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By Chris Ajaero

It used to be the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, providing more than 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and abundant food for the people. At independence in 1960, the post-independence leaders of the country had realised that even with the discovery of oil at Oloibiri in 1956, the agricultural sector had the potential to be the industrial and economic springboard from which Nigeria’s development could take off.

Consequently, during the first decade after independence, the Nigerian elite who took over the mantle of leadership from the colonial masters continued to develop the agricultural sector. From the standpoint of contribution to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) agriculture remained the leading sector. During this period, Nigeria was the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, largest exporter of palm kernel and largest producer and exporter of palm oil. Nigeria was also a leading exporter of other major commodities such as cotton, groundnut, rubber, hides and skin. Indeed, the agricultural sector contributed more than 60 percent to the GDP in the 1960s. Despite the reliance of the Nigerian farmers on traditional tools and indigenous farming methods, they produced 70 percent of Nigeria’s exports and 95 percent of its food needs.

Dupe Olatunbosun, a professor of agricultural economics said that Nigeria made the desired progress in harnessing its potential in agriculture in the post-colonial era because there was extensive planning and regional competition in the production of the major commodities.

This tendency for regional competition in agriculture made every region in the country to specialise in the production of one or two major crops, whether food or cash crops. This was the era when the country had the groundnut pyramids in the North, the cocoa mountains in the West, the oil palm kernel heaps in the East and the rubber plantations in the Mid- West.

During this period, Nigeria produced more than 240,000 tonnes of palm oil and palm produce annually, which represented 21 percent of the total world output. Due to the huge revenue Nigeria was earning from agriculture, it became the envy of other developing countries so much so that in the early 1970s, Malaysia sent some of its experts to the Nigerian Institute for Palm Oil Research (NIFOR) near Benin City to learn the techniques of modern palm oil production and processing. And today, leveraging the benefits from palm seedlings collected from Nigeria, Malaysia has become an economic behemoth, as it earns more from its oil palm and products than Nigeria earns from crude oil.

Olatunbosun said it is rather unfortunate that 54 years after independence, the country’s agricultural potential remain huge on paper and has hardly been intensively exploited.

He believes that the oil boom era of the 1970s turned out to be less of a blessing to the country because it led to the neglect of agriculture. The situation was worsened because the oil boom created immense opportunities for corruption and self-enrichment that took over the Nigerian economy and polity. Incidentally, the oil boom occurred during the military era where the discretion of the ruler and his team rather than constitutional rules applied. Having set aside the constitution, how the oil money was spent was dependent on the wisdom and discretion of the military leader.

With the stupendous amount of unexpected wealth, General Yakubu Gowon, the then head of state, had declared that Nigeria had no problem with getting wealthier than it was at that time, but was on the contrary concerned with the spending of its wealth. So, government went on a spending spree, without devoting a substantial part of the money towards boosting the agricultural sector.

Throughout the nearly 30 years of military rule, successive military leaders in Nigeria only paid lip service to agricultural development. By 1977, the share of agriculture to the GDP declined from 48.23 percent in 1971 to about 21 percent. The percentage of agricultural exports also declined from 20.7 percent in 1971 to 5.71 percent in 1975.

It was at this juncture that it dawned on Gowon that hunger was staring Nigerian citizens in the face in spite of the country’s huge arable land and good weather because his administration had abandoned the agricultural plantations. In desperation, his administration embarked on the importation of rice in the early 70s to stave off hunger. That marked the beginning of the dwindling fortunes of Nigeria in the agricultural sector.

When General Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded the late General Murtala Mohammed; who was assassinated on February 13, 1976, he tried to address the problem through the introduction of a programme known as Operation Feed the Nation (OFN). This was intended to be some kind of agricultural revolution. Under the programme, the Obasanjo administration made a conscious effort to increase the number of farmers and raise people’s awareness of the key role agriculture could play in the country.

Everybody was enjoined to farm the land near him. The Obasanjo administration at that time also embarked on massive distribution of fertiliser, agro-chemicals, feed-premixes, and other farming inputs at subsidised rates. Although the scheme succeeded in making Nigerians realise that there was food shortage in the land, it did not go far in addressing it.

And when Alhaji Shehu Shagari took over as president at the inception of the Second Republic in 1979, he terminated the OFN and introduced his own programme called the Green Revolution and the National Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme. The programme did not make the desired impact because the agricultural grants from the National Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme were hijacked by the politicians for non-existent farms while the actual farmers were left out.

By the time the scheme was suspended in 1983, N2 billion had been expended on it without achieving the desired result. Since the Green Revolution failed to boost food production, the Shagari administration had to set up the Presidential Task Force for the Importation of Rice to avert hunger and starvation in the land. It was headed by Umaru Dikko, who was then the minister of transport.

Ibrahim Babangida, who toppled the Muhammadu Buhari administration, launched his own scheme known as the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRl). The programme was co-ordinated by Larry Koiyan, then an air vice-marshal. It was supposed to be a comprehensive, integrated programme for massive food production and rural transformation. Roads were to be built to all the rural areas so that farm produce could be transported to the urban centres faster to ultimately reduce wastage and at reduced costs.

With the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1986, the Babangida administration banned the importation of rice, maize, wheat and vegetable oil. The measures led to price increases for local produce due to devaluation of the Naira. Output also increased, especially, in rice but poultry and fishery production became less profitable because of high cost of imported inputs such as agro-chemicals. However, subsidy withdrawal reduced profitability to farmers. This led to loss of farm holdings.

By the time Babangida stepped aside in August 1993, DFRII had gulped Nl.9 billion without achieving the desired result.

During Obasanjo’s second coming as a civilian president between May 1999 and May 2007, he promised that agriculture would be given the greatest priority both for poverty reduction in the rural areas and for the improvement of the economy generally. To this end, he said that new technology, improved seedlings, better storage facilities, fertilisers, pesticides, etc, would be made readily available. The government was also to embark on massive expansion of agricultural extension services and ensure better and easier delivery of credits to farmers.

However, after eight years in the saddle, there were indications that he failed to fulfil these promises. The findings of study on the impact of Obasanjo administration’s economic policy on food production jointly done by Anthony Onoja and A.C. Agumagu of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, University of Port Harcourt, showed that he did just little towards advancing the course of the Nigerian agricultural sector. According to the study, the Obasanjo administration did not live up to expectation in terms of government’s macroeconomic policies such as aggregate expenditure on agriculture, loan advancement from the commercial banks to the agricultural sector and the performance of the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme.

Although the Presidential Initiative on Cassava export programme which he introduced in July 2002 increased exponentially cassava production in the country, government’s policy somersault affected it later.

The initiative meant to promote cassava as a foreign exchange earner for the country was well received by farmers. As part of the statutory structures that would drive the implementation of the policy, the Obasanjo administration came up with a policy of 10 percent inclusion of cassava flour in wheat flour, 10 percent blending of ethanol with premium motor spirit and the national starch use policy by industries. All these policies were aimed at creating sustainable marketing channels for cassava producers and processors who constitute over 70 percent of the country’s rural population. More than $16 million was contributed by the government and other international development organisations for the effective implementation of the cassava commercialisation policy. In order to give additional support to the policy, the Flour Millers Association of Nigeria, in 2006, instituted a N500 million Cassava Empowerment Fund as a revolving loan. The fund, which was domiciled at the Nigerian Agricultural Co-operative and Rural Development Bank (NACRDB), was meant to assist cassava farmers in meeting the cassava flour demand of millers. The NACRDB had disbursed more than N100 million to more than 29 cassava processors across the country. Consequently, more than 220,000 metric tonnes of cassava was processed locally and supplied to flour millers within the past five years in accordance with the cassava inclusion policy. But the Obasanjo administration had, through policy reversal, crippled investments by cassava farmers, estimated at more than N4 billion.

When the late President Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua took over the mantle of leadership from Obasanjo on May 29, 2007, he listed food security and agriculture, as part of his seven-point agenda. He was confident that his administration would adequately address these key sectors and by so doing, jump-start an economy capable of making Nigeria one of the world’s 20 developed economies in 2020.

However, a critical assessment of the performance of Yar’Adua’s administration before his demise on May 5, 2010, shows that he failed to achieve the desired result in terms of food security and agriculture. Due to the lip service his administration paid to the agricultural sector, food prices had gone up beyond the reach of many Nigerians. The situation was worsened by the global food crisis.

Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded Yar’ Adua as president, has vowed to revive agriculture as a viable sector of the economy. He described agriculture as a vital sector of the economy with high potential for employment generation, food security, poverty reduction and industrialisation. To revolutionize the sector to contribute significantly to national development, the Jonathan administration launched the Agriculture Transformation Agenda (ATA).  The president said that through ATA, his administration has embarked on bold policy and institutional reforms aimed at adding 20 million metric tonnes of food to domestic supply and creating at least 3.5 million new jobs in agriculture and allied industries by 2015.  He said that his administration was building on Nigeria’s “tremendous natural resources” in order to reverse the decline in the agricultural sector’s productivity which followed the discovery of oil, as well as establish domestic self-sufficiency in food and make the country “a major net exporter of food”.

In order to encourage modern agricultural practice in Nigeria, President Jonathan  recently directed the Central Bank of Nigeria to set aside N50 billion as an agricultural mechanisation intervention fund. He explained that his agricultural transformation agenda would support food production and, in turn, make Nigeria a player in global food and agricultural market.

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, minister of agriculture and rural development believes that ATA was achieving desired result. According to him, Nigeria’s food import bill has declined from N1.9 trillion in 2009 to N684 billion by December 2013. He, however, insists that one of the   challenges of agriculture in Nigeria is  low mechanisation, adding that a farmer with access to a tractor would be able to cultivate 10 hectares per day compared to one hectare per day if it’s done manually. Thus, despite the efforts of the Jonathan administration to boost food production, Nigeria is yet to regain its lost agricultural glory after 54 years of independence.

Agricultural experts believe that one of the major reasons Nigeria is yet to harness its potential in agriculture is the failure of leadership. Olatubosun and the Francis Idachaba, two of Nigeria’s foremost professors of agricultural economics were of the view that the agricultural policies initiated by successive administrations in the country failed due to poor leadership and poor articulation. “They failed because of greed and interest of the elite that were not geared towards agricultural development,” Olatubosun said.

For Idachaba, the pioneer vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, all the agricultural programmes introduced during the military era were abandoned because they were not achieving the objectives for which they were set up and because the benefits flowed to non-intended beneficiaries with unintended consequences.

Under OFN, everybody was expected to be a farmer but Idachaba recalled that in reality it was not possible. “Even in leading agricultural countries, there is division of labour such that some are farmers while others take to different professions. Because of this wrong conceptualisation, OFN was not something that could really last for too long,” he said, adding that no nation achieves food self-sufficiency by turning everybody into farmers.

Idachaba also attributed the failure of OFN and Green Revolution to “lack of continuity and shift in approach by successive governments” while DFRRI failed due to lack of funds and commitment. The revered professor of agricultural economics said that the leadership problem often led to the frequent changes of policies on agriculture as one government replaces another. On each occasion, the country had always had to start afresh. Moreover, some Nigerian leaders tended to have regarded agriculture as a vocation for the illiterate in the rural areas who have nothing better to do. The big farmers – politicians, retired generals and businessmen – engage largely in crops or animals cultivation that are not common staples. They have pineapple plantations, ostrich and other exotic farms that add nothing to the nation’s quest for food security.

The problem of storage facilities for perishable farm produce is another factor that has affected agriculture. For instance, agricultural experts say Nigeria, which is one of the largest producers of yam in the world, would have been self-sufficient in the crop but for the huge losses which occur at post-storage stage. Although the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan has, in conjunction with the National Root Crops Research Institute, developed better-yielding and early maturing hybrid, the post – harvest problems of the crop has continued to haunt farmers.

Corruption among the leaders has not helped agriculture. The River basins, dams, silos and fertiliser contracts have, over the years, been dripping with corruption.

As far back as 1992, there were plans by the federal government to gradually phase out the importation of fertiliser. One of the measures put in place was the decision of the federal government to establish fertiliser plants in the country. The National Fertiliser Company of Nigeria (NAFCON) was established in the 1980s as the first and biggest modem nitrogenous fertiliser plant in sub-Saharan Africa. But by early 1990s, the company had been run aground with huge debt and unpaid salaries of its staff being the only legacy left to show the world.  The plant had to be shot down in 1999, due to technical and management problems after series of attempts by the government to revamp it had failed. The federal government in 2005, decided to privatise the company and a new core investor, Notore, a consortium of Nigerian and foreign private and institutional investors acquired the company for $152 million.

Olatunbosun believes that the neglect of agriculture by the Nigerian leaders has led to the situation whereby the country’s economy is almost mono-cultural, depending on one commodity – crude oil. “This structural distortion of Nigeria’s economy requires speedy and comprehensive agricultural development,” he said.

As Nigeria marks its 54th independence anniversary, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, former governor of old Kaduna State, also believes that the country needs the right kind of leadership which has the political will to pretend that oil does not exist and to face the challenge of agriculture squarely. “Every part of Nigeria can be made an agricultural centre, including the desert because no part of Nigeria has less than three months of rain every year. So, the possibility of agriculture is tremendous. We can feed ourselves. We can produce raw materials that our industries need. We can be self-reliant within the context of internationalism,” he said.


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