By Dele Sobowale
“…CBN must not give money to import food. Already about seven states are producing all the rice we need.” – President Buhari, December 2020
God knows I want Buhari to remain President until 2023 because, unsettling as that might be for some people, it is the best of all options before us. It is difficult to live with a leader who has lost the followers. That is why some talk of failed nation. We have not failed totally and there is still hope. That is why this article was not titled, ‘Famine is imminent this year’.
Buhari, like every President, is hostage to his Ministers and Advisers who conspire to avoid telling him the truth if it will hurt his feelings.
Consequently, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, have impressed upon Buhari that Nigeria now produces all the rice we need. This is a lie and the current price tells the truth about rice. There was never a time we produced all the rice we need. We came close but we never achieved self-sufficiency.
At any rate we are faced with three grim realities today which render it irrelevant whether we are capable of producing sufficient rice to feed ourselves. An old customer and friend during my rice business days with whom I have kept in touch till now, called me early in December and after the usual pleasantries declared: “Dele, I went below the poverty line in my adult life in 2020. Two of my wives have left me and, right now, I don’t know where four daughters are.” He then went on to tell me a story about what happened to him — which would melt anybody’s heart.
He operates three farms in the Yelwa Yauri and Koko marshland as well as one in Jega Local Government of Kebbi state. By any measure he was a successful rice farmer – until 2020 when three calamities intruded into his life.
First, Fulani herdsmen destroyed much of his farm in Koko and Jega areas. Second, armed bandits and kidnappers invaded the area – sending most of his farm labourers (mostly women) scampering for safety. Third, the great flood which covered the farms in the region left him with next to nothing to harvest. And, if harvested, he ran the risk of bandits seizing most of it. So, he gathered as much as he could to feed his family and left what is left for the invaders – humans and flood.
Nigerian Farmers in Dilemma in 2021
So, as we enter 2021, he is faced with a serious dilemma: to farm or to walk away.
He is not alone. Thousands of farmers in his community are faced with the same options. That was why he called me.
Buhari might not realise it, because he does not buy his own rice. At any rate, like all affluent Nigerians, he can afford to buy rice at any conceivable price. But, there was a real scarcity of Nigerian rice in 2020 – the impact of which was moderated by rice smuggled into Nigeria. Most of the foreign exchange used to procure the imported rice is not sourced from the banks; so the CBN is powerless to stop them. Consequently, the order to the bank, apart from being illegal on account of the bank’s autonomy, is a quixotic measure. It is useless.
Despite the steady supply of smuggled rice, the average price of rice continues to go up. For evidence, I present Are Afe Babalola, OFR, SAN, who on December 30, 2020, in an article published titled “2020 may be year of famine”, provided the average cost of food items last year with 2020. Rice was the first commodity listed and here is what Aare wrote as shown in the table.
Aare is as patriotic a Nigerian as most people in government; perhaps more so. He deliberately focussed on foreign rice in order to draw the attention of Buhari to the stark fact that we still consume a lot of foreign rice irrespective of what his officials tell him. He is also pointing out that the price of any food item cannot jump 100 to 150 per cent in one year if indeed we produce all we need of that item. The President needs to know the truth because millions of Nigerian lives are at risk if he makes the wrong decision.
Man does not leave by rice alone
“Man does not live by bread alone” was what a very wise One told the world more than 2000 years ago. He expected us to be able to figure out the rest ourselves, e.g, man does not live by rice, bread, beef etc, alone. Thus, even if we grant Buhari his assertion that we produce enough rice, do they eat rice three times a day and nothing else?
The fate of the people in the short and long term is not determined by one commodity. We have seen how our total reliance on oil ruined us. So, why not look at the entire basket of food items?
A glance at the prices of some food items comparing 2019 with 2020, at a time when most Nigerians had little money, should reveal a truth which the FG has not grasped.
Inflation has always been defined as too much money chasing few goods. In 2020, inflation rose to its highest level in years – led by food prices. Obviously, the food-price inflation in 2020 was not caused by too much money; it was brought about by too little food supply. And, by now, every honest Nigerian knows what the major causes were of low food output in 2020. Herdsmen, kidnappers, bandits and possible repeat of flood have rendered farming too risky and the returns on investment have become negative.
Right now, as we head into 2021, with Nigeria’s food reserves at the lowest it has ever been in a long term, the most important question is: have we solved all the problems impeding food output? Are Fulani herdsmen, bandits and kidnappers ready to allow farmers to work unhindered and without fear? If not, everybody will starve – including bandits, herdsmen and kidnappers.
The story and the irony of beef prices
According to the Chinese, a crisis is a mixture of problems and opportunities. The reader should take another look at the prices of food items listed. Notice the almost steady price of beef, from N1400 to N1500. If the December price is adjusted for inflation, beef is actually less expensive now than in 2019. Why?
Two reasons accounted for that. First, owners of cattle (I was once one of them) expect certain amount of revenue from the sale of the animals annually. In 2020, demand plummeted to its lowest level in years. Lagos State alone consumes about 40 per cent of all animals in Nigeria. With the lock down and closure of hotels, bars, pleasure spots, no big weddings and church anniversaries, the market for beef dried up. A real supply surplus occurred and it is reflected in the prices today.
Second, there was a noticeable increase in cattle rustling. Cattle robbers don’t ask for market price. They sell quickly for whatever price they can get. Nigeria has developed crime syndicates specialising in selling stolen cows at low prices – just as we have stolen car dealers. They keep the price of beef down for us.
Buhari needs to re-visit the issue of food in 2021 to avert looming famine nationwide.
Have a prosperous 2021.