Buhari’s Agric Agenda: An Introspection

Posted by News Express | 24 August 2016 | 3,808 times

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Nigeria’s rise to poverty from the abundance of natural resources started nearly 50 years ago, when foreign crude oil in monumental quantities buried in the different communities of the Niger-Delta region were found. The discovery of crude oil and the concomitant massive cash flow from the exportation over the years of these crude oil resources by Nigeria led to the reckless abandonment of the once vibrant agro-allied sector of the economy.

At a point some scholars cited the Nigerian irony of being so poor in the midst of abundance of natural resources as a curse rather than a cause for national wealth. This is due to the way government officials have continued to operate the crude oil sector, with no transparency and accountability.

This vicious circle of criminal neglect of the only viable alternative foreign exchange earner, which is agriculture, by successive governments meant that Nigeria depended largely on the incomes from the exportation of crude oil resources which essentially are spearheaded, even as I write, by expatriates in liaison with officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The operational modalities of these upstream and downstream sectors of the economy have largely been shrouded in criminal secrecy. The entity that runs the crude oil sector operates like a criminal enterprise. By some estimates, Nigeria has lost over $400 billion USD to crude oil related corruption over the past few decades that the nation became a global player in the petroleum industry. Only less than one per cent of Nigerians and their foreign collaborators are dining and wining with virtually 90 per cent of the total revenues that ought to have accrued to the national treasury from the exports of crude oil resources over the past five decades, since the commodity was discovered. Unfortunately, the international asking price of crude oil has plummeted in the last few years, which meant that Nigeria’s only viable source of foreign exchange and other huge revenues to service social governance of the country has since started dwindling. No thanks to official corruption and poor-saving culture, the Nigerian economy is said to be nearing recession, even as the exchange rate of the national currency has become annoyingly lower than many economists had predicted only a year ago. Nigerians are praying fervently that the basket-case of the Zimbabwean currency doesn't repeat itself here, whereby people would have to convey their money in Keke-NAPEP to the bread seller, just to buy few loafs.

The current government has, therefore, started re-tooling its strategic economic approach with an eye towards finding a viable alternative to Nigeria’s hitherto mono-commodity dependent economy: crude oil. The Federal Government has predictably embraced agriculture as the next best alternative to the increasingly-declining value of crude oil resources. The focus towards reviving the moribund agro-allied sector is, however, buffeted by the inconsistent monetary policies churned out by the highly unstable leadership of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Even the tepid assurance to the contrary offered by the Vice President of Nigeria last Monday, is not sufficiently reassuring. Daily Trust, an Abuja-based newspaper brought out these apprehensions in its editorial of Friday August 19, 2016 in which the dangers posed by the hike in interest rates as stipulated by the Godwin Emiefiele-led CBN may constitute a cog in the drive by this administration to resuscitate the dysfunctional agricultural sector of the economy. Daily Trust stated as follows: “The Central Bank of Nigeria recently increased the Monetary Policy Rate (MPR) from 12 per cent to 14 per cent, leading to fears that lending rates by money deposit banks will also rise correspondingly.”

The newspaper which has affiliation to President Muhammadu Buhari argued that the MPR is a major determinant of interest rates at which the deposit banks lend money to borrowers.

According to economic analysts of the newspaper, while the MPR was at 12 per cent, the MDBs (money deposit banks) were granting loans at between 20 -25 per cent. With the new development, it is feared that they will lend money at higher levels of between 28 – 30 per cent. “The CBN justified its action on the grounds of fighting inflation, which it sees as its cardinal goal in the challenge of maintaining the health of the Nigerian economy."

According to the central bank, it was faced with the task of securing a balance between reducing interest rates, with the goal of stimulating growth at the risk of further inflation, and tightening liquidity as well as checking inflation by increasing lending rates.  The central bank, however, chose the second option of increasing lending rates, by increasing the MPR and hopefully curbs inflation. The medium noted that the interest rate is the price at which banks lend money to borrowers hence it is the price for borrowed money. In their wisdom, given Nigeria’s free market economy, any attempt to control the price of any resource such as credit through regulation outside the extant protocol of the CBN may trigger fears of government interference in the dynamics of the free market and launch retrogressive tendencies associated with lender apathy. Such an outcome, it submitted, may not help an economy that is needy of fast track growth like Nigeria’s.

Notwithstanding these clear technical and financial lapses towards the attainment of a realistic agricultural revolution in present-day Nigeria, President Buhari is going ahead to assert his administration’s resolve towards rebuilding the agro-allied sector to make it function as the largest employer of labour, and one of the greatest yielder of foreign exchange for Nigeria. Already, the Federal Government has launched a four-year agricultural blueprint tagged “Green Alternative: The Agriculture Promotion Policy 2016-2020". Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of law, at the public presentation of the scheme last week Monday, said it would involve the employment of 100,000 agricultural extension workers by the Federal Government, to provide support services to farmers. The extension workers will be taken from the 500,000 teachers currently being recruited by the Federal Government.

 The government was quick to proffer solution theoretically to the rising rate of interests charged on borrowed funds by commercial banks vis-à-vis the need to ensure that the take-off of the agricultural blueprints is not impeded.

One of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, Daily Sun, incidentally wrote an editorial on the broad range of approach of the Federal Government towards reviving agriculture in its Friday, August 19 edition, even as the editors tasked the current government on the need to ensure policy consistency and efficient implementation. Just like the editorial of Daily Sun had pointed out, yours faithfully is old enough on the journalism terrain and practice in Nigeria to know that the current ministers heading the Agricultural Sector need to elevate their game and become realistic in their approach to the concrete implementation of key policy guidelines.

A key component of the agricultural polices passed on to this administration is the cassava-bread project, but in 2016 budget there is not a mention of it. Yet, we are being told that the government is desirous of scaling up activities in the agro-allied sector of the economy.

Experts believe that the problem, according to independent observers, began with the last government that moved the Cassava Bread Initiative from Ministry of Science and Technology to the Ministry of Agriculture. While the initiative is still experimental, science and technology should have continued with experimentation and training of master bakers until the conversion is made, before transferring to agriculture for maintenance of policy. The best move by this government will be to return the initiative to where the experimental stage belongs: science and technology. With 20 per cent cassava and the use of proper bread improver, the cost of bread production will drop, and so will the price of bread, despite high cost of wheat.

The Ministry of Agriculture in the preceding administrations began the equipment empowerment programme in reaction to the fact that the bread improver they imported from South Africa and introduced to bakers required the use of highly sophisticated bakery equipment unaffordable by 98 per cent of bakers nationwide. This empowerment programme was targeted at just less than 2 per cent of bakers in the first instance. The programme (at hindsight) is definitely unsustainable as no government would avail the entire 450,000 members of the association with N10 million to N14 million equipment, according to experts.

However, even with this level of equipment, the finished cassava bread hardens like brick within a day or two, making it unacceptable to the consumers. This is a finding by many scientists.

But the same Federal Ministry of Agriculture made a major breakthrough under the immediate past dispensation. The agriculture ministry discovered a USA-made bread improver called Baker Sure, which can be used in any bakery environment with the most basic rudimentary equipment. They initially demonstrated the efficacy of this Bake Sure Improver to only members of the national executive, witnessed by Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, Lagos and the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta. It was a resounding success, according to reports, because the improver yielded so much dough as not one has seen before. Such is a dream for any baker. Lack of yield had been the single variable that made bakers nationwide to shun cassava bread programme. Then the issue of the Wheat Levy fund started over two years ago, whereby importers of wheat into Nigeria were required by law to deposit a percentage daily into a fund of which nearly N200 billion is said to have been generated is shrouded in secrecy. What is the status of this Wheat Levy Fund, which is controlled jointly by Finance and Agricultural ministries? 

President Buhari must note that without a transparent and accountable commitment by his set of agriculture ministers, this lofty dream of reviving the agricultural sector may remain a tall order and, indeed, a pipe dream.

Training 500,000 agricultural extension workers won't make much meaning, if the real farmers all over Nigeria are not carried along. And, if  credible farmers aren't provided with credit facilities to mechanise their farming activities and raise the standards and profiles  of the packaging of their finished products for export markets, then this new policy may end up like its many white elephant predecessors, such as Operation Feed the Nation, Green Revolution; Back-to-Land, among others. A stitch in time saves nine.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via doziebiko@yahoo.com

Source: News Express

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