January 14, 2019

Predictable famine and deepening poverty in 2019

Predictable famine and deepening poverty in 2019

File: Children affected by poverty

  • “Mayetti Allah endorses President Buhari.” News Report.
  • “2019: Experts forecast weak, sluggish economy.” News Report, January 2019.
  • “Vanishing rice pyramids? “Tunji Adegboyega, NATION, January 6, 2019.

By Dele Sobowale

News of Mayetti Allah’s support for their Life Patron, President Buhari falls into the “dog bites man category”. It would have been startling news if the herdsmen fail to approve of the only President who ever allowed them to kill, rape and commit arson with impunity. In the process, they sent over four thousand of fellow Nigerians, mostly farmers to the grave.

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Many of those farmers have not been replaced by other farmers. Farmers who escaped planned assassination by squads of gun men threatening “your land or your life” have abandoned farming all over the country. Many more farms in all zones of Nigeria will lie fallow this year than at any time in recent history. Herdsmen regarded globally as the fourth ranking is ensuring that famine will be prevalent this year.

Herdsmen are not alone. Long before they became notorious, Boko Haram had made farming almost impossible in several communities in the Northeast zone. Now, with the army asking residents around Baga to relocate to safer areas, the farmers around the Lake Chad basin are on a long holiday. It means that nobody in those communities will be busy preparing land for planting, no fertilisers, seeds, herbicides and germicides will be ordered. Obviously, nobody can hope to harvest what is not planted. More farms will be out of action. So, food productivity will drop. It requires no degree in Economics for anybody to understand that idle farmers with no sources of personal income have immediately joined the 87 millions already living in abject poverty.

Since rice has become the barometer for gauging our national performance on food production, Adegboyega’s concerns speak directly to one of the causes of increasing widespread famine, starvation, malnutrition and deepening poverty which Nigeria will experience this year. His observation that “a 50kg bag of rice sold for N17,500 in December is indication that something went wrong somewhere” is spot on. He also recollected buying the same bag of rice for N13,000 in December 2018.

He is absolutely right. Many things are wrong and some of the problems will follow us well into 2019. I don’t know if Adegboyega travelled to the North in 2018, especially the rice growing states. I was fortunate to visit Sokoto, Zamfara and Niger States at least three times each during the past year. Zamfara represents a lot that went wrong.

When Governor Yari of the state raised alarm and called for a state of emergency to be declared in the state, he was merely saying out loud what a million people in Zamfara had been saying about bandits who have taken over the state committing atrocities including killing farmers and seizing by force their harvests. By October 2018 several farmers in the Talata Mafara axis had abandoned their farms. They decided not to harvest instead of doing the back-breaking work only for bandits to collect the harvest.

In varying degrees, all the northern rice growing states had a taste of banditry in connection with rice and cattle.

Readers will recollect that in 2016 and 2017, Lagos State had a well-publicised agreement with Kebbi State for the northern state to sell thousands of bags of rice to the Centre of Excellence. That helped to bring the price down then. Apparently, there was no agreement in 2018. The fact that Governor Ambode was already out of the Governor’s race might explain why no subsidised rice came to Lagos in December 2018. But, even if Lagos State had wanted to continue with the arrangement, it would have had to pay more to Kebbi for the rice.

Farmers around Yelwa Yauri, Koko and Jega were also under pressure from rice thieves. Most farmers barely had enough to feed themselves and their families. A trip to Badeggi, Niger State, home of the former International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, revealed that yield per acre in 2018 was lower than in 2016 and 2017.

Virtually everywhere fertiliser was received later than the time expected because the 2018 Budget was not signed until June. Fertilisers arriving so late are totally useless from the standpoint of increasing yield per acre. Prices of all food items Nigerian consumers experienced in the market reflect the facts of rising insecurity across the nation and its impact on food production as well as the worsening pattern of annual budgets being presented to the National Assembly, NASS, very late by the President and the NASS sitting on it for political reasons.

For almost three years, Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture, had been painting a false picture of steadily rising rice productivity. He even proposed closing Nigeria’s borders with the Benin Republic because that tiny nation, with population less than that of Kwara State was importing more rice than China. Obviously, the rice was Nigeria-bound. Thank God, President Buhari got it right by ignoring his Minister. Millions of tonnes of imported rice arrive at our neighbour’s ports because Nigeria does not grow enough to be self-sufficient. Any attempt to close the gates against imports prematurely will result in mass starvation and untold malnutrition in the land. The price of rice went up, as Adegboyega observed for two reasons.

By December, domestic rice production had fallen drastically as several rice growing communities suffered from lack of essential inputs and others simply fled the farms. The decline in local   production created a mini-scarcity which placed pressure on prices. In addition, importers through Cotonou were wary of a sudden closure of the borders with Benin Republic. They reduced imports. The real exchange rate which they face, as opposed to the artificial exchange rate imposed by the Central Bank, CBN, did the rest. My family has property at Idiroko; so we know a lot about rice imports

What can consumers expect in 2019, again using rice as a barometer for all food items? Bearing in mind that what we are now consuming was grown last year and the harvest was completed weeks ago, domestic supply is already limited to what is in storage. It cannot be increased. Short supply invites imports and drives up prices. Last year, most consumers lacked effective purchasing power.

Yet food prices went up. This year, the passage of the Minimum Wage Bill will increase purchasing power – but only for those who can benefit from the wage increase. The notion, sold by organised Labor – NLC, ASUU etc – that the new bill will benefit everybody is simply fallacious. With the 2019 Budget less than that of 2018 and most state governors declaring their inability to pay, not even all those in the public sector will enjoy the fruits of the current agitation.

Organised Private Sector, OPS, is apprehensive, as they should be, because it is almost impossible to forecast what the future holds. The safest bet is to predict STAGFLATION. That means low economic growth and higher inflation. In the end, the money workers take in with the right hand will be given back with the left. As for the rural dwellers, especially farming communities in the North, hell is here. Famine is here.

LAST LINE: As this article was being concluded, my vendor arrived with the papers. Governors have categorically declared that “there will be a crisis in the country” if N30,000 is passed into law. More uncertainties await Nigerians.