‘Why food should become human right in Nigeria’s constitution’
Prof. Gbolagade Babalola Ayoola is a Professor of Agricultural Economics and Policy, founder/president of Farm and Infrastructures Foundation and promoter of the Right to Food Bill at the National Assembly. Senator Adamu Abdullahi sponsors the bill in the National Assembly and believes it has the potentiality, if signed into law, to infuse seriousness into agricultural policy formulation, implementation, process accountability, monitoring and evaluation, which could lead to food security in Nigeria. FEMI IBIROGBA, Head, Agro-Economy, presents the excerpts of the interview.
Now, your organisation has been an advocate of the right to food in Nigeria as a way of achieving food security. How do you mean?
What we mean is that from time immemorial, countries pursue food security in two major ways and they formulate their policies along the way they are done. One way is food as a human need and the other way is food as a human right. There is a need approach to food security and the right approach to food security.
What do you mean by the need-based approach?
Many parts of the world started and they still perceive food as a basic need of the people. Whereas, we feel that in Nigeria, like in other countries of the same class and nature, food should be perceived, philosophically, as a fundamental human right.
What is the difference?
The difference is that if you look at the ordinary meaning of need, you are saying that something is your need and somebody should do it for you. Your need is your responsibility totally and if somebody is playing a role for you to meet your need, it is only a favour. When we see the government pursuing food as a mere human need (food is a human need, we are not saying it is not, but in terms of policy management, it is more than a need), we are more or less saying that it’s the need of the people and the government should only put in policies to help them meet their need. That is what they have been doing, and if the government fails, it is inconsequential to the same government or the people. That is the critical problem with the need approach.
In essence, if I refuse or fail to meet that you need, you cannot blame or force me. That is the concept of the need approach, which, we think, has failed over the years. That is why all the policies they have put up in that framework from independence (Operation Feed the Nation, the National Accelerated Food Production Project, the Green Revolution, the marketing boards, the Directorate for Food, Roads and Rural infrastructure, the Agricultural Transformation Agenda and now the Green Alternative) have a history of failure one after the other.
We as researchers in this area can confidently tell you that these successive failures have been happening because each time they failed to make their policies work, or failed to put up policies that would ensure the entitlement of food for the people, it had been inconsequential to the government. There was no outcome, no punishment, no agitation, no apology, no regret and no action followed in the law court.
Another person will come, start another thing and call it a Green Alternative. If that one fails, nothing happens after spending money, efforts and energy of the people. Even at home, if you make an action of your child inconsequential to him, he will be doing what he likes whether he succeeds or not. His aim would no longer be how to succeed in that action, but to do it because even if he fails, nothing would happen.
However, the right-based approach means that it is a fundamental right of the people and rights of the people can never be taken away from them. If you endeavour to take away the fundamental rights of the people from them, they can resist, refuse, and react. If the government is doing policies that are not based on human rights, the people are docile. When the policy fails, there is nothing that creates heat on the government. Look at all what is happening in a democratic setting. This type of pursuit can only happen in a democracy. That is why we did not move our efforts from Makurdi to Abuja until we returned to the civilian regime because people have the right to claim their right, anywhere you are offending it. That is why until the freedom of information becomes a right, the owner of the information will not let people enjoy it freely and if you go to court on any ground apart from right, those type of cases stay for years. Only the right-based argument wins against the government.
If it is otherwise, immediately you enter the court to file a leave to exercise fundamental human rights, the court is under all obligation to leave all issues and pursue that. That is the norm. If you now make policies activities of the government in agriculture an item of fundamental rights, it then means that the government is no longer doing what it likes, and the government will be more serious to consider the policies very seriously and to implement it religiously to reduce the amount of corruption that will make it fail.
According to the Nigerian Constitution as of today, provision of infrastructure is described as non-justiciable, non-actionable. If the government fails to provide them, nothing happens. How do you seek an exception to food when those essentials are non-justiciable?
That is the essence of our bill because food is put in that same category of the non-justiciable in chapter two of the constitution. The non-justiciable nature of a policy is the policy under chapter two. They call it principles of directive state policy. Anything they put there is non-justiciable, not even actionable. It’s just the assignment they give the government casually. Those serious assignments they give the government are in chapter four of the constitution, entitled Fundamental Human Rights. The section is a no-go area for the government to violate. Any right they put in chapter four cannot be violated without consequences. The government will pay something, the judge is under obligation to make the government retrace its steps and pay for it.
Are you advocating, through your bill in the National Assembly, that this food-as-a-right document should be visible under chapter four? In other words, are you advocating a constitutional amendment to reflect food as a right?
You are correct. Now that a constitutional review committee is in place, we want it to be part of that review too. The amendment we are proposing is to simply insert food in chapter four under these conditions. That is our goal. That food policy leaves chapter two to chapter four.
What do you intend to achieve with this? What do you think would be the overall good of treating food as a right in the constitution?
The good to society is that people will now be empowered to demand their rights from policy authorities in various ways that they can imagine. Their rights will not be violated and if they are, they would seek redress to it. That is good in a civilian government.
Do you mean that if the government fails to provide infrastructure for food production like mechanical devices (tractors, irrigation facilities) and rural road networks that can boost the movement of produce, people can challenge the government in court and seek redress?
You are correct. If we move it to chapter four, they are actionable. There is the degree to which they are actionable. Before those things are actionable, they must have been tied to food as a right.
There is a step the person has to take before he can successfully take action, and that step is that he needs to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that indeed this failure is tied to food as his right. Not many of them will qualify for legal action, and that is why it is not an omnibus bill of fear like people think because there is a job to do before you can now connect something that is not connected to food as a right. There must be a nexus and it is not simple.
The judge can say he is not convinced but there are some that are very obvious. For example, the reason why women from our country travel abroad to give birth is because of the facilities they enjoy, especially as lactating mothers. How they will give them all kinds of milk and things that will help them as lactating mothers. This is because all these have been tied to the right of women as producers of babies for the society; that their babies must be good quality ones that will make progress for the country in the future. Therefore, if any of such women demonstrate laxity or incapacity to feed a baby very well under the wall, she enjoys that support from the government because they have tied it to the rights of women. We are not looking for a socialist system to give things free of charge. We are only saying that the government should make policies that will make things happen for all segments in the country.
What is the state of that bill in the National Assembly?
I venture to give you a small background before venturing into the status. We entered the National Assembly first in 2009 when the Sixth Assembly (soon after ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo left in 2008) formed a committee of constitutional review like the present one. We saw it as an avenue to present a memorandum and achieve food as a right. We thought it was a casual thing that would just come from that committee. But when the committee finished work, their report did not even indicate our presentation, not to talk of approving it. Whereas, they held public hearings in the six geo-political zones and we were in all of them. We presented manifestos, bills and memorandum to their public hearing. They listened to us but pushed it aside. They did not even say we came. It was a failure.
I then decided that we would go by the way of direct entry as a private member’s bill. We entered the National Assembly in 2010 through the House of Representatives. It was Honorable Makanjuola, a representative from Kwara State, who sponsored it for the first time. We wanted to go sequentially, and our first step is for the house to redefine food as contained in chapter two from the needs approach to the rights approach.
We went to the House to change the provision of food in chapter two in terms of definition only. Our plan was that we would first achieve talking about food not as a need but as a right, but we were still in chapter two, which is non-justiciable. We thought we would be able to move fast to chapter four, and we went to the two chambers at the same time. Unfortunately, at the end of the Sixth Assembly, we could not pass beyond the first reading stage.
The Seventh Assembly came, and we said let us leave chapter two in the House and pursue chapter four at the same time (they are not blocking one another) in the senate.
We entered the Senate in the Seventh Assembly, which was when Senator Adamu Abdullai sponsored the bill in the Senate. That one was a simpler bill, no longer a redefinition bill. It is now an insertion bill that the Senate should simply go to chapter four and put food as a right. The same justification we provided for the two. The houses were pursuing different bills, but in the end, both in the House and Senate, we did not move past first reading stage. The Eighth Assembly came and we re-strategised. I conveyed a workshop where we invited legislative aides and legislatures also about what is happening and how best we could approach it. We received contributions and advice from them, which led to a different strategy which is to match the two bills together as one and then introduce that bill in the two houses as parallel. That was what we did in the assembly and the bill was fast-tracked; within six months we passed first reading, second reading, and committee stage in the two chambers.
We lobbied the committee of the constitutional amendment until elections distracted the country and the National Assembly and they were no longer looking at anything except electoral matters, bills and so on. That was how we also slipped off the passage in the Eighth Assembly. It would have reached the peak if it were to come back from that committee stage to go through the third reading and passage at the same time. We did not enjoy that.
Now we are in the Ninth Assembly and the status is that, on its own, the Senate had prioritised this bill, even before we started to re-engage them. What this present Senate has done is that they have gone to the stock of bills that the Eighth Assembly did not finish but reached advanced stages and sorted them and one of the few they have brought back is ours. Hence, the glorious job that The Guardian did by giving the bill prominence on its front page in January this year as its lead story. That is why we have passed the first reading.
The bill has not been up for a second reading and we are waiting for it as soon as possible and we are mounting our active advocacy work around that to happen and that is one of the reasons I specifically requested for partnership with The Guardian to continue the good job they have done here.