By Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief & Gab Ewepu
There is tension in many parts of the country over the rampaging herdsmen who have killed several thousand innocent Nigerians, raped and kidnapped others. They attack their victims in farms, homes, and along the way.
In this interview, the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe, said the herdsmen must be disarmed, immediately. He said that the federal government has already 5, 000 hectares of land in nine states for ranching to stop cows from moving from place to place.
He also spoke on other issues affecting the sector and why the nation must stop food importation. Excerpts:
WE are aware that agriculture is very important to this government because of the effort to diversify from oil and gas. Can you give us a brief of the road map of what to expect from agriculture?
The road map is quite straight forward; it is a drive to achieve self sufficiency in the staples within the shortest possible time by that we mean 36 months from now; produce enough rice, possibly most of the wheat, the soya, the millet and the maize which we consume in a large scale in the country. By producing all those we need to cut down on import with the view of eliminating the importation of some of these commodities as quickly as possible. We also have things like vegetables, fruits; tomato is a fruit by the way, which we import from South Africa.
Creating jobs and wealth
Lettuce, cabbage, peppers all sorts of things coming into this country which should come including bananas and all sorts of things. We should be able to reorganize agriculture, energize the sector enough to make it unnecessary to import these things and in the process we are creating jobs and wealth. The good news is that the response by farmers is greater than you can imagine, especially in some states like the North west where wheat and rice farming are been embarked on a large scale and we have every reason to be optimistic. The governors are doing marvelous jobs especially the governor of Kebbi, Kano, Jigawa and Katsina.
So this is the target, we can’t afford to keep on importing and there are those in Nigeria on the other hand that doesn’t see anything wrong with importing everything under the great illusion of wealth and availability of dollar. We thank God that era is gone because it was a very false sense of security. By today Nigeria should be talking of anything less than $200 -$300 billion in foreign reserve.
We don’t have it because all we did between 1986 and now in particular when we were forced to adapt the so called national project cleverly dumped on our head, the financial elite were rejoicing and celebrating the great discovery of how to auction the dollar every week so for 30 years we were devaluing this currency on a weekly bases and like the president said last week, we have gained nothing from devaluation because we are not an exporting nation; besides oil, we are selling nothing and they are still asking for devaluation.
Believe me you can reach a thousand naira to one dollar the situation will not change. You are not a manufacturing nation. You are not a great agricultural nation. You have forgotten agriculture. As long as you are an importing nation for nearly everything, keep devaluing, you will only make your people more miserable, poorer and more volatile. We only sow the seed of greater violence and insurgency. We know that even though the economists don’t seem to know it, if you ever practise economics without politics or you are an economist without any knowledge of colonial history, you never impress anyone about your knowledge of economics because there is a history behind everything that is going on.
The powerful and successful nations will always keep you where you belong because the slave trade isn’t finished and economic warfare is as ruthless as any other war. It kills you without your knowledge.
Sir you have spoken about increasing the volume of production in the sector to enable us to feed ourselves at least in the first instance, break down import and later on export. But can you give us specifically your programmes to increase productivity?
Well, we are working in partnership with the central bank under the anchor program and ANCHOR programme to make cheap credit available to farmers by providing them improve seeds, we are expanding extension services, we have designed a new formula for fertilizer formulation. We now have soil and crop- specific fertilizers varying from state to state and farmers are acknowledging the high yields as a result of these innovations. We can now test the soil in 30 minutes and get results using a device we call the soil doctor in partnership with the University of Columbia.
We are about to embark on a major programme on cattle breeding improvement. We have asked people who are interested in cattle breeding to apply and they have applied and we are going to start artificial insemination on a very large scale to improve the breed of cattle in this country. Our local cows especially the Fulani white; the Zee bull is a good cow but our cows are among the worst managed in the world. They roam around too much, they don’t eat well, they don’t drink enough water and very little medical attention.
Newspapers and nsocial media
So their yield of milk is poor and the beef quality isn’t good, good tasting meat but they are too hard because the cows walk around too much and are therefore tired and malnourished.
So that takes us to a very key issue right now that is of concern to everybody which is cattle grazing, the conflict between cattle rearers and farmers all over the country. Can you give us the government’s position, what can we do? How can we handle this?
We will stop it but again I must also appeal that when we mention that we have to grow huge paddocks for cattle to eat and give them water points and then provide them medical services we received all kinds of abuse from the newspapers and social media. People who didn’t know much about what we were saying said ‘oh is it grass we are going to import now?’ Every country imports grass. Even the Camerounians have even offered to sell us grass and grass seeds. If your cows are not well-looked after, if the herdsmen have no grass to feed their cattle, they will move and when they move, they will cause trouble.
Most of these herdsmen as we know now are not even Nigerians, they are wandering in from Mali, from Chad and some Shua Arabs, all armed with AK 47s in their desperation to feed their cows. The truth is and I have been reading things even in the Vanguard not too long ago somebody asked why should we waste money growing grass for one ethnic group and one group of people? What have we done for other farmers? We have done a lot for farmers. We have spent money on cocoa, rice, groundnut, we have spent money on tomato and other fruits, palm oil, we are doing researches on these and nobody has really done much for the herdsmen and we have forgotten.
Special grasses for feeding cattle
Yes, we have 415 grazing reserves but our grazing reserves are nothing if we don’t have grasses on them and not just any kind of grass- special grasses. Every other country has special grasses for feeding cattle. US, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand all do same. Saudi Arabia has the largest ranch in the world on one farm; Dairy Farm, 135, 0000 cows.
They import grass from US, from Sudan they are even asking us if we can grow grass they will buy. So we have to create paddocks mainly in the far North because there is a lot of sensitivity about this issue now and people in the south can even grow grass and sell to the north. There is a delay in our budget if not by now I assure you that some two or three hectares should have been planted. We are waiting, we don’t have money yet, so we can do much but as soon as the budget is done, we will show you the fields.
Sir do you intend to have a demonstration site then you can get private sector operators to come and buy into it?
Precisely what we intend to do is government will start and then let private sector investors who will grow the grass, bail the grass and sell to farmers come in.
There are few individuals doing it and making money from it already, including retired Permanent Secretaries who their families laughed at when they started growing grasses, they thought they had gone insane but they are making money now.
I met one of them. Rapia grass, Gamba grass, Kikuyu grass, Elephant grass. The Brazilians have some of the best because the grass must have a certain minimum residue of protein, trace elements, amino acids and then the cow will eat it and give you good milk and meat because we have to be careful what the cow eats because the cow passes it to human beings.
I have seen cattle chewing nylon, sachet water bags out of hunger that is dioxin – it will get back to us. There are so many strange diseases in Nigeria now. You will see a young man complaining of kidney, a woman lying in the hospital complaining of liver and all these are due to new eating habits. My mother just passed on at 96.
In the villages people still live long. They are not as comfortable as we think we are because our eating habits are different. There are a lot of stuffs we are eating, imported stuffs, some of which have carcinogenic materials and we are consuming them because we are not paying attention to the link between food and health. Then of course we must export produce over and above just meeting our needs, we have to export. There is no reason why we must be number three in Cocoa production.
Before we get to that cocoa product, can you kindly tell us how, right now the tension is very high, there is so much apprehension. While you are trying to grow grass to help provide adequate feed for the cows. As a government; how do we marry feeding the cows and keeping them out of the cropping environment?
It is very difficult now. One thing I am going to suggest now is that which we are putting into writing to Mr. President is that we must disarm all herdsmen. The army, the police should find them wherever they are now and take all the guns from them as the first step. They carry these AK 47s on the necks, they tie them around the belles of the cows, they must be disarmed immediately. That is the first step and then of course communities, too sometimes play a role in this, sometimes community leaders see herdsmen arrive and the local chiefs go and collect money, collect cows and tell them to go on grazing and when they wonder into people’s farm and trouble starts those chiefs go into hiding or are silent.
Cattle from foreign countries
Fulanis bring out a receipt of the agreement they have with these chiefs. It is all very complicated but the president has given instructions that the army and police should find them and neutralise them which is the first step and the next step in the future is to shut our borders from entry of cattle from foreign countries into ours. The Fulanis we knew before never attacked any farmer, it is a rather recent phenomenon and they have carried out killings in Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau Enugu, Ondo, Ogun, Benue.
Some people are saying provide grazing reserves, some are saying provide grazing routes, some are saying ‘no, don’t provide route because the cows and the herdsmen will not stick to the grazing routes, that they will wonder out to peoples’ farms and they are saying let’s go for ranching.
The question is the route is a passage leading to where? To grassland or to someone’s farm? Routes are not the issues; ranching yes -on the scale we are talking about now; spread across many states.
Private sector investors
We have already acquired 5, 000 hectares of land from nine states. We wrote and the governors gave us lands but we have to lease them out to private sector investors who will prepare the land and make sure they can harvest grass 6 – 7 times a year, dry or raining season and the cows have fresh grass to eat.
Sir, we know that there is an independent ministry for water resources. Are you working with them to be able to provide dams and water projects that can provide these herdsmen the water they need in the ranches?
Not yet, we are going to do boreholes of our own. Later we will link up with them.
What is the volume of the production of, for instance rice, that we have here? What is our need and how soon can we possibly close the gap so that we can conserve our foreign exchange?
We consume seven million tonnes of rice, annually. A million tonnes will fill up 33, 334 trailers. You need to put this figures for people to know what a million tonnes amounts to. 33, 334 trailers of 30 tonnes each multiplied by seven. One million tonnes loaded in trailer will stretch 495 kilometres which is Lagos – Benin but that isn’t all we are also feeding Sudan, sometimes Libya, Chad, Central Africa, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso- they come to buy from Nigeria in the north and recently we had a request from Central Africa because there was a drought there for maize; 37, 000 tonnes of maize.
When I am talking about food production in Nigeria I am not only looking at about the 170 million which is Nigeria’s estimated population. That is the point now. It is a good thing, that means there is a market but in the short term it is a pressure on us. That is why prices have gone up because climate change is making it difficult for them to grow crops there.
Wheat is about five million tonnes and we have tomato paste which we should be achieving self-sufficiency but now local production is so small that Dangote factory and Erisco have shut down production. We have to go to green houses so you can produce all your tomato paste.
Once again let’s look at the rice. What is our production?
Right now we are doing two million tonnes now. From the harvest we are seeing, we are expecting in Kebbi, Kano and Jigawa we should hit 2.5 million tonnes of milled rice by the end of this year.
Some people have also raised issues of Nigerian’s preference for imported rice to local rice. Do you have a plan for a special campaign to encourage Nigerians to eat local rice?
We are not campaigning. Those who can go and import at N325 /$1 can do it and try and see if they can sell it. The rice here is fresher, than rice coming from Thailand, I have been in Thailand before. Some of the rice have been eight years in silos. Last Christmas, a friend of mine told me his wife cooked rice and when it came out of the pot, she advised the husband not to eat it. It had no taste. We are doing everything here, increasing rice mills, working with farmers to grow more rice, supporting them with machinery; we just have to be patient and grow our own rice and eat it. It is fresh and cheaper. Nobody will give you rice that is a year old in Nigeria. As they are harvesting they are milling and taking it to the market and for the health of people it is better.
How are you assisting the rice farmers to increase their productivity?
The CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) is currently running the ANCHOR Programme. In Kebbi, the farmers collected a lone of N7.5 billion and the rice coming out of it is nearly N60 billion. These are small scale farmers and they are paying back. So it works. Commercial banks are, of course too scared – they claim agriculture is too risky and so they don’t want to get involved but thank God the CBN is helping out.
What programme does the government have for the poultry industry?
We have a programme for the poultry industry. We are going to start the Backyard Poultry Programme but we have the challenge of the Avian Flu and so we are trying to get a vaccine.
We have appointed a consultant from Tuns Farms in Osun State where we have the largest brawlers farm and he is going to help us with our poultry programme. I have seen various federal government agriculture programmes in various parts of the country but where I come from in Benue, I have never seen any. No dam or any other presence of the federal government whatsoever in the agric sector and I am wondering why. There is a dam at Ofada which was started about four years ago but yet to be completed. We are planning to construct several earth dams in the next two years. But there is also a problem there, people have virtually stopped going to the farm.
That brings us to another question. How does this government plan to attract young Nigerians to the farm?
Advocacy. Showcasing those who have succeeded. But let me also make a point and I would like you to take note of this: People think that agriculture begins and ends in this ministry. We don’t have a farm.
What are state governments doing? State governments and local governments which have the lands are the ones to drive this process. Ours at the federal level is to come out with appropriate policies, support, finance, education, advocacy. I read in the papers, some people say, ‘the minister is talking and there is no rice now.
ALL we do is to help the states, local governments drive policies and support them with fertiliser subsidies, chemicals and soil research. The governments at the state level should do more.
The rains are already here. What are you doing to provide farmers with fertilisers early enough to meet the on-going planting season?
Fertilisers are already coming in. We had started moving fertilisers but recently, a security problem, which I can’t describe here arose which halted the movement. That was as early as February.
But we met yesterday (Wednesday) with the blenders. Fertilisers now are not what they used to be. With the benefit of research, fertilisers are now soil and crop specific. The fertiliser they use in Ebonyi won’t work in Sokoto; the one in Kebbi can’t work in Oyo. We are cutting down on importation of wholesale fertilisers because we have enough capacity in Urea between Indorama and Notore.
We are a little late because of budget issues but I can assure you we are working hard on this. Agriculture is no longer a seasonal activity. We want to make it all the year round. That is why we will be constructing new dams and boreholes throughout the country so that farmers can work on their farms year-round.
What has happened to the country’s Cassava programme?
The mentality of the of the Nigerian elite is one of our most complicated problems. As we all walk around: political leaders, economic leaders, bankers and leaders in various fields, our level of patriotism is near zero. Almost everything our elite do focuses on external excitement. Brazil is the largest producer of wheat in the world, yet Brazilians include 15 per cent of cassava in their bread. A reduction of 15 per cent of $ 6 billion a year is a lot of money. There was no law to back the cassava bread initiative so they managed to get away with it. Consequently, people who invested in cassava farms had problems as there was a glut.
The Chinese told us they want to buy cassava from us on a large scale. This is because our cassava has 10 per cent more starch than the cassava from Thailand. The Chinese want cassava worth $2-3 billion yearly.
What is slowing them down now is the problem of transportation. If you process cassava chips around the South West, may be you can get it to the ports at a fairly reasonable cost. But if you produce here, inland, it is N300, 000 per trailer to get it to Lagos. That is N10, 000 per tonne. Then when you get there you pay freight and duty in China. You can hardly have any income. So we are negotiating with China to remove the duty like they did for Thailand and when the railways begin to function we will be able to move goods at about one quarter the price or maybe 10 percent the price and then we can take the Chinese market. China is also looking for soya beans. Europe is looking for banana, pineapples. The Middle East is looking for goat meat; 120, 000 carcases a week.
Sir, what would consider as the benefits of the China trip for the agricultural sector?
We had a meeting with the president and they said they want to invest in Nigeria because they need partners, they would need food from Africa. The trade balance, the trade situation between China and Africa is too much in their favour. He said so himself that he wants to redress it so we can gain more. He said they want to buy and that is why we are going to give us billions of dollars to invest and improve our economy and sell things to them. We don’t hear that very often. The Chinese have their own issues that we have to deal with and it is not their fault- it is Nigerians who go there and buy the worst products because they say ‘them go buy’ and dumb them on us because the Chinese have standards; Europeans have standard, Americans have standard, African and Mid East standards are the worst. During the event I had to tell them that they must cut down on selling us junk and the Nigerians there clapped and clapped but the fact is that the Chinese are more forthcoming than our traditional partners who only see everything wrong in us; corruption, blah, blah, blah. Mobutu asked them once where did we learn corruption?
Sir still on the trade how is going to impact on our energy sector?
If we do the Mabila Dam, apart from that 3, 600 megawatts of electricity, the railways, reviving Ajaokuta steel, I was a minister there briefly, we have a place there called the medium steel section, you can do two kilometre of tracks per day. I was talking with the Minister of Solid Minerals yesterday, we want that revived Ajaokuta so we will produce the tracks itself here in Nigeria. The bolts and the nuts we don’t have to import everything and our engineers here will fix it and of course link every state together by two tracks. Then you can dream of speed trains and what have you. Why can’t we, if Ajaokuta starts working? Inter African trade is impossible because you can’t move goods.
The man who led the Ajaokuta team is 82 years old now. I spoke to him about three months ago and he asked me what is wrong with you people? That same guy built the largest steel plant in China now that produces 100 million of steel per annum and the Chinese have learnt enough to take over the operation. All that propaganda is part of the campaign. When we began the steel industry as far back as the first studies where done in 1956 the Europeans said to us they couldn’t afford an Africa with steel and oil. If Ajaokuta had not suffered its fate, by today, we would have being building tanks for the military, building our own railway coaches, truck bodies and the rest of them.
The problem is the Nigerian elite at the political level even those who run the economy who must have read things in Harvard and Yale for years don’t know the complexity of colonial history. If you haven’t read colonial history you can never understand. They are talking of free trade now right and don’t protect your economy? What did Britain do? There was a Prime Minister called William Pick. He instructed people that the American colony when they left Britain shouldn’t be allowed to manufacture as much as a horse shoe nail, you must buy from Britain. India was allowed to do textile you must buy from Britain. Mahanadi said to them we don’t need you type of textiles, we don’t wear jackets here and they invaded India. India must buy salt and Mahanadi trekked across India to show them there was salt and of course at the end he was shot dead. They told us here once don’t grow wheat that our lands can produce it well but that isn’t true. We are now producing wheat of better quality with higher protein. We are yield 5 tonnes per hectare. The point is people have enjoyed the Nigerian market so much they won’t let go unless we are strong enough.
Finally one question sir; we have about three Universities of Agriculture in this country but it is difficult to say that these universities are concentrating on their core mandates.
The University was set up in 1992 right to pursue agriculture and research. To be under this ministry funded by us, to have a university commission under this ministry, they migrated for some reason to the ministry of education. They are now teaching political science, accounting and management they even want to teach human medicine.
Can you find a way of bringing them back to the original concept of their establishment?
We are working on that and these are universities sitting on 10, 000, 13, 000 hectares of land by rivers.