Endangered harvest and imminent famine
It was the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media Matters, Mallam Garba Shehu, who gave this grim forecast in a radio interview in Kano recently, when he said: “The huge demands for our grains in the global market is creating an excellent environment for the mindless export of Nigerian grains across our borders and, unless this is curtailed, Nigerian markets will be bereft of food by January next year.”
According to earlier reports on the issue, the desperation of the produce merchants is highlighted by the strategy they adopt in their enterprise. It was alleged that the merchants were no longer content with waiting for grains to be brought to the markets, they were said to have followed farmers to the farms and bought the crops off them right at the farms. From Sokoto to Kaduna, and even the Middle Belt states of Benue and Plateau, unfamiliar produce merchants including foreigners, have stormed farms purchasing grains in massive quantities. Witnesses have also sighted lorry-loads of grains heading towards the neighbouring countries of Niger, Algeria, Mali, Republic of Benin and Chad.
The Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Audu Ogbe, also confirmed this development at a meeting with agro-businessmen held in Abuja recently. In a lamentation that beggars belief, he was quoted to have said: “You need to go to Kebbi now to see trucks from Niger, Chad, Mali, Republic of Benin and Upper Volta loading grains. Your naira is so weak now that our crops are the cheapest in the zone. By December, they will probably exhaust the crops, then by January people will start crying.” The choice of words by the minister – “your Naira…” is curious: Whose Naira?
Whilst the Presidency’s self righteous warning and minister’s lamentation are regrettable, Nigerians want to believe that their comments are not political statements, under which to hide government’s shortcomings and tardiness during the last and outgoing agricultural year. It was clear from the outset that the planting season began very late this year. Despite the fact that some experts in agro-business had warned about an imminent food crisis occasioned by the late planting of grains, many, including the government, seemed not to have heeded to the warning. It is difficult, therefore, to understand how a bumper harvest came about when planting was done haphazardly in the first place.
Moreover, business activities between produce merchants of neighbouring countries and farmers or middlemen are not new. That merchants are buying off grains in droves and carting them away to other countries or hoarding them has been an age-long practice. So, is the minister’s justification of famine a Straw man argument? What is observable is the typical blame-game characteristic of government establishments that talk down on people, or find excuses for ill-prepared responses to crises. In this case, it is the weakened Naira, which allows all manner of buyers to purchase our grains so cheaply that has been adduced as a reason for the imminent famine.
Although government has reacted to the looming famine by asking the Ministry of Agriculture to present an immediate plan for the purchase and storage of grains for the rainy day, it is still pertinent that questions be raised about the response of the government to the factors of food security.
Why have our silos been empty before now? If we had a bumper harvest of grains, or surplus produce as alleged by the presidency, why were the grains not stored in silos? Is it the case that government agriculture experts do not know what causes famine? Was there a bumper harvest? Were grains really available as stated by officials? If so, how did we manage the availability? How did we distribute them? How well did the authorities manage storage for exigencies such as this?
Rather than lament over its inaction, the federal ministry of agriculture should facilitate the establishment and promotion of agricultural cooperatives and farmers’ societies by charging states and local governments to take food matter seriously. If there is anywhere the much-touted principle of federalism is to be demonstrated, it is in agricultural cooperatives and farmers’ societies, where national policies on food and agriculture could get grassroots translation and realisation.
In situations such as the one befalling the nation in the far North, there is a need to re-emphasise the role of farmers’ cooperatives and societies in addressing food insecurity and reducing poverty. Besides creating jobs for rural dwellers that form the bulk of food producers, agricultural cooperatives provide the resources farmers would need for production as well as the markets for their products. Furthermore, they provide platform for farmers and agro-business persons to participate in the decision-making process that affects the material wellbeing of the people.
The Federal Government can also address this problem by encouraging value-creation for the grains through conversion to other useful products. The value of grains does not lie in being mere staple for the people. Converting them to refined off-the-shelf foods, animal feeds and industrial chemicals is an added value-chain for agro-businesses. But this can only be meaningful with the presence of requisite factors of production, especially power supply and good transportation network.
Therefore, not many would doubt that government did not act as responsively and responsibly as it ought to, in this regard. If the constitutional provision that security is the primary duty of government is anything to go by, authorities and stakeholders would have envisaged the present situation and would also have taken appropriate measures well in advance. The Federal Government should not be the one raising any alarm.
Warning Nigerians without prior measures for redress is a pretentious reactionary stance by an administration that either refused to act when the signs were visible, or clueless about what to do. Whichever way, there is nothing demonstrating efficiency and capacity in merely announcing doomsday when nothing was done to prevent it. That is inconsistent with its position of ensuring security in the first place. It is for this reason that the government’s alarm, which came through as outright grandstanding , is offensive. Let’s move from rhetoric and grandiloquence to action that can lead to food security in the country.