The new buzz word now in Nigeria is agriculture. There is something close to mass hysteria surrounding agriculture among our countrymen now. Everyone is talking about it. The recent oil shocks have forced Nigeria to once again begin a search for an alternative to oil. As usual, the lot fell on agriculture and everyone has been busy promoting one idea or another in that field. To show his zeal for agriculture, a governor in the South east has to cut the working days in the civil service to 3 days in a week.Workers are permitted to stay out of office work on Thursdays and Fridays, in order to practice agriculture. But this is not the first time we preached diversification. Remember Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation (1977) and the Green Revolution of Shehu Shagari (1980). Very powerful mantras and buzz words that rent the air but moved no mountains.
The Nigerian Economic Society (NES) is 59 this year; just one year short of the official retirement age in Nigeria. It also caught the bug of agriculture. At 59, every Nigerian worker is expected to ready himself for inevitable retirement, so as to make way for the younger generation of public servants to also serve their fatherland. This makes the number 59 somewhat scary, if not nightmarish; in a certain sense, for all public servants in Nigeria. In fact, for some not-so-obvious reasons, workers in the public sector in Nigeria are afraid to retire from their jobs.
Clearly, the civil service is no longer as protective of the worker as it used to be. Gone are the days when house officers – young medical school graduates in the final stages of their professional training – were automatically provided with finance to acquire private cars for their use, and senior civil servants were also given cars and official quarters. At that time, public servants earned enough to maintain a healthy standard of living, and to even make some savings. That is no longer the case today. This drastic change in the socio-economic state of workers and their families has led many, especially those in the civil service, to take measures, ethical and otherwise, to prolong their stay in the service, including amending their ages. Sometimes, this amendment comes by way of outright falsification of existing personal records, in order to continue to be in the service. At 59, they begin to feel jittery as they tidy up and prepare to go home.
For starters, the high rate of inflation has overtaken the growth rate of family earnings, and their savings have become negative. They used to earn enough to maintain a certain level of living, which was relatively reasonable, even across continental space. Currently, it is no longer so. Many years of disastrous socio-economic policy design and application has produced an economy that is at best stagnant and at worst substantially shrunken. Years of outstanding economic growth in the region of ten per cent, over a considerable length of time, has not changed much, having been neutralized by a ravaging population growth, poor policy choices and pathological and compulsive corruption. Although the country’s main export earner, oil, has witnessed a few price glitches, and output has once in a while fallen below projections, there has been reasonable stability in the oil market to absolve it of the blame for our present economic pass.
At the 2018 annual conference of the society, which had the theme “optimizing agricultural value chain” I had taken advantage of my role as Chairman of one of the break-out sessions to remind the society that if it were a person in Nigerian public service, it would have been busy winding down its activities in preparation for retirement as it clocks 60 in 2019.
But the NES is not a human person or Nigerian worker, and so has nothing to fear about age 59 except one thing – perhaps atrophy; from underutilization. I had suggested that the society faced two options – either to renew itself or retire like its human counterparts, when it clocks 60 in 2019. The NES, in my view should be in a position to remind Nigeria that we have travelled this road of agriculture mantra before. They ought rather to focus on finding out what we are doing differently this time around. Truly, the current popular talk about agriculture is exactly what it is: talk. I do not believe we can achieve food security through this peasant agriculture we are promoting by asking civil servants, most of whom are landless, to become emergency farmers. We cannot achieve food security when state governors have made it a point of duty to acquire the best pieces of land in their states for the private use of themselves and their families. Without amending the Land Use Act to give the land back to the people who own it, we motion in vain.
The NES would need to be more aggressively engaged in the issues of economic management in the country. Incidentally, the 2018 conference theme, which was woven around agriculture, echoes the current mantra of government – focus on agriculture – optimizing value chain in the agricultural sector. Although some criticised the conference theme as not being sharp enough or not speaking to the Nigerian condition of the moment, valuable issues were raised and discussed around agricultural value chain. However, there were those who believe that the problem is not whether we maximize or optimize the value chain in agriculture but how to improve productivity and increase commercial agriculture. To them, the problem of agriculture in Nigeria begins with the land tenure system, which has been compounded by the Land Use Act. Truly, we need to find the value chain in Nigerian agriculture before we can optimize it. A country that neither has capacity to process raw produce nor to extend it to manufactures, has no agricultural value chain. Government has the resources to acquire any amount of land it needs for public use. To insist on Governor’s consent and use it to deprive citizens of the freedom to use their land for commercial transaction is a disservice. The truth is that many governors are busy assigning the best pieces of land to themselves and their families to bother about the citizens and their needs. In fact, the Land Use Act inhibits commercial agriculture in so many ways. We cannot be talking about value chain when productivity and value addition are very low.