As global oil prices continue to fall sharply over the past eighteen months, Nigerians, for an economy that is largely dependent on oil needs not be told that tough times beckons. Thus we must recognize the urgency and severity of the matter. As a matter of fact, all efforts must be geared and directed towards the ‘rejected stone’ which must now become the chief corner stone as a means to set the nation’s economy on a path of rebirth and recovery.
Setting the nation’s economy on the path of rebirth and recovery requires a complete shift of attention back to the Agricultural sector as the only way out of this conundrum. Fortunately, the new Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Chief Audu Ogbeh well understood the precarious situation and the need to fix things in an accelerated manner.
While receiving the ministry’s official who received him, Chief Ogbeh rightly acknowledged the devastating blow the dwindling oil revenue has dealt on the economy and the shift of focus to the Agricultural sector as the only bail out for the economy. In his words “Oil and gas served Nigerians well. We did not manage the resources well. We can’t blame oil and gas. Now the pressure is on Agriculture. How we are going to make it work to ensure yield and harvest is a burden all of us will carry together. We are going to face serious challenges. We have to earn foreign exchange to replace oil. The demand out there is very high, if we produce the right quantity and quality.” It is good that the man have a good understanding of his job. However, as we embark on this collective burden-sharing tasks and navigate the serious challenges ahead, government must be reminded that we are in this situation in the first place, due in part to its complacency, utter neglect and disdain for the Agricultural sector.
Navigating these roads thus should begin a journey to revisit the pre-oil boom years. In the 1960’s, the agricultural sector was the most important one in terms of its contribution to Domestic Production, employment and Foreign Exchange earnings. During the oil boom decade of the 1970’s the sector remained largely stagnated and this accounts largely for the declining share of its contribution these days. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the trend in the share of the agricultural sector in Gross Domestic Product shows a substantial variations and long-term decline forms 60 percent in the early 1960’s through 48.8 percent in the 1970’s and 22.2 percent in the 1980’s. Revisiting the past would allow us glean some valuable information into what worked and under what circumstances would these critical success factors did or did not. These facts would come handy in planning with the appropriate data. We need short, medium and long-term development goals for each and every sector of the economy. As a nation, we need to sit down and determine what kind of economy we want to build. Whatever happened to the visions 20:10, 20:20 and the rest of them?
In the 1990’s, 82 millimetre of hectares out of Nigeria’s total land areas of about 91 millimetre of hectares were found to be arable. 42 percent of the cultivable area was farmed. In 2001, the agricultural sector contributed 32 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. On its diversity, the sector features tree and food crops, forestry, livestock and fisheries. Major crops includes: Beans, Sesame, Cashew Nuts, Cassava, Cocoa Beans, Ground nuts, Gum Arable, Kola nut, Maize, Melon, Millet, Palm Kernel, Palm Oil, Plantain, Rice, Rubber, Sorghum, Soya beans and Yams. Cocoa, the leading non-oil foreign exchange earner is now been held back by the dominance of small holders and lack of farm labour due to urbanization. For Example, in 1999, Nigeria produced 145,000 tons of Cocoa beans but has the potential for over 300,000 per year. What a waste of resources!
In all fairness, the nation had some sort of long term development aims but has virtually no short and medium term goals. There is sharp disconnect between goals and means to achieving them. There exists no direction for the implementation of the plan(s) and as such, they die a very natural death. In essence, it is expedient for the President Muhammadu Buhari government to break away from this culture of cluelessness that has thus far become the order of the day. It requires intentional intention for all intents and purposes. For talk is cheap, it will be meaningless for as long as we are not ready to work the talk. We must move away from the era of planlessness to that of planning and working out the plans vigorously.
The enthronement of a culture of rigorous planning should, of course, be followed by the provision of the necessary critical infrastructures such as good roads and railway systems, rural electrification, communication systems and the right technology to support the agricultural transformation agenda. Agricultural and manufacturing will never the centre stage when these critical infrastructures are lacking. The government should foster an environment that would pave way for to a competitive, diversified and self-reliant economy. Such an economy must have agriculture as its main thrust. There is a need to revise the Land-Use Act to enable easier access to land for agricultural purposes.
Government needs to monitor and regulate price for food crops in order to stabilize prices. Existing irrigation facilities requires a total revamp and expansion. To truly return to the Agricultural days, government must as a matter of necessity put in place incentives to engage and capture the interest of the teeming unemployed youths to seeing farming as a lucrative and highly rewarding business. To promote domestic production, there is a need to increase tariffs or place outright ban on any commodity that Nigeria can produce (Rice, Sugar, Starch, Wheat etc). This of course, should be followed closely by Zero tariffs (Customs, Excise and Value added) for the importation of agricultural equipment and agro-processing equipments.
Again, there is a need for the development of Agricultural Business Entrepreneurship and Farm-Skills acquisition centres and the transformation of the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria to a National Agricultural Transformation Agency, just like EMPRAPA did in Brazil. Government must also look at the issue of Agricultural Subsidy and tax holidays for investors in the agricultural sector seriously. Therefore, the bulk of the work lies in the hands of the government and the would-be entrepreneurs to take advantage of the enormous benefits inherent in the agricultural sector.
To be sure, the shift of attention from the oil sector to the agricultural sector would amongst other things bring about a shift on a monoculture economy, diversifying from over-reliance on Crude-oil, especially at a time, when we do not seem to have a choice in the matter as oil price continues to plummet and already is taking a toll on the economy, provision of food and raw materials through the development of agriculture to the teeming population and the development of the manufacturing sector, discourages heavy dependence on importation. The agricultural sector is capable, and very well too, to attack the rising youth unemployment in the country, considering that the sector is highly capital-intensive. When there are jobs in the rural areas, rural-urban migration, thus, becomes a thing of the past. Again, the shift of focus would in itself help to develop the degrading infrastructural facilities throughout the nation in an attempt to ease movement of goods and agricultural produce.
Above all, seeing agriculture as the only veritable way of providing the much needed boost for the Nigerian economy will help the President Muhammadu Buhari government to fulfil its promise of tackling poverty in the land; for it will attract direct investment and drastically help reduce government reliance on Crude oil and help strengthen the Naira against Dollar through a favourable balance of payments. Boosting Nigeria economy through agriculture, of course, requires a national re-orientation and mass education on the benefits of embracing Agriculture as the only way out.
The Nigerian economy is blessed with series of natural resources, yet we suffer in the midst of plenty. The Buhari administration must be told and made to understand that the only way out of this mess is to return to the land.