September 2, 2018

HARDSHIP IN THE LAND: The poor deserve a life too- Audu Ogbeh

Chief Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

Chief Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

By Muyiwa Adetiba

There is this story that the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Audu Ogbeh, shared with me as we sat at table for lunch. It is the story of a lady who went to her village for a function and her uncle sent word that he wanted to see her before she headed back to town. It turned out that all he needed from her was just six hundred Naira to fix what had become a nagging problem to him. It brought her to the reality of how bad things were in the village. It is a story that shows how far removed we all are from our ‘home towns’. The person who sat beside me at table said he often wondered and sometimes asked his political colleagues who flaunt wealth in the cities if they ever went home and, if they did, if the poverty where they come from bothered them. Dr Ogbeh believes that the solution is the empowerment of the local governments. ‘Governors must be made to stop misappropriating the money meant for local governments. Funds meant for local governments must be given directly to them so that real development can take place. The poor deserve a life too’, he said.

I gently reminded him that rural development falls under his portfolio and he said, ‘I can’t do much with the paltry money we get from the budget every year. In any case, last year’s budget was tied to the purchase of transformers by the National Assembly. So what can you do? If I had my way, I would have preferred to buy tractors and farm implements that would empower the rural folks’.

Speaking of budget, Audu Ogbeh lamented the budget delay this year. ‘As I am talking to you, my ministry is yet to receive its budget for 2018. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t wait for budget. The planting season doesn’t wait for budget. For us in the ministry, we have almost lost a year because the planting season is far gone. What is even more frustrating is that we have failed to take advantage of the trade war in Europe, America and China. Some of these countries have approached us to provide certain crops which would have boosted our economy while providing jobs for our people. It is sad because this would have been an opportunity to penetrate some of these markets.’

One contentious issue that has dogged his ministry is the issue of ranching and colony. ‘The crisis that engulfed the nation as a result of herdsmen/farmer’s clash needed not to have happened if my warning had been taken more seriously’. He said ‘unfortunately, African leaders are not very gifted when it comes to anticipated planning. Baron De Montesquieu, a 16th century French philosopher, once said the black race tends to live for the moment and does not show much interest in history or capacity for long time planning. If we had a sense of history, we would have realised the role agriculture played in the past and work to improve on it. Nigeria once prosecuted a costly civil war through agricultural proceeds without borrowing a kobo.

Unfortunately, we have a loss of memory of what we were, what worked for us and a loss of knowledge of what to do next. If we had a sense of history, we would know that ranching or grazing reserve began in Nigeria in the 50s, even before independence. We had reserves in the old north, the present south-south (Obudu), the east (Okigwe), west, (Akunnu). The one in Oyo State (Iseyin) is still surviving till today. Friesland Campina, a Dutch dairy company is currently collecting milk on a daily basis there. Unfortunately, most of the others have come to grief because government turned its back. The ones in the north fell into disuse when the boreholes that serviced them became abandoned. An average cow drinks about 40 litres of water a day. In Holland, there are cows that drink up to 100 litres, so water is very important. The reserves thus became inhabitable without water and fodder. And because they were in communities, they had veterinary doctors and protection through Native Authority Police. All these disappeared. In the past, herdsmen only used sticks because cows can be stubborn. But now, shorn of protection, they resorted to guns primarily against rustlers and wild animals. In their desperation for food and water, they started trampling on crops. Hence, the beginning of the current crisis.

‘Early 2016, I wrote to all the state governors drawing attention to the challenge and asking for land for ranching. I did this for two reasons. One, cows move everywhere and need to be contained. Two, I didn’t want to give the impression that it is a preserve of a section of the country. Only 16 states responded either to offer land or to explain their inability to offer land. All the hue and cry of stealing land was unnecessary because nobody intended to take 1 sq inch by force. This however has paled into insignificance because a recent survey of grazing reserves shows we have 415 reserves spread across the country with the largest in Adamawa. Checks have found that they cover a total land mass of 5million hectares. Some have been encroached upon but we still have over 4million hectares. All we need now is to rehabilitate them, create mini dams and lakes for irrigation and feeding. We no longer need land from anyone to take care of the problem because at a ratio of 17 cows to a hectare, we have enough for 68million cows. We only have 19.5 million cows according to ECOWAS estimate. The issue is how quickly we can get to work to accommodate the cattle. There is no limitation as to who can apply for space.

‘The argument that government should not get involved in ranching holds no water when we realise that a herdsman is a farmer. How many times have we sold maize to poultry farmers at half the price or compensated for poultry, pig or tomato farmers when they have been victims of diseases. So what we do for the other farmers, we should do for the herdsman. In some countries in Europe, a subsidy of six euros per cow is given to cow owners.

‘A young graduate with 10 well fed cows doesn’t need a job. He will make enough to take care of himself and his family. And there is enough agro waste in the country to feed 40million cows. This opportunity is not exclusive to any ethnic group.’

On the misrepresentation of the term colony, he said, ‘this misrepresentation is regrettable. A grazing reserve is not about one ranch but a cluster of ranches, referred to in some countries as a colony. It is also a term used in biology and agriculture to describe bees, butterflies etc. Sooner than later, people will realise that cattle ranching is a good investment. And in the long run, cattle will be more successful in the south than the north because of weather. So a person keeping cattle in the south will spend considerably less. People will also realise that 30 well fed cows sitting in one place is more profitable than 300 cows roaming around. It’s interesting to note that cows do not like to walk’.

On the need to embark on ranching, he said ‘the benefits are numerous. One reason is the health of Nigerians themselves. As the cows roam, they pick up insects like tick, horn flies and face flies, all of which can be uncomfortable to humans. Cows can also spread bovine tuberculosis to humans. Then, they can also add to the challenges of global warming through their breath if not controlled. Roaming deprives them access to proper vet services and that can be dangerous to them and their environment. Then there is the economic benefit. Cattle accounts for 6% of GDP and can be more. In the past, herdsmen used to pay tax on every cow (Jangali) to the local government. This revenue can increase substantially. Nigeria currently spends 1.2billion dollars a year importing powdered milk. This amount can be reduced substantially. We will also get fresher and more nutritious milk. Finally and more importantly, it is no longer fashionable to have cows roaming around. Only last month, Ghana’s President announced the commencement of ranching and cattle colony – he used the word colony – to eliminate the problem of clashes and rustlers. It is strange that Nigeria sees ranching and colonies only in terms of ethnicity and religion. We want every ECOWAS country to keep their cows from wandering into Nigeria.

‘Another beauty of having clusters’ he continued ‘is that the cow dungs can now be used to generate electricity to process milk and other farm needs. It will also make protecting the cattle a lot easier. We are about to offer a new service to big farmers by supplying ‘Agro-Rangers’ who will protect them from rustlers. This is a partnership between the Ministries of Interior and Agriculture. They will be trained by the Nigerian Army. We have a Cattle Breeds Improvement Committee headed by a Yoruba man by the way, to look into better milk and meat. All these things have not taken off because of budget delay and we have already lost one year’.

Listening to the Minister, it is not hard to see how our attitude as a nation has contributed to the drop in agricultural growth as recently announced by the Bureau of Statistics. Or how we self-destruct. It is also not hard to see how warped our priorities are when we are willing to spend 143 billion Naira on elections even as key sectors like Education, Health and Agriculture are starved of critical funds.