Driving to work this morning I was thinking about the looming famine. According to the government, there will be famine in Nigeria by January 2017, “if something drastic is not done”. Being an official communication straight from the horse’s mouth (the Presidential Spokesman), perhaps we should take the statement seriously. Our people say that a war foretold never catches a wise cripple unawares. For if indeed the FAMINE happens, there will be no excuse for anyone to express surprise. If the famine happens, all we will see are more expensive – almost astronomical – food prices, and simple unavailability. It is better imagined. It has happened elsewhere – especially in Africa – and it did happen in the 1980s in Nigeria. I remember. Famine, and drought. Niger – to our north – is presently witnessing a drought. Maybe the same thing is coming down south. Inflation is already at 18.3%, driven by food prices.
With such a communication from the presidency, are we not to hit panic mode? Who is meant to do ‘something drastic’ to avoid this famine? Is it the people? The government has mandated the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that excess grains are bought up and stored in strategic reserves. I would rather they just did their work as a matter of routine. The people don’t have to know. The work of government is to have a finger – in fact all fingers and toes – on the pulse of the country; to know what is available and what is not, to project into the future and know what will be scarce and what will be surplus. For if we all it the market now – assuming we even have the money – and start buying up stuff in a frenzy, prices will be driven up and chancers will make a kill. I note though that for MOST Nigerians (especially the millions that are owed by state governments and the private sector for upwards of 6 months or one year), there is even no money to buy anything and keep. If famine happens, these ones are sitting ducks; easy preys… totally helpless.
It must be noted that Nigeria had a good harvest this year. The rains stopped barely 2 weeks ago. So naturally we had a good run. We have always been a country that depends on nature for its food sufficiency. No rains, no food. The immediate past Minister for Agriculture – that debonair fellow – emphasised the idea of ‘dry season farming’. I don’t know if it caught on. The reason why the poorest people in the world are also farmers (from Africa to Asia, to the Andes and Amazon jungles of South America), is because most of them are active when the weather favours them, and curl up and hibernate when it is not; waiting for the next rainy season. For most of them, the proceeds of months of hard labour when the season is clement, is not nearly enough to tide over a couple of months… after which they become beggars.
The Agricultural renaissance that Africa – and especially Nigeria – seeks, is driven by the mega players. Powered by biotechnology, brought to reality by hardcore science, robotisation and computerisation. It therefore flies over the peasant farmer – and by extension most of our population. It favours the global players. The local farmers will just as soon be displaced… chased off their lands for big corporations to farm ‘properly’. Some believe this is how it’s meant to be, and perhaps it is. But I have studied a bit about the American system at least – I am in the middle of viewing Simon Schama’s documentary “The American Future” – and I saw the way they irrigated farmlands for the common American farmer in the midwest, and elsewhere, and how that solid system of support still exist till date. The American farmer has not been displaced by corporations – least of all foreign corporations. He will never be. He and his children will constitute the richest segment of Americans as against what obtains elsewhere.
Aside from this problem of an unstoppable displacement of local farmer, and the attendant unemployment – and higher levels of poverty (we must note the role of technology still, as tractors/harvesters etc now do most of the work at large farms), we must go back to the reason government adduced for this looming famine. They said that though we have had a great harvest this year, over 500 trucks of grains leave the country for other countries every day, especially through borders in the north of Nigeria; the zone where we have the highest levels of poverty according to the statistics bureau. I mean food poverty. It is still a wonder, that the richest zone of Nigeria in terms of Agriculture, is also the worst in terms of grinding poverty. What went wrong? Or are the statistics wrong? Maybe it’s culture? But when people see millions of young children move around bowl in hand under the Almajirai system, it is difficult not to conclude that indeed, the north is painfully poor.
So the problem is that the big players – as well as middle men who buy agriculture produce on the cheap from small time farmers – are exporting en masse. And there is no control as to how much they could take out. In fact, the word ‘control’ now sounds like anathema to us these days. Not even subtle control is allowed. However, if we are not controlling the outflow of food in the country – in the name of modernity, globalisation and ‘sophisticated’ economics – we should ask “is our government COMPETING furiously on behalf of the Nigerian people to ensure we don’t actually wake up one day and start to really suffer in fulfilment of this terrible projection from the government itself, while a few of our global agricultural companies and their lucky value-chain collaborators are swimming in billions of dollars? Or is government admitting that it is losing the war of clawing back some of our food to remain in Nigeria rather than the mad chase for the Almighty dollar?
Again, this is an instance where sophisticated economics can fail a people rather dismally and lead to total bedlam. We are the ones who said all that matters is for our people to export and bring dollars because we have a ‘dollar problem’ and we need to increase our foreign reserves plus have enough for our imports. We ignored the bigger ‘people problem’ instead. Every Nigerian is now wired to think in terms of dollars, and we are looking for the greenback with every fibre of our being.
Anyway, these were the thoughts in my head until we ran into fierce-looking gun-toting men of the SARS -Special Anti-Robbery Squad on my short trip to the office this morning. For the first time since I arrived Abuja in 2001, they ordered my driver to ‘park well’ and proceeded to check chassis number, engine number, and whatever the hell else they were looking for. Seriously, this never happens in Abuja and I usually associate these guys with even more crime. I couldn’t help but hope we are not regressing on every indices, and that indeed, this famine may come in January as predicted as an icing on a bitter cake already. To add to the drama, after I left the office at about 7pm yesterday, my remaining staff saw that a corpse was dumped across the road from our office block. They called FRSC who came and removed the naked man, who had by then been run over by cars, his brain matter spilling out of his skull. Some people probably threw the body out of a moving vehicle. There were bruises on his body from the picture my guys sent to me. Who knows whose son or father he is, or which deal he got into or who he offended?
Please let us be extremely careful this December. I can only imagine how so ‘not funny’ the country will be if indeed famine arrives. Let us join hands with government to ensure that we do the needful to avert it. Every idea on the table please. Thank you.