By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, CON, OFR
Last week, I discussed the menace of poverty which now seems to have been woven into the fabric of Nigeria’s existence.
I noted that as at the ’50s and ’60s when subsistence farming was widely practised, Nigeria was segregated into mainly two classes consisting of the White men, the Obas and Chiefs who were generally referred to as the upper class, while other Nigerians remained in the lower class. I equally noted that by the ’80s, an entirely new crop of societal organogram emerged: the super-rich, the politicians, the tycoons, the middle class consisting of civil servants and professionals, the workers, the poor, and the very poor.
Without a doubt, the steady increase in the disparity between the very rich and the very poor in Nigeria has its roots in the discovery of crude oil. The analogy is quite simple: when a vast majority of Nigerians practised an agrarian lifestyle, poverty was never an issue. However, the discovery of oil, amongst other related factors, led to the emergence of a new class, creating a parallel line between the poor and the rich in the society. Perhaps, the solution to Nigeria’s poverty crises is the re-introduction of medium and large-scale farming, coupled with adequate support from government. This will not only ensure a greater capacity in food production but will equally increase the revenue generated from the sale and export of farm produce.
Agriculture as the mainstay of the Nigerian 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 the revenue generated from these products, the regional governments were able to cater to the needs of their regions. They embarked upon programmes 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 a 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 the government increased the salaries of government workers and even paid one-year arrears. There was so much money going around among government workers that the farmers were induced to come to the cities as labourers and cart pullers. The 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 farms. That was the beginning of the abandonment of farming which led to a reduction in the 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, weddings, chieftaincy installations, churches, mosques, birthday parties and now on the highways. Recently, the few who made money from oil and imported goods formed 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, internet fraud, 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.
Sometime ago, a foreign investor who left Nigeria attributed its decision to the prevalence of corruption. Things have become so bad that one cannot but see comparisons between our present state and the words of Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, where she wrote the following: “When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing.
When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favours. When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them but protect them against you, when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming self-sacrifice, you may know that your society is doomed.”
Agriculture is the solution
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 and Lagos 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 the US and Europe who visited Nigeria often wondered 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 several billions of naira annually. At the moment it is estimated that only 12 per cent of arable land in Nigeria is cultivated, while the remainder are not utilised.
However, it was only a matter of time before we realised that we could not depend entirely on oil-based revenue. In September 2015, the severity of the situation was brought home when N502.09 billion was received as revenue, an amount lower than the N 601.05 billion received in August 2015.
This decline of N99.55 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 the shutdown 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.
Also, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic which generally occasioned a collapse in the price of oil globally, there is an urgent need to consider other potent solutions, with agriculture being the most viable.
Therefore, for Nigeria to thrive in the coming years, 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. However, even with the discovery of new oil deposits, Nigeria will continue to retain a greater percentage of the poor who will enjoy no direct benefit from the oil discovery.
This is where a return to agriculture becomes imperative. The return to an agrarian lifestyle will, no doubt, bridge the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in the society.