… ‘Agric Minister’s statement that Nigerians aren’t hungry sad’
…Narrates how he won NLNG Prize for Literature
By Peter Duru, Makurdi
Prof. Jerry Agada, a former Minister of State for Education, is from Benue State. In this interview, Agada speaks on the controversy triggered by some northern leaders that their region will retain the presidency in 2023, the statement credited to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono, that Nigerians are not hungry and the closure of the nation’s land borders among other issues. Excerpts:
You were just given an award by the Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas, NLNG, for your contributions to the Nigeria Prize for Literature, how did it happen and how do you feel about this rare recognition?
The truth is that I feel very happy for the award because the event as a whole was to mark the success story of the NLNG and they called it 20-30, meaning that they were celebrating 30 years of the incorporation of the company and 20 years of production. And it was a success story. You know they endowed the Nigerian Prize for Literature and the Nigerian Prize for Science as part of their contribution to corporate social responsibility.
You will also discover that the Nigerian Prize for Literature is about the highest literary prize, in fact, in the entire world because it is worth $100,000. And for me to be associated with that type of success story is a thing of immense joy. Since it started in 2004, it has been making progress; initially it was $20,000, later it went up to $50,000, now it is $100,000 and you know what that means.
So anybody who is associated with this success story should feel happy and fulfilled and that’s how I feel having been given the award. And to add to the glamour is that fact that it was not given only to me, it was also given to Professor Emeritus Ben Elube and Prof. Ayo Banjo, a two-term Vice Chancellor of University of Ibadan. The three of us are members of the Advisory Board of the Nigerian Prize for Literature. So I think that anytime the history of literature is written in Nigeria, especially the one endowed by the Nigerian Prize for Literature, my name will be there in the archives.
You were once the National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA. Are you impressed with the level of our literary works?
I’m highly impressed. Starting from what the NLNG is doing, the award is not just about giving, it is about giving to the best Nigerian book in that particular genre for that year. For instance, the Nigerian Prize for Literature rotates amongst four genres. We have the prose fiction, we have drama; we have children’s literature and poetry. So, if this year the prize is for poetry, next year it could be for children’s literature, the following year will be drama and so on.
When the cycle is completed, it starts all over again. And it is stated that the prize is awarded for excellence and not for any other reason. In other words, for you to describe the book as the best book in Nigeria for that particular year, it means that book can stand the test of time anywhere in the world. It also means that something good is coming out of Nigeria in terms of literary works. So, in essence, the prize has actually helped Nigerians to organize themselves properly in terms of their literary works because, firstly, when entries are submitted, they start by looking at the production of the book and so on before you go to textual content. So that, by the time you arrive at the prize, you are talking of a book that is perfect.
Apart from writing, we know you are a politician who served this country as a Minister. What do you make of the agitation about where the next President of Nigeria should come from in 2023? For instance, northern leaders like Professor Ango Abdullahi, Dr Mohammed Junaid, among others, are saying the presidency should remain in the North after President Muhammadu Buhari finishes his tenure in 2023 whereas southern leaders are saying power should rotate to their region for equity sake.
This politics we play, a lot of comments come from the people who make those utterances but which do not represent what the generality of the people stand for. When some persons say the North is saying that the next President should come from the North, they are obviously not speaking for the North but for themselves, it therefore cannot become the position of the North. That person is obviously expressing his or her own view and opinion.
I am also a politician and a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who has contested for the governorship of Benue State and I have and will always agitate for rotation in power sharing. Let things go round so that it will reach everybody. So if you look at it in terms of that and then you say the North is saying the presidency will go to the North, it means you are saying it should not rotate to any other place and it must remain in the North. I am not among that group of persons who hold that view. Zoning is obtainable in the PDP where I belong; it may not be the position of other parties.
I feel rotation is the ideal thing to do. If it is in this part of the country now, the next time it should go to another and it should keep rotating so that, at the end of the day, all the geopolitical zones will feel a sense of belonging. But for some groups to say “it must be ours for keeps” and not go anywhere, that is anti-unity of the country. When you take that kind of position or stand, I cannot be part of that kind of arrangement. So, left for me, when you say the North is saying this and the South is saying that, I do not know who is speaking for the North and South, but I am saying that if this zone has it now, it should move to another zone next time.
In fact if you talk of competence, there is no zone in Nigeria that you cannot get people who are competent to be President of Nigeria. They are all over the place. If the North has it this time, it should move to the South next time. Or do you want to say that there are no competent people in the South who are qualified to be President? If you say South-West, are you telling me there are no people in the South-West who are qualified to be President or even in the South-East or South-South?
My position is that we must looked at matters closely and agree to work as one nation by holding to the popular saying in Benue that ‘eat and give your brother’ so that it can go round. I recently read somebody saying the North will hold on to the presidency for the next 100 years and I asked, is that what we are looking for?
I was just watching on the television the pictures of malnourished children who are from the northern part of the country? So what does the presidency give us in terms of the wellbeing of the people that you are saying let everybody die but you must hold on to the presidency and so on? I have also written a book on that matter, it is entitled ‘The Successors’.
What I have done in the book is to highlight the need for rotation. A person from the minority group can be assisted by the people of the majority group to attain leadership or emerge the Governor. I wrote this book as far back as 2007. What I’m saying is that after the North, the presidency should go to the South and the South would pick amongst themselves which zone should produce the President. If they feel somebody from the West has been there, it should be moved to another zone; that is their business.
President Buhari just presented the 2020 Budget to the National Assembly and there have been knocks and also praises for the budget. What is your assessment of that fiscal document?
My assessment, to be very fair to Mr. President and those who processed the budget, is that they will not purposely do something that will bring pain to Nigerians but the problem is that some of the content like the increment of VAT and all of that is not in the best interest of Nigerians. When I see people arguing about it, some will say if you go to this or that country, their VAT is so so rate and Nigeria is the lowest. But is that what we are talking about?
Is the living condition of the people in these places that we are citing as examples the same with what we have here? Do we have social security here? Do you know that once you occupy a position of responsibility, you are in penury because you have thousands of relations who look up to you and rely on you for survival? It is from the little that you are getting that you extend to everybody. In some of these societies they are comparing us with, even if somebody is unemployed, he is entitled to social security. At the end of the month, once you come of age, you are entitled to financial support to be able to take care of your needs and feed yourself.
So, whether you increase VAT or not, the state is taking care of the people. But here where there is nothing like that and people find it difficult to feed and you come up with an increment because you feel that America’s is higher than yours, so you must increase it, I don’t think that is the way to go. Regrettably, when it comes to that kind of thing, they will compare us with other countries but when it comes to giving the citizenry the goodies of life, they will not compare us with America and others. We must do these things in such a way that it will not inflict too much pain on the people. It can be done bit by bit.
And the issue of border closure, what do you make of it?
Let me tell you something, though if I say this, some persons may not be happy with me. Do you know that in 1983/84 when Buhari was military Head of State, the way Nigerians suffered that time, it was like hell? I remember I was at the time returning from Britain, when I got to Kano, this was the time we had Nigeria Airways and it used to fly from Kano to Makurdi, but the money to buy that ticket was not there because they had changed Nigerian currency. They said after the coup that they were fighting corruption and they changed the currency, so that people who starched their money outside will not be in a position to bring it to the country again. But we remember the story of the 53 suit cases or whatever.
And people were made to queue to buy essential commodities in designated places because they were not affordable. What I’m saying is that some people think that when you mention Nigeria, you are referring to the map of Nigeria and not the people. People are dying of hunger and all of that and they keep saying Nigeria is the only country we have and no other but you are inflicting pain on the people.
You decided to close the borders in a bid to stop importation of food because you want Nigerians to produce to feed ourselves or because we are self-sufficient. But go to a place like Konshisha or Ushongo in Benue State, even my place in Ogbadibo, you’ll see oranges, yams and several food crops in large quantities but can you bring them to the town and places where people can buy them? You cannot because of bad roads. A truck that goes to load these items from the villages will get struck on the road and sometimes tumble and the goods would be damaged and rot away because there are no roads to take them to places for people who want to use or eat them. Is that the type of self-sufficiency they are talking about?
If they want us to be self-sufficient in food production, they should give us good roads and light so that, if people in Edo want yam from Zaki Biam, there would be roads to convey the yam to Edo; if you want plantain and banana from Cross River State in Lagos, let there be roads so that people and goods can move freely, that is when you can proudly say we will not allow importation of food. But sometimes imported foods reach the people in urban centres more than the ones we are producing in the country that cannot be taken out of the villages.
So what is the rationale for closing the borders? As far as I’m concerned, this closure of border is totally wrong. They could be doing it systematically and not drastically because we cannot meet our food needs and people are dying of hunger.
On the recent statement credited to the Minister of Agriculture that Nigerians are not hungry.
The Minister said Nigerians are not hungry, that you can go to Kano with N300 and feed. That statement is similar to the statement made by a former Minister during the Shagari era when he said Nigerians are not hungry because no Nigerian was picking food from the dustbin. So, as far as the Minister is concerned, as long as we are not picking from dustbins we are not hungry, it is sad. They say these things because of the positions they occupy.
It is the taxpayer’s money that is used to buy even the tea they drink in their offices. When they fuel their convoy of cars, is it not taxpayer’s money that is used to do that? But when the ordinary man wants to fuel his car or drink tea, he buys from his earnings. So, because you are enjoying public funds you have the effrontery to say the people are not hungry. As far as I am concerned, it is an arrogance; unpleasant and it is bad.