Nigeria Matters

The Ides of Rice

If the title of this piece sounds anachronistic, it is only because you are familiar with the more popular expression, ‘the Ides of March’ – a term often used as a metaphor for impending doom. I am not a soothsayer but if I were asked to say something, anything, to the present government in Nigeria, I would say: Beware of the Ides of Rice! Why? The reason is simple. As the global food crisis forces the prices of basic staples up around the world, the federal government has, as usual, taken the easy way out by arranging for the importation of N80b worth of rice to stem anticipated food shortages. Of course, Nigeria can afford to import anything: with oil prices soaring up to an unprecedented $124USD per barrel what is a paltry N80b?

But who says that the food crisis is just about rice? Of course not! It is about adequate production of food; it is about adequate provision of potable water; it is about adequate provision of power for preservation and processing of even the much that is produced; it is about motorable roads to facilitate evacuation of farm produce, it is about effective leadership that anticipates crisis (including food crisis) ahead of time and takes measures to cushion it’s impact without creating a problem bigger than it is trying to solve.

For many watchers of the polity, it is worrisome enough that after the billions of naira in allocations to the agricultural sector and millions of dollars from international agencies and foreign partners sunk into the so called food security programme, the era of simplistic solutions to national challenges is still very much with us. The idea that if any commodity is scarce then it must be imported to keep the consumptive elites from experiencing any jolt to their pampered palates is a warped one. During the administration of Shehu Shagari, a Presidential Task Force on Rice was set up in 1980 to tackle a similar problem. The inevitable disruption to local rice farming took many years to ameliorate. Such emergency measures have also been routinely applied to cement, fuel and fertilizer without any respite in sight. When shall we change this fire-brigade style of confronting developmental challenges? Now rice is the latest bogeyman. Déjà vu.

Part of Obasanjo’s Reform package was a Rice Forum held in September 2002 which culminated in the setting up of the Presidential Initiative on Rice. The overall objective of this initiative as contained in the policy document was “to attain self-sufficiency in local production of rice in the short – term (by year 2005) and to produce for export in the medium term (by year 2007)”. The success or failure of this initiative can be judged from the latest faux pas.

For how long shall we continue to revel in quick – fixes? Knee jerk solutions only provide short term solutions: they do not provide medium term solutions much more long term solutions. Looking at the disparity between policy formulations and implementation in the agricultural sector, it should be obvious to government that a human barricade exists between farmers and the packages intended to galvanize them into greater productivity. And nothing will change until some of the gluttonous middlemen who have ensconced themselves in that barricade are weaned from the system. Such leeches include some bureaucrats among the over-bloated civil service in the various ministries of agriculture at the federal and state levels, the River Basin Development Authorities and various research centres who are developing pot-bellies in cozy offices while a staple food that be can be cropped in ninety days flat is being imported with N80b.

So much lip service is being paid to agriculture in this country. What will N80b not do to raise the production levels of states with high rice yielding antecedants like Enugu, Imo, Benue, Adamawa, Ebonyi, Kaduna, Niger and Taraba? The Agricultural Development Projects (ADP) offices are littered with equipment intended for but never released to farmers some of which have been left to rust and rot. Still rice farmers have no access to tractors, inputs, subsidy or credit.

Perhaps the government does not know or has chosen not to know about the privation and neglect suffered by rice farmers and rice producing communities in Nigeria. For many rice producing communities, there is no potable water, no power supply, no irrigation and no road to evacuate produce. The colossal neglect of the rice producing community of Akeme Ohiauchu in Imo State is typical in this regard. Drinking water is a luxury. The Ibu Dam project embarked upon by the Anambra – Imo River Basin Development Authority has remained a mirage since it’s conception two decades ago with the result that the people have had to resort to irrigation systems akin to the shadoof method of irrigation used 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. And the Okigwe – Arondizuogu – Uga – Nnewi road through which the people evacuate their products is in such a terrible state of disrepair that few vehicles ever risk driving on it’s atrocious surface.

The present food crisis even at this preliminary stage has exposed the contradictions in our agricultural policies. At best, the term “food security” is being reduced to a moniker for embellishing speeches and garnishing addresses. The farmer who is the focus of all agricultural policies in Nigeria is always conveniently confined to the background. Civil servants and bureaucrats who are largely theorists and arm chair farmers with negligible practical knowledge of the vagaries of farming superintend over the fate of farmers – perpetually designing ingenious ways of frittering away resources meant for enhancing productivity.

What is the wisdom in importing N80b worth of rice when local rice farmers are crying for lack of sufficient government impact? And much of that sum will probably go to Thailand which prides itself as the “Rice Bowl of the World”. So our resources will be devoted to boosting Thai rice farming when our own rice farmers are groveling in the dust on account of systemic neglect? Is that even possible when major rice-producing countries, recognising that their first responsibility is to feed their own people, are placing restrictions on rice exports and planning to form a cartel to squeeze bumbling giants like Nigeria dry for every grain of rice?

Shortage of food is not a matter that any government with a sense of history wants to treat with kid gloves: the relationship between food shortages and popular revolt is as trite as the fact that a hungry man is an angry man. Already, countries that have experienced severe riots over food shortages in recent times include Somalia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon and Haiti. To prevent such a dreadful scenario from being reenacted here, we must beware of the ides of rice.

Post Comment