By Peter Osalor
The story of Nigerian agriculture is best read between the lines of its political history. Africa’s most populous nation had an overwhelmingly agricultural economy during the hundred years spent under British colonial rule since 1860, and well into the first decade after its independence.

In the 1960s Nigeria was the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, the largest exporter of palm oil and a principal producer and exporter of cotton, rubber and groundnut. Working traditional tools and practices, Nigerian peasants contributed 70% of export revenue and 60% of GDP in the same period. The total food requirement was met almost entirely by local produce and agricultural imports were to the bare minimum.

Circumstances changed radically with the oil boom of the 1970s, as the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves in the strategically significant sub-Saharan nation turned its fortunes overnight.

The windfall transformed Nigeria’s agricultural landscape into a gigantic oil field criss-crossed by more than 7,000 km of pipelines connecting 6,000 oil wells, two refineries, innumerable flow stations and export terminals. The colossal investments in the sector paid off, with unofficial estimates suggesting Nigeria raked in more than $600 billion in petrodollars in the last decade alone.

Unfortunately, the obsession with non-renewables over all other sectors of the economy eventually turned Nigeria’s boon into a bane. New found wealth spawned political instability and massive corruption in government circles, and the country was rent asunder by decades of violent civil war and successive military coups.

Agriculture was one of the first casualties of the oil regime, and by the 1990s, cultivation accounted for just 5% of GDP. Farming modernisation and support continued to remain low on the list of national priorities as vast stretches of rural Nigeria gradually plunged into poverty and food scarcity. Deforestation, soil erosion and industrial pollution further hastened the down-spiral of agriculture to the point where it ended up as a subsistence activity.

The fall of Nigerian agriculture coincided with the collapse of its macroeconomic and human development indicators. With income distribution concentrated on a few urban pockets, the majority of rural Nigeria was left reeling under massive poverty, unemployment and food shortages. A widening urban-rural divide sparked social unrest and mass migration into towns and cities.

Organised urban crime became as real a security threat as militancy in the Niger-Delta region. Nigeria plummeted to the bottom in world economic rankings and Africa’s most populous nation acquired the unhappy distinction of having more than half (54%) of its 148 million people living in abject poverty. The World Bank coined the term “Nigerian Paradox” specifically to describe the unique condition of extreme underdevelopment and poverty in a country brimming with resources and potential.

The country was ranked 80th in a 2007 UNDP poverty survey covering 108 countries.

The transition to democratic civilian rule at the end of the last century paved the way for an enthusiastic programme of economic reform and restructuring. Nigeria’s urgency for inclusive growth was much in evidence in the adoption of an ambitious blueprint designed to reverse trends and jump-start a stagnating economy.

The Vision 20-2020 document adopted under former president Olusegun Obasanjo lays out broad parameters for sustainable development with the specific goal of instating Nigeria as a global economic superpower in a time_bound manner.

The 2020 goals are in addition to Nigeria’s commitment to the UN Millennial Declaration of 2000 that proposes universal basic human rights by 2015.

The realisation of these allied and intertwined objectives depends entirely on Nigeria’s ability to bring about inclusive growth by means of an entrepreneurial revolution, while simultaneously correcting massive infrastructural shortages and administrative anomalies.

Economies usually begin expanding with an initial agricultural revolution: The case of Nigeria however calls for agriculture to be part of a larger enterprise revolution that efficiently leverages the nation’s extensive resources and human capital.

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