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Food scarcity, banned imports and the grim reaper

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By Dele Sobowale

“An army marches on its stomach.” Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769-1821. VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 14.

Nigeria has two armies. The first army, called “a nation within a nation”, is the one headed by General Buratai. The second army includes 190 million Fellow Nigerians; not in any uniform, but responding to the universal need for food. Just as the first army can be wiped out if the enemy cuts off their transport of food, the second army can also be demolished by mass starvation occasioned by acute food scarcity. Right now the two armies in Nigeria are endangered by inevitable very severe food shortage in the country this year.

Food at party

Killings: I’m for emergency rule in Zamfara — GOV YARI(Opens in a new browser tab)

Never in the history of Nigeria have the people of this country faced such grim prospects as now. The forecasts are so dire that unless the Federal and state governments start to take urgent measures, the impact of the food production shortfall might soon start to be felt – in mortuaries and cemeteries nationwide.

As usual, before the reader assumes this is an exaggerated alarm which is unlikely to happen let me make a few disclosures that will lend credence to the concerns raised here.

During ten years in the North, I was fortunate to have worked and lived in Kano, Kaduna, Jos, Maiduguri, Bauchi, Karu and Sokoto. I was also involved in two major farming projects – Karu and Sokoto. Before the farm experiences, I was the Marketing Manager for a major brewery in Kano with customers all over the North. Some of the friends I made are still alive today. In a few cases, I was instrumental to getting their children to go to school. At least fifteen of those “kids” (they are over fifty now) are university graduates in responsible positions. They read VANGUARD because of MM – as I was called in those days. Some are farmers or bulk food contractors and they are located in fifteen Northern States. So, I don’t have to travel North to obtain reports about the food situation in those states. At any rate, those familiar with these pages are aware of my restlessness. I travel all the time. So far twenty two states have been covered this year – including dreaded Zamfara and Katsina. In all my travels two issues attract my attention – food and education. The awful roads have long ceased to bother me.

To me governments primarily owe their people two things – adequate food and education. Without these infrastructure is of no use. But, for me, it has always been “food first”. So, when I find myself in a state the first thing I look for is the food supply situation. And in addition to talking to my “reporters” in those states, a visit to markets to price and buy food stuff is mandatory. Thereafter my predictions about likely food prices to one of my clients who is a major food processor are always accurate. This year has not been an exception. Indeed, for once, he was sceptical when I first gave him the bad news about trends this year until he started experiencing serious scarcities of raw food materials for his business. He is now a believer. Like the Biblical Joseph, he had taken my advice and is storing and preserving food items at unprecedented rates.

“I hold that man in the right who is most in league with the future.”

Henrik Ibsen, 1828-1906, Norwegian Author.

Most of us don’t realise that the future starts from the next minute, hour, day, week or month – not to talk of November 2019. But, what will happen to our food supply in November and December this year has already been decided by what occurred from January, February and March.

The first quarter of the year is when preparations are made for clearing the land and planting various crops in anticipation of early rains. This year, three events intruded to disturb the natural flow of farmland activities – especially in the North; which is the nation’s food basket. First, there were elections. Even farmers were caught in the national bedlam which elections induce every four years. Second, herdsmen, bandits and kidnappers took advantage of the FG’s total concentration on second term to unleash mayhem on farmers throughout the country.

Third, and this is perhaps the most important, nature added is own to the already overflowing basketful of woes. The early rains on which farmers had banked to get the years cycle of growth and harvest failed to materialise. The first seeds planted rotted away without sprouting; so did the second attempts at planting. Consequently, the nation is at least three months behind where we should be in terms of harvest of first crops – vegetables, maize, yams, sorghum, rice etc. A visit to any market rural, road side and urban will reveal the extent of the problems. Vegetables, which by now should have been dirt cheap, are so scarce that the prices have escalated for the poorest quality in living memory.

To state that we are in a fix is to understate the problem. From my network of “reporters” less than half of the largest farms in the North are now being actively tended. Women, who produce almost sixty per cent of the food items no longer go to farms. Millions of men have also dropped out. The herdsmen, bandits and kidnappers have created a major problem for the nation because FG failed to read the danger signals when the terrorists herding cattle spread their wings all over the country. Millions of Nigerians will starve to death this year.

That brings me to the import prohibition list now in place by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN. Given the inescapable sharp drop in food supply in 2019, it is obvious that the CBN can no longer place a ban on the importation of some food items without exacerbating a potential nation disaster – which is rapidly unfolding.

For instance, rice production this year will certainly be less than in 2018 with Zamfara and Niger States under siege of kidnappers and bandits and thousands of farmers abandoning farms. Even at the best of times, smuggled rice supplemented the national harvest. These are far from the best of times. Catastrophe is the word for what will follow if the CBN still maintains its hard stance on rice imports this year because rice has become the most widely consumed grain in the nation.

But, lifting the ban on rice importation alone will only solve part of the problem. The FG and state governments will now have to start thinking about how to avert one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes to hit Africa occurring in Nigeria by considering how to provide food for their people. Without such a national effort, the last quarter of 2019 might be the beginning of Nigeria’s hot spring as millions of hungry and angry citizens roam around desperately in search of food.

Our already overstretched security forces will soon have more potential threats to national security to deal with. Food-laden vehicles might soon become the targets of bandits.

Finally, the grim reaper appears set for a bumper harvest in 2019. Right now, in some parts of Nigeria, Lake Chad Basin, Mubi, Gwoza in Borno State, Talata Mafara in Zamfara State etc parents are now burying kids starved to death at unprecedented rates.

“This is a world in which children are born to suffer”, wrote Albert Camus, 1903-1960.

Nigeria in 2019 is rapidly becoming a nation in which children are born to suffer and die.



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