By Afe Babalola
Over the last three editions I undertook an examination of extreme poverty which now pervades the country. I stated the poor attitude of Nigerians to giving and contrasted this with how charities and foundations in other countries are helping to ameliorate the effects of poor governmental policies on the citizens and concluded with the fact that philanthropy could actually aid development if properly channeled in the direction of critical sectors of the economy. This week I will examine another contributing factor to rising state of poverty which is the abandonment of the agricultural sector.
Agriculture was once the mainstay of the economy
Before the discovery of oil, Nigeria which is blessed with mineral deposits of all types including tin, gold, coal and many other minerals earned appreciable income from the aforementioned minerals. The tin, gold, coal fields were abandoned following the discovery of oil. During the first Republic Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. The north had cotton, groundnuts and other products. The East and the Southwest had Palm Oil and Cocoa respectively. With revenue generated from these products, the regional governments were able to cater to the needs of their regions. They embarked upon programs which impacted positively on the populace. In the Southwest, buildings such as the Cocoa House in Ibadan and the magnificent structures of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) are eternal reminders of the prosperity of that era. However with the increased production of Oil and the huge revenue which it attracted, successive Nigerian governments and the military ones in particular soon began to pay less attention to the need for sustainable agricultural policies. Such was the country’s newly found comfort that an entire civil war was prosecuted without any external borrowing of funds.
Unfortunately instead of refining the crude oil which was in high demand because of the quality, we exported the crude oil which was refined overseas by European countries and we imported the refined products at higher price and also purchased the by-product of the crude oil exported by us. Because of the price of crude oil at that time, we had excess money so much so that government increased the salaries of government workers and even paid one year arrears. There was so much money going round among the government workers that the farmers were induced to come to the cities as labourers and the cart pullers. Government even told the world that the problem of Nigeria was not money but how to spend it! The cart pullers and labourers who were attracted to the town by easy money going around in the town became more comfortable than their colleagues who remained on the farm. That was the beginning of the abandonment of farming which led to reduction in production of raw materials and of course a big drain on our foreign reserves. Nigeria had to import food items which we were producing before the introduction of IMF which further complicated matters as naira depreciated in value.Unemployment crept in and poverty skyrocketed. Consequently, the unemployed and those who could not feed themselves or even rent houses started to beg. Firstly, in corners but lately openly at burials, wedding, chieftaincy installation, churches, mosques, birthday parties and now on the highway.Recently, the few who made money from oil and imported goods form a new class of super rich. The gap between the rich and the poor is becoming wider by the day. We now have extremely rich people and extremely poor people.
Poverty induced societal ills
The widening gap between the rich and the poor has naturally come at a cost. It has for example brought about with it a devaluation of societal values, as those without the means of getting rich legitimately have devised other means of meeting up with their rich counterparts. This accounts for the rise in vice and crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping, oil bunkering and pipeline vandalisation, drug smuggling etc. Every year, Nigeria is continually listed amongst the most corrupt and crime ridden countries. Many businesses cannot hope to survive or thrive without having to resort to corrupt practices. Sometimes ago, a foreign investor who left Nigeria attributed its decision to the prevalence of corruption.
Yet it is common knowledge that the first profession ordained by God was agriculture. The great countries of the world including Canada, USA, Brazil, Argentina, European countries, Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand etc give pride of place to Agriculture. Most of the wealthy citizens of these countries are farmers. The first wealthy Nigerians I grew up to know were farmers. They acquired their wealth from proceeds from cocoa, palm oil, palm kernel, rubber, cotton, groundnut etc. Gone are the days when the road between Ibadan were laced on both sides with cocoa plantation. The roads from Ado-Ekiti to Ilesa, or Ilesa to Ibadan, Or Ibadan to Ijebu-Ode through Gambari were not left out. The foreigners from US and Europe visiting Nigeria wonder why Nigeria has vast underdeveloped land overgrown with green vegetation. Yet Nigeria orders maize from far away Argentina to feed poultry farms. Nigeria imports rice worth over several billions of naira annually. At the moment it is estimated that only 12% of arable land in Nigeria is cultivated while the remainder are not utilized.
Urgent plans to diversify the revenue base
However, it was only a matter of time before we realized that we could not depend entirely on oil based revenue. In September 2015, the severity of the situation was brought home when N 502.09 billion was received as revenue, an amount lower than the N 601.05 billion received in August 2015. This decline of N 99.55 billion in one month alone was due to the drastic fall of the price of oil as well as the inability of the country to meet its production quota due to production losses arising from shut down of trunk lines and pipeline vandalism at the various export terminals. To further compound matters, it has already been predicted that current Oil depositories may become exhausted in less than 50 years’ time. So it is evident that we must either begin serious exploratory activities to discover fresh Oil deposits or we must put in place urgent plans to diversify the revenue base of the economy. This is where a return to Agriculture becomes imperative.
To be continued.