FEMI IBIROGBA writes that 58 years after Nigeria became politically independent, the country is still shackled in food insecurity, as evident in annual food import bills.
Nigerians from all walks of life have bemoaned perpetual inability of the country to sustainably feed itself, leading to mass importation of foods apart from the smuggled ones through the land borders.
In 1901, Nigeria officially became a part of the huge British Empire.
In May 1906, Lagos colony and the southern protectorate were joined together and had a different name, the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria.
In the same atmosphere, Lord Fredrick Lugard in 1914 amalgamated the Lagos colony and Southern Nigeria with Northern protectorate to form a single colony called protectorate of Nigeria.
It was reported that the wife of Lugard formed the name Nigeria from the River Niger that flowed through the country.
Nigeria, setting ethnic affiliations and religions apart, united to fight for the independence of the country.
Each region was granted self-governance and then, all together gained freedom on October 1, 1960.
The irony of food independence in the colonial era
Ironically, despite being governed by a repressive colonial master, the country was self-sufficient in food production, exporting not only food but also raw materials to England.
The establishment of the Department of Botanical Research in 1893; the acquisition of over 10 square kilometers at Moor Plantation in Ibadan for cotton production in 1905; the establishment of the Department of Agriculture in the North in 1912 and the establishment of Central department of Agriculture after the Amalgamation of 1914 put Nigeria on a steady path to agricultural development.
Though the main objective of Britain was to increase production of raw materials for its agro-allied industries, the establishment and effective management of these departments increased production of food crops like rice, groundnuts, maize, beans and tomato.
Nigeria did not have a reason to massively import foods as it does now, rather it was exporting.
Jennifer Cooke, Senior Associate in the Office of the President, the United States of America (USA), leading research and analysis on political, economic, and security dynamics in Africa, has the following to say on Nigeria’s food production before independence.
“During its first decade of independence, Nigeria was one of the world’s most promising agricultural producers.
Regionally focused policies based on the economic principle of commodity comparative advantage ensured that the agricultural sector served as the nation’s main source of food and livelihoods.
Nigeria was not only agriculturally self-sufficient and food secure, but it thrived in global markets as the world’s largest producer of groundnuts and palm oil and as a significant producer of cotton and cocoa.”
She bewailed that agriculture was the nation’s main source of employment and income, adding, “In 1965, the agricultural sector employed over 70 per cent of the labour force.
Export cash crops were responsible for 62.2 per cent of the young nation’s foreign exchange and 66.4 percent of its GDP.”
The tragedy of food dependence after the political freedom
Many Nigerians, including a former Minister of Agriculture, Dr Adesina Akinwumi, and his successor, Chief Audu Ogbeh, have lamented the rising food import bills of the country, depleting foreign reserves and exporting jobs meant for Nigerians in the process.
A conservative estimate puts the food import bills since 2008 at over $110 billion, excluding the un-captured rice, poultry products, vegetable oil, canned foods, fruits and other food items that are smuggled through the porous borders.
Dr Adesina told Nigerians that $11 billion was spent importing food each year, and that Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) was meant to reverse the situation.
However, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Green Sahara Revolution, Suleiman Dikwa, has said the food import bill is over $22 billion as of now.
“Agriculture is eight times the value of oil, so we have an internship and mentorship programme that let the young people know Nigeria’s import bill is $22 billion.”
Professor Kolawole Adebayo, Regional Coordinator of Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA), and lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), said Nigeria’s land area is 923,768km2 with an agro-ecological spread from the Atlantic Ocean and the mangroves in the south, through the rainforest belt and wide expanse of savanna land to the fringes of the Sahara Desert in the north.
He added that very few countries in the world could boast of such diversity of agro-ecologies, and many of those countries did take advantage of the diversity to build a strong food base for their population, a key start-off environment for industries to thrive, a major export base for earning foreign exchange necessary for its trade with other nations and strong employment hub for its population.
On the way forward, Adebayo said food security and the reversal of the trend of food importation is a technically simple matter, suggesting that the inputs required todo it could be obtained with relative ease, and that the knowledge to achieve it is readily available.
The National President of the Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN), Rotimi Oloye, also said, also said the only difference between then and now is leadership.
To get the bearing back, Oloye suggested that “we need a lot of reorientation and self-discipline.
Give value to our farm produce and make farming attractive in all forms.”
He postulated that making farming in schools and colleges a must could be a good strategy to change the orientation of Nigerians towards farming.
“We should create community farming settlements, and provide incentives to farmers.
The government should position itself with ability to buy back farm products,” the catfish association president said.
Chief Executive Officer/Country Manager of Dizengoff Nigeria, Mr Antti Ritvonen, pitching his views with Adebayo’s, said there is a huge potential in the Nigerian agriculture, “but we have a lot of work to be done.
“I very much believe that Nigeria can return to its glory of being a leading country in Africa in term of food production before independence.
And I don’t see why that cannot happen again.
Although there is a lot of work to be done to get there, it is very much possible but there huge potential in the Nigerian agriculture,” the Dizengoff boss said.
To increase productivity, Ritvonen suggested, “We need to use more of modern methods and do away with old ones.
We need to start with mechanisation, and education of farmers is very important so that they can know how to use modern methods.”