By Rotimi Fasan
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari was by profession a soldier. Like many retired military men, he is a farmer by vocation. Given his electoral promises, the situation of the country since he became president and his inclination to be seen as doing something rather than merely marking time by holding a ministerial portfolio, one would have expected him to be either the Minister of Defence or Agriculture.
But perhaps because of its strategic importance as the provider of about 90 per cent of the country’s revenue, he chose the Petroleum Ministry, the same he had held in the 1970s during a military dictatorship.
Thus, even as president, Buhari is Nigeria’s Petroleum Minister. It makes no difference if he is no more than a mere rubber stamp of most of the decisions taken by whoever is the so-called junior minister of the Petroleum Ministry or, more appropriately, as we have seen since 2015 when he became president, the occupier of the powerful office of the Group Managing Director, GMD, of the Nigerian National Petroeleum Corporation, NNPC.
While hosting top officials of his administration, his party and some governors at his country home in Daura during the last Eid celebrations, Buhari decided to step beyond the boundary of his petroleum portfolio if not exactly out of his office of president. He ordered the Central Bank to stop the issuance of foreign exchange to importers of food into the country. The apparent goal of this decision is to boost local food production.
Laudable enough, one might say! While this decision looked a bit odd considering the assumed independence of the Central Bank in making both fiscal and monetary policies in the overall interest of the economy, it was not necessarily out of order, as the CBN should not be seen to be working at cross-purposes to the overall policy objectives of the government of the day.
That is to the extent that the objectives of the government are not overtly political, unnecessarily controlling or prejudicial to the interest of Nigerians. Yet the decision appeared to have been the result of a brainwave, as one of those decisions taken in an expansive, liquor-induced, postprandial moments. Except that Buhari is renowned for nothing but his asceticism.
Yet there is still that suspicion if not certitude that the presidential directive to stop the provision of forex for the importation of food was based on caprice. It was not a well thought out policy objective, even if the ultimate goal is praiseworthy. One can imagine somebody, one of the fawning courtiers, perhaps one of the new ministers without designation (remember that this was before the announcement of portfolios), during the relaxed, teeth-picking minutes that follow a generous demolition of tuwon-shinkafa and downing of choice wines, coming to the sudden realisation of how delicious and nutritious meals made from locally grown foods could be.
The discussion probably drifts into related subjects and bits about the worthiness of organic food and the beauty of cattle herding, with some of the interlocutors asking for the opinion of Godwin Emefiele, the Central Bank Governor, on the subject at hand, all the while looking at the president and suggesting to him that only he could drive such a policy. Goaded further with more encouraging snores from the courtiers present and satisfied that Emefiele does not appear indisposed to such line of thinking, Buhari orders the controversial directive whose effect is now reverberating across the land.
There is no doubt that Nigeria needs to be self-sufficient in food production. As a largely agrarian society, the country at independence and for many years thereafter, at least before the fixation on oil became a much shorter way to wealth, Nigeria was well on the way to achieving self-sufficiency in food production.
That we are where we are today, dependent on other countries for a lot of what we consume as food is due to the irresponsible neglect of the country’s leadership and the foisting of a consumerist culture based on the blind importation of everything foreign on the rest of the people. We must begin to look inwards and implement policies that are deliberately meant to stimulate growth in the local economy.
We cannot afford to depend on others for our basic needs, especially food. We ought not to consume what we cannot produce and if we must import things, such things have to be streamlined under the very close watch of government. That is what other successful countries do. But after many decades of neglecting local food production, the move to be more inward-looking cannot start nor will it be achieved overnight. Being deliberate, it has to be preceded and characterised by careful planning and even more careful and gradual execution.
Not a policy to be implemented like the order of a military commander. Which is why many Nigerians worry about the manner the directive to withhold forex from food importers was issued and is now being implemented.
Not only has the Buhari government not put in place measures to cushion the effect of such a policy, it is bent on the immediate implementation of it. Within days since the announcement of the no-forex policy, the price of food, especially rice has headed for the skies. From between N13, 000 and N14, 000 (about twice its price during the Goodluck Jonathan administration) a bag of 50kg rice now goes for N20,000, and is still rising! Apparently, to show its determination to implement this policy, government has also chosen this time to close the country’s borders, particularly the Seme Border through which rice as well as many other contrabands are imported into the country.
Under a so-called Joint Security patrol that includes the military and Nigeria Customs personnel, Nigeria’s borders with her smaller neighbours have been closed in the wake of the presidential directive, supposedly to combat banditry and insurgency, among other cross border crimes.
Under the illusion that Nigeria has achieved self-sufficiency in local rice production, Buhari is pursuing a policy that could only guarantee astronomical rise in the prices of food without necessarily curbing smuggling. We lived under similar illusion with recent claims that Nigeria has become a major exporter of yams – yams that rotted on the high seas before reaching their destination.
We have been here before and nothing good came out of such bluster of a policy. While price of the imported brand of rice has risen the so-called local rice is nowhere available. Otherwise, imported rice brands are re-bagged and sold as local rice.
Worse yet, Buhari is further militarising the land, making millionaires of soldiers now involved in Nigeria Customs and Police duties. This will lead to further distortions of the economy as well as the polity as soldiers abandon their traditional duties to participate in typically para-military operations.