, of course, Africa has the benefit of late comers. In most developed world, large scale industrial agriculture has displaced small-holder traditional farming and farmers. Seed breeders and their allies in hi-tech agro- biotechnology have succeeded in turning small-holder traditional farmers into endangered species. Rarely do people have control over their food supply any more in the developed world. Consequently, genetically modified foods have become the norm in those regions of the world. Consumers have limited choice over what they consume. The idea of organic food is no longer one based on absence of transgenes. Rather, it is based on what constitutes a tolerable percentage of transgenic presence. Organic certification is as politicized as the issue of labeling of genetically modified organisms. The history of industrial agriculture shows how unpredictable science is. Crop failure and presence of carcinogens in industrial agro-chemicals of the green revolution era are lessons yet to be learnt. Not mention the dangers of monoculture.
Nigeria’s factor endowment in its indigenous traditional agricultural communities must be leveraged in order to empower these critical segments of our socio-economic survival. The long-throat with which the government and elite private sector have embraced foreign direct investments in Nigeria’s agriculture is worrisome. There is no suggestion here that Nigeria can do without external technical and capacity building support in the agricultural sector. Presently, we have fairly robust educational institutions in agriculture that could play constructive roles in negotiating and hosting technology transfer initiatives toward a national agricultural policy that addresses Nigeria’s food security needs. That is different from freely downloading external industrial agricultural interests in Nigeria on a silver platter. Nigeria’s national interests are not necessarily in sync with these fair-weather investors.
Assuming the genie is still in the bottle, it is tenable that Nigeria could potentially manage and mitigate full-blown introduction of genetic modification in our agricultural farmlands. Doing so, Nigeria could constitute itself into a niche exporter of organic or exotic produce. But in the prevailing paucity of a comprehensive cross-sectorial national agricultural policy framework and cognate legal and general regularly environment, living modified organisms could readily make their ways through our borders. Some of them can be easily and intentionally introduced into the environment without necessary precaution, risk assessment and management as mandated in international law. Even modified organisms designated for food, feed and processing easily and, in fact, regularly end up in agricultural farmlands. Since Nigeria signed onto the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, it is not clear if we have any effective risk assessment, crisis intervention and management regime regarding trans-boundary movement of living modified organisms that are capable of posing environment and human health hazards, with severe implication for national food security. A critical look at our borders and customs contact points: land, sea and air, and this point needs no more arguing.
In the 1970s Nigeria invested in arts and culture, established a good number of universities with strong bias in the arts and in cultural studies. Several decades later, with the combination of private sector initiatives and the ‘products’ of those institutions, the Nollywood was born. In the 1980s without sound scientific base in primary and secondary schools, Nigeria boosted its technical education, established several universities of technology and later those of agriculture. Yet we have teaming youth unemployment, an agricultural landscape that is increasingly rudderless, far removed from the aspiration for food security and food sovereignty, one that is ready to marginalize the most critical link in agricultural sustainability – small scale peasant agricultural communities. We are ready to jump to bed with Zimbabwean farmers and offer French kiss to Indian and Chinese land grabbers. With political will and visionary leadership what we are looking for in the Sokoto of foreign direct investment in agriculture we already have in our traditional agricultural sokoto.
Conceivably, the President did not fall for the diversion of the FAO award. He did not seem to have been under any illusion that he is feeding the country. For our overpaid members of the National Assembly, it is time to partner with the executive and take a holistic look on Nigeria’s agriculture. Previous pretensions to generating agricultural policy for Nigeria are too shallow and lack depth, especially in regard to cross-sectorial challenges of governing the new global agricultural dynamics. It is time to begin the design of sound context-sensitive, national interest-driven policy architecture for Nigeria’s agriculture. We have good ministerial leadership in the agricultural sector that can drive the change. It is better late than never. We may even reflect on the pros and cons of a ministry of food separate from but harmonised with the ministry of agriculture. The President has no business feeding Nigeria. His province is to spearhead the shaping of policies. He should leave that task of feeding Nigerian to the people whose job it is – real Nigerian farmers. They need empowerment and protection from fair-weather investors!
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters