According to the Christian Bible, when God created Adam and Eve, presumably the first parents of all humankind, he put them in a beautiful garden of abundance, but when they sinned through the agency of the devil in the guise of a serpent, God condemned them and their descendants on end to a life of labour thus: “All your life you will sweat to produce food until your dying day.” The same message was re-echoed in the book of Psalms: “By the labour of your hands you shall eat.” In the Epistles, Saint Paul told his listeners unequivocally: “He who does not work, let him not eat.” Thereafter, many generations of people in diverse cultures of the world, Nigeria inclusive, have continued to extol the virtue of hard work, especially in the area of exploiting the abundant riches of the earth through cultivating the land – agriculture.
Nigeria, no doubt, is an agriculturally-endowed nation. Leading economic historians of the last and the present century, Nigerian as well as expatriate, agree that agriculture was the mainstay of the traditional economies of the various peoples of Nigeria in the pre-colonial and colonial periods. Up to the early 1970s, agriculture accounted for well over eighty percent of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the major value of the country’s exports.
Then came the oil boom, and rather than build up the agricultural sector with the zillions of petro-dollars accruing from the oil sector and transform Nigeria once and for all into a food-sufficient economy, the government of the day frittered away that chance and instead actively encouraged the Nigerian populace to abandon agriculture and rely one hundred percent on crude oil. Nigeria thus became a mono-product economy. Petroleum became the pivot around which the country’s economy revolved such that any quake in that sector had adverse negative effects on the whole economy. The then military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, overwhelmed by the huge sums rolling into the government coffers from crude oil, was reputed to have said that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it, and so he embarked on extravagant spending on white elephant projects which had little or no positive demonstration effect on the economy.
After Gowon, succeeding governments seemed to have realized the mistakes of the past and so made efforts (even if half-hearted) aimed at redirecting Nigerians to the farms by initiating certain agricultural programmes such as the River Basin Development Programme (RBDP), Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), Green Revolution (GR), the Directorate for Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), the Better Life for Rural Dwellers Programme (BLRDP), among others. Specifically, OFN was launched against the background of alarming decline in agricultural production, galloping food prices, increasing food import bills, and accelerating flight of youth from the rural to the urban areas. Unfortunately, it yielded no positive result except that the huge sums mapped out for it ended in private pockets. Its successor, Green Revolution, was also an abysmal failure and created greater problems than it came to solve.
In order to solve the problems created by GR, the government in power embarked on unprecedented importation of rice, wheat, and other food items through a Presidential Task Force. Overnight, Nigeria, which used to export food to other countries, became one of the world’s greatest importers of food items, and consumer goods topped the list on Nigeria’s import records. That situation has continued to worsen with the passage of time. A recent report from US Wheat Associates Inc., a trade group for the world’s largest exporter of wheat, says that Nigeria will soon displace Japan as the biggest buyer of United States’ wheat. According to the report, “The markets that are really growing are located in Africa. Nigeria’s per capita income is growing and Nigerians are consuming more food and they are looking for more Western-style food products”.
Some twenty years ago, a programme was initiated to make Nigeria grow wheat in order to cut down on the excess revenue spent on wheat importation. Again, during his tenure as Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo tried the same thing with cassava, with the aim to make cassava flour a major component of Nigeria’s bread and thereby reduce the country’s reliance on imported wheat. But like other programmes before them, these initiatives died almost at the moment of conception. Today, Nigeria spends over 50 percent of its income on food, according to Dr. Vincent Akinyosoye, Statistician-General of the Federation and Head of the National Bureau of Statistics.
The abandonment of agriculture had negative spread effects. As more and more young people continued to acquire higher education certificates and degrees, they increasingly saw themselves as people who had no business with agriculture. The rural-urban drift, which began in the early days of colonial rule, continued irreversibly until the rural villages were denuded of their major work force. Today, there is severe hunger in the land, and many Nigerians live from hand to mouth. Food scarcity continues to intensify by the day as the price of available food continues to sky-rocket. It has gone so bad the average Nigerian worker spends about eighty percent of his monthly earnings on food. The idea of three square meals has long been dumped in many Nigerian families.
It is partly for this reason of hunger that nothing else seems to work in the country. Much of the effort an average Nigerian makes daily is channelled towards filling his empty stomach first. His primary problem is food, and until he gets it, he cannot think of any other thing. Of course, it is only when a man has filled his stomach and is not worried about where the next meal will come from that he can think of how to move his nation forward.
This situation raises some serious questions: Why has Nigeria continued to import the bulk of its food items fifty years after independence? Have all the farmlands in Nigeria disappeared? Are the lands no longer fertile? Are there no crops to plant? Or are Nigerians too lazy to cultivate the land? Is it the government or the people that should take the blame? Where exactly does the problem lie? What is the possible way forward? Honest answers to these critical questions may help Nigeria to trace its way back and avert imminent food crisis. It is indeed regrettable that Nigeria, with its superabundant human and material wealth, still grapples with the fundamental problem of providing food for its citizens when all its peers are constantly breaking new grounds in science and technology.
While I was in Makurdi, Benue State, during the one year compulsory national youth service, I was highly impressed that virtually everybody I met, particularly students, talked about their farms, and some actually took time to go to the village to cultivate and tend their farms. But whether that is still the practice today is a subject for further research. A lot may have changed considering that children of today feel ashamed to say that their parents are farmers, not talk about they themselves. Farming has come to be regarded as an occupation for paupers and never-do-wells, and young people in the cities who think that they have become wealthy discourage their parents in the villages from engaging in farm work because they feel their parents, having given birth to wealthy children, have become too big to be called farmers.
In the present circumstances, Nigerians need no soothsayer to tell them that there is imminent danger. As such, there is an urgent need for every Nigerian to return to the farm. Internal food-sufficiency should be the concern of every citizen, for to feed oneself is to feed the nation. Again, the government should take seriously the issue of food provision, not through importation but through active support and encouragement to local farmers. If possible, a state of emergency should be declared on the agricultural sector. It does not end in including agriculture in the 7-Point Agenda. Pious pronouncements should be backed up with positive action. Undoubtedly, no nation can move forward where more than half of the population are hungry. Likewise, the need for Nigeria to rely less on importation of food and work towards internal food-sufficiency is not negotiable, for, according to Prof Onwuka Njoku, external food dependency is the most pernicious form of national insecurity.