Of Hunger and Famine

(Vanguard of Sunday, June 10, 2001)

Let me share with you what I wrote in 1987 when people seemed to be wanting to import food into the country as a stop gap for shortages. I said, “The only choice we have on the food question is to grow our own food, utilizing all the resources we have… No country owes us a living. We on our part do not owe any country a living. This stance is consistent with our belief that we should have permanent interests, not permanent friends or permanent enemies.

The well-being of the Nigerian, wherever he may be, should be the national objective and the destination of governance. Any other considerations must be brushed aside in this bid to make Nigeria grow and create the soil for the Nigerian as a seed to grow in, progress in, mature in, and contribute consciously to the further development of his country and its people. We do not believe that Nigeria can grow if it depends on importing food from outside”.

“You may not know it but the very policy of importing food was the greatest threat to our Operation Feed the Nation Programme of General Obasanjo and the Green Revolution food programme of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Looking at the food bill since 1981, we will discover that we spent almost nine billion American dollars sustaining farmers abroad to grow food for our undisciplined national palate…

How can a nation wanting to take off go on a wild eating spree, spending N40 billion (then $60 billion) of the country’s hard-earned money to feed less than 15,000 of the 97,000 communities? We should find out what each ecological zone offers, maximize its use and hope that in the next few years we would look at past indiscretions in the food area as one more lesson in our learning process…

Nigeria can no longer afford to have leaders who take advantage of the gullibility of our people to spend all their time in a factory where only lies are manufactured, where the raw materials for  this most soothing opium of the emotions are glamour, songs of praise work not done, and attributions of greatness where only pitiable mediocrity and short-sightedness reign. In this year 1988 (that was the year this was written) Nigerians have no choice, REPEAT no choice, but to programme for change and growth so that at the time of harvest, we would have crops reflective of change and growth. Is it no longer true that only what you sow you shall reap?”

As I have said, all the above was written in 1988 (see The Food Question 1 & 2, Letters to my Countrymen) when Nigerians were wanting food imported into a country where more than 75 per cent of the land was fertile for farming. I detailed what we would need by 1992 if we would not be yelling for food.

And I said we would need to achieve defined levels of production of maize, millet, sorghum, rice, wheat, groundnut, cowpea, soya bean, cassava, sweet potato, Irish potato, yam, plantain, melon, other oilseeds, leafy vegetables, tomato, onion, okra, pepper, carrots, citrus, pineapple, banana, mango, pawpaw, other fruits, sugar cane and others. These many crops constitute staples in different parts of the country and could be produced in enough quantity for local use, in industry and for export.

I pleaded that using 1987 as the base year, we needed to grow certain irreducible amounts of crops if we would not starve by 1992. Since Gari has been synonymous with food in Nigeria, I indicated how much cassava we had to grow if we were not going to be in trouble.

In 1987, we produced 11.6 million tonnes of cassava. To avert danger in that sector, we needed to have grown 12.4 million tonnes in 1988; 13.2 million tonnes in 1989; 14.1 million tonnes in 1990; 15.1 million tonnes in 1991; and 16.1 million tonnes in 1992. This year, we ought to have produced at least 26 million tonnes of cassava, but have we?

I even gave details of what we needed in livestock. We would need 25 million goats in 1992, 9 million of them for slaughter, 9 million sheep, 4 million for slaughter; 105 million chickens for poultry meat; 10 billion eggs, and 10 million grass cutters and other equivalent varieties of bust meat. It meant that we did not have to depend on traditional hunting to have grass cutters. We had to have grass cutter farms just as we have had to have fish farms.

I do not know how many of us know that in the 80’s, more that 200 million people depended on cassava as a staple food, but that cassava was being endangered. I said so in 1988. The fact is that since 1972 a disease devastating cassava had crept into Africa and was doing its worst to destroy this life-sustaining food for many.

I said that the disease had spread far and wide and that it was no longer a threat to only one country. It had become a continental menace. I do not know what has been happening but if we woke up one morning and discovered that our staple was nowhere near the table of the hungry lowly worker, then we did not do what we had to do more than 12 years ago when we were warned.

Not only did we not meet the levels of production of food we would have worked for if we had grown more crops, we did not even exceed that level at which the danger signals were given.

I will continue to say that no country owes us a living. The National Supply Company which was set up in the early 70’s to meet shortfalls in food production while we refocused for agricultural revival successfully undermined and survived the food programmes of four administrations – Gowon, Murtala Muhammad/Obasanjo, Shagari and Buhari.  It was in Babangida’s time, when it made more money than it had ever done, that it was wound up, even when many were crying and protesting. We just had to start something going in growing our own food.

Instead of pursuing a policy of eating what we grow and growing what we eat, as Ghana was doing, we have opted for enriching paddy rice farmers in Thailand and other places. When are we going to be worthy to be seen as serious people?

The greatest disservice the President can do to this country is to encourage any form of importation of food, be it gari or beans. There is enough land to grow whatever food we need in this country, and if we are not willing to grow such food, then we have opted for hunger and should face the consequences.

Government has its role to play to ensure that the environment for growing our food is assured. The role of the Ministries of Agriculture countrywide has never been anything to write home about. They are drain pipes that channel our scare resources into private pockets. If they are to lead in the recovery programme of feeding our people, then we should see ourselves as having been sentenced to another lap of hunger and famine.

(Published in Vol. 1 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 237 – 240; Lagos, 2007).

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