BY Olu Fasan

SINCE 2018, Nigeria has earned the moniker: “poverty capital of the world”. The United Nations also named Nigeria among the six countries in the world where hunger is most rife. Which makes it strange that a Nigerian government could indulge in the utter charade of exhibiting “the world’s largest rice pyramids”?

Yet, that’s what President Muhammadu Buhari did last week, on January 18, when he unveiled, reportedly, 15 pyramids, each purportedly containing one million bags of paddy rice.

Public trust in Buhari’s government is extremely low, so cynicism abounds. Many Nigerians questioned the veracity of the government’s claims: Were there 15 pyramids? Did each contain one million bags? And where, by the way, did the rice come from? But beyond the doubts about provenance and facts, there are deeper concerns about motives and appropriateness.

Let’s face it, the unveiling of the rice pyramids smacked of a political gimmick. Where is the wisdom in talking of “the world’s largest rice pyramids” when Nigeria is nowhere near China, India, Indonesia and many other countries in rice production? What’s the rationale for the chest-beating when rice consumption outstrips production, thus challenging the notion of food security? And why, if Nigeria has “the world’s largest rice pyramids”, has the price of rice not crashed? A 50 kg bag of rice still costs between N24,000 and N30,000!

Truth is, the Buhari government treats agriculture as a political project. For President Buhari, it’s a matter of dogma. His ideological soulmate is Godwin Emefiele, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who has seemingly turned the CBN’s focus away from its core mandate of price stability to agricultural financing. Through its Anchor Borrowers’ Programme, ABP, the CBN has poured nearly N1 trillion into agriculture. And, of course, both Buhari and Emefiele want to show Nigerians that this money has yielded valuable and significant outcomes. But it has not!

Last year, the online news outlet, Premium Times published an investigative report entitled “Despite investments, agriculture growth under Buhari weakest since 1999.” Recently, BusinessDay investigation reached the same conclusion: “Agric growth under Buhari weakest since 1999 despite investment”. For a president who described the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme as “the reference point in the administration’s agricultural revolution effort”, the findings that agricultural growth under his government is the weakest since 1999 are utterly damning, betraying evidence of policy failure.

Truth be told, like the so-called National Social Investment Programme, which gulped over N500 billion without making a dent on poverty, the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme is a totem of the Buhari government’s profligacy and wastefulness. Indeed, if the programme were ever probed, there would be plenty of evidence of mismanagement.

For instance, one international report says of the ABP: “In the rice sector, government incentives have benefitted ‘political farmers’ who use political connection to access loans and distribute these onward for profits.” The House of Representatives is also reportedly investigating how billions of naira of ABP loans were disbursed and why farmers who received the loans have not paid them back. What’s more, according to a BusinessDay study entitled ‘Nigeria Rice Industry Report’ (2020), “many rural/small-holder farmers and cottage agri-businesses criticised the programme as they were unable to benefit from it.” So, the ABP is not working; it’s based on dogma, not sound policy.

All of which leads us to President Buhari’s ideological fixation with agriculture. In his speech at the unveiling of the rice pyramids, Buhari said: “The significance of today’s occasion can be better understood by looking at the various economic strides that the administration has achieved through agriculture.” In other words, his administration’s economic philosophy is anchored on agriculture, which is why his government has used the ABP, import bans and prohibitive tariffs to prop up agriculture while stifling the manufacturing sector by denying it access to foreign exchange to import critical intermediate products, and refusing to open up the Nigerian economy to make it attractive to foreign investors.

But Buhari’s ideological fixation with agriculture is misguided and has utterly failed to produce tangible results. Any sensible agricultural policy must lead to1)agricultural and economic growth, 2) job creation and poverty reduction, 3) availability and affordability of food items, and 4) agricultural exports. With over 80 per cent of farmers being smallholders, agriculture in Nigeria is too subsistence-based to yield sophisticated outcomes.

Yet, President Buhari talks about his administration’s “agricultural revolution”, about “achieving economic diversification through agriculture”. But over six-and-a-half years in power, with barely 14 months to go, there’s absolutely no “revolution”, no “diversification”. Just to repeat: agricultural growth under Buhari’s administration is the weakest since 1999, despite huge investment!

But that hasn’t deterred Buhari’s fetishisation of agriculture. For instance, in his recent Channels TV interview, he kept saying that “only 2.5 per cent of Nigerian arable land is being used” and that “we have to go back to the land”. Yet, he admitted that his plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty had suffered a setback because of “resource shortage”. He listed activities like “clearing the land, dividing the land, giving seeds and fertilisers”, and then said “all these cost money”. Notwithstanding, he insists that to tackle poverty, “we have to go back to the land”!

If, in Buhari’s words, his much-trumpeted plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty through agriculture hit the buffers because of rudimentary agricultural problems, why then is he saying Nigerians must go back to the land? Well, the type of agriculture he has in mind is peasant agriculture, characterised by labour-intensive manual farming. But peasant farming won’t feed Nigeria’s burgeoning population, won’t grow its economy, and won’t generate export earnings. Only mechanised and commercial farming can achieve those outcomes.

Even so, Nigeria can’t put all its eggs in the agriculture basket. No country develops without robust manufacturing and services sectors, and a healthy inflow of foreign direct investment. Sadly, those are of little interest to Buhari. For him, it’s all about peasantry!

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