Opinion

Olusegun Adeniyi: Kebbi’s Rice and a Nation’s Tragedy

With the lush green of rice paddies on both the left and right Fadama planes as we drove in a Coaster bus from Birnin Kebbi first to Bunza and later to Suru and finally to Jega on Monday, Mr. Paul Eluhaiwe muttered to himself but loud enough for all of us in the bus to hear: “This country has no business with poverty”. It was a sentiment shared by all the Nigerian rice millers and Kebbi State officials who were travelling with Eluhaiwe, the Special Adviser on Development Finance to the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

At Bunza, our first port of call, I watched as the representatives of Stallion Group (owned by the Vaswanis), Olam International Limited (owned by a group of Indians), Umza Farms (owned by Alhaji Umar Abubakar), Ebony Agro Limited (owned by Mr. Charles Ugwu) and other rice producers/importers in Nigeria used a Grain Moisture Tester to ascertain the moisture content (and invariably the quality) of the rice paddy. Excellent, the miller who conducted the test exclaimed when it read 9.7. The result was the same at Suru where thousands of bags containing rice paddy were displayed on a long stretch of road.

After spending the whole of Monday, from morning till evening criss-crossing Kebbi towns, I left the state the next morning by road to Sokoto through Argungu and all I could see were hectares of green fields, a testimony not only to our huge agricultural potentials in Nigeria but also to the fact that we can easily put our young people to work if we are serious. That is why I am impressed by the direction that Senator Abubakar Atiku Bagudu wants to take Kebbi State as Governor.

Incidentally, I first met Governor Bagudu inside a London court about 15 years ago when I went to cover the Ajaokuta debt buy-back case, one of the numerous financial heists involving the late General Sani Abacha. Not only was Bagudu (a two-term senator until last month) a central figure in that ugly case, he has always been a recurrent name in the Abacha loot saga, despite his simple disposition. And for that reason, I have for years tried to avoid getting close to him, until the burial of Comrade Uche Chukwumerije brought us together in April/May this year.

It is amazing how the children of the late Chukwumerije drew up the membership of the burial committee chaired by Dr. Ben Obi but I have never experienced such commitment to a task as simple as a burial as the members displayed. For three weeks, we met almost every day in Chukwumerije’s house, with each session lasting between three to four hours but there was never a dull moment. At the end, enduring friendships have been built by people from different backgrounds and cultures, by virtue of Chukwumerije’s burial committee. That was where I started having discussions with Bagudu who shared with me his vision of repositioning Kebbi with an agricultural revolution.

Although he spoke on how educationally backward his state had become and the efforts being put in to revamp the sector, what drew my interest was his idea on empowerment which tallies with my own conviction that our young men must look beyond government jobs. Bagudu said if he could ensure that the farmers in his state were given a level-playing field by the federal authorities, he would take many of their young men off the streets by making agriculture attractive to them. I assured him that whenever he was ready with his plan, he could count on me. So, when I learnt last weekend that he would be meeting with the rice millers on Monday, I sent him a text message that I would want to be around.
By the time I arrived Birnin Kebbi on Monday morning, Bagudu was receiving the delegation of commercial rice millers from across the country as well as farmers and CBN officials. At the session, he explained his plan to put no fewer than 250,000 young people into rice farming as part of his efforts to use agriculture for job creation while boosting food production. “New rice farmland would be cleared and young farmers would be provided with funds, quality crops and extension services to boost production. We are also working on the strategies for the transportation of produce to the designated centres,” Bagudu said.

After the brief session, I joined the CBN officials and rice millers in the journey across the state though the “Big Boys” in the rice business, comprising mostly the Indians, would rather drive in their own SUVs. The idea of a tour of some rice production centres, according to Eluhaiwe, was necessitated by the need to assess quality and viability for the firms to process rice in large quantity. By the arrangement, as Eluhaiwe explained, the CBN will provide rice farmers and processors with loans to boost production, in addition to infrastructure as part of efforts to reduce poverty, unemployment and end importation. “The rice millers would inspect the moisture content, broken rice and empty cells to determine the quantity to purchase and process from the farmers; and the CBN would also facilitate the successful implementation,” Eluhaiwe said.

From morning till evening on Monday, I was with the rice millers and CBN officials as they met with farmers, traditional authorities in some of the towns and inspected warehouses where thousands of metric tonnes of rice paddies were stored. However, as we approached Jega (hometown of the former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega) around 4pm, someone beckoned in my direction before handing over to me his mobile phone. “Segun, please read that NAN alert,” he said as he shook his head: “We are not serious in this country.”

I read aloud the crisp news alert: “Federal Government has pegged one Dollar at N160 for 2015 pilgrims to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia, John-Kennedy Opara, the Executive Secretary of NCPC, says”.

The implication of that terse report was not lost on the Nigerian rice millers who began to regale me with tales of how waivers, concessions and such policy decisions in Abuja have helped to make nonsense of local entrepreneurship. With the Naira selling for 236 to a Dollar in the black market, what the Federal Government has done is to give an arbitrage of 76 Naira on a Dollar to religious entrepreneurs who can, and indeed most likely will, easily transfer such undue advantage to other merchants, including rice importers. Even as a layman, I am well aware that it is such fiscal indiscipline and penchant for throwing in policies that promote rent behavior that makes manufacturing, farming or any form of production very difficult to undertake in Nigeria.

That was the kernel of discussion in the bus among the rice millers as we arrived back in Birnin Kebbi at exactly 7pm on Monday. And the conclusion was simple: for the collaboration between the Kebbi State Government and the CBN, (aimed at producing 500,000 metric tonnes of Paddy Rice this year) to work, it would take purposeful leadership from Abuja. Unfortunately, there is no indication of that at the moment, essentially because President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to have any economic team thus lending himself to easy manipulations by all manner of vested interests.

From BLOOMBERG whose recent report on our country is titled “Nigeria (is) sliding without a functioning government?” to Tuesday’s intervention by the influential ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine on “Buhari’s (Nearly) Bare Cabinet”, there are worrying signals both at home and abroad that the President is not getting the needed advice for his avowed “Change” agenda. That may then explains decisions like pegging one Dollar at N160 for intending pilgrims with all the attendant implications for the economy.

However, shortly before I left his office on Tuesday morning on my way back to Abuja, Bagudu told me of his investment drive for the rice farming project. “The person I need most at this period is Governor (Akinwunmi) Ambode of Lagos State and very soon I will be going to Lagos to meet him. I want him to direct the Lagos State Investment Company to come and invest in rice mills in Kebbi. It is going to be a win-win situation once Governor Ambode buys into my vision. And then, I will also be holding discussions with members of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce. The biggest market for rice in Africa is Lagos so it would be good if I can get investors from the state to tap into the rice potentials in Kebbi. They will make money and our farmers will also profit and thrive,” said Bagudu.

Kebbi is also making serious efforts in wheat production and this can only help in reducing the N700 billion we spend annually to import a commodity we can easily produce. Yesterday, I spoke on phone with the Head of the Wheat Value Chain Team at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Oluwasina Gbenga Olabanji, who is also an executive director at the Lake Chad Research Institute in Maiduguri. He said he led a team that visited Kebbi last month and confirmed that they are working with the Kebbi Governor on large scale commercial wheat farming in the state.

The country’s demand for wheat, according to Olabanji, stands at four million metric tonnes and it is the mission of his team to support Nigerian farmers to massively produce wheat and reduce its import bill by half come 2017 with a buyback strategy for the farmers after harvest. That is what Bagudu is keying into for Kebbi State though for now, there seems to be greater emphasis on rice. The reason for that, according to Bagudu, is that rice is planted twice within a year though in between that period wheat is also planted, all on the same soil; so within a planting season, there usually are three harvests, two for rice and one for wheat.

But Bagudu is also looking at other money-making farm products like sugarcane on which his discussion with the Dangote Group seems to be having some “k-legs”. Alhaji Aliko Dangote wants to buy the land for sugarcane plantation in Kebbi State but that is not the way the governor is thinking. “I don’t want any investor to buy a farmland in our state because what we want to do is to create a Land Bank so as to protect our farmers for the future. Yes, the investors would have all the legal comforts required to do their businesses on the land but we do not want to give them any certificate of ownership.”

From fish farming on which discussions are on with some investors involved in preservation and packaging to cotton production so Kebbi could tap into the Niger Republic markets, Bagudu revealed during our discussion the vast potentials of our country in the area of agriculture. I also believe that he is on the right track regardless of the Abacha baggage he carries, which evidently does not matter in his state. In any case, Bagudu has a golden opportunity to make a good name for himself, at least among the people of his state.

However, the real work is in Abuja that must begin to get the message that the regime of oil and gas that has only created for a few people stupendous wealth while majority wallow in poverty is going. Taking advantage of the agricultural potentials of our country is therefore the correct path to follow if we must create jobs for our teeming population of young people as we cannot continue to waste scarce resources on things we can easily produce.

On Monday, I spent considerable time speaking with some of the local millers and they told me that rice paddy can be grown in virtually all parts of the country and that we can actually grow and process enough to meet our domestic needs and even export to other African countries. The challenge, however, is that while our country has been striving to grow capacity in paddy production and processing, we  need massive investments to compete with other countries in South East Asia that have been producing rice for decades with advanced infrastructure.

With their production efficiencies, low cost of production, better quality milled rice and other trade malpractices and gimmicks, these traditional rice suppliers from South East Asia (India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia etc) are able to erode our competitiveness, thereby forcing us to buy from them and in the process, abandon all our import-substitution strategies. But the main problem, I understand, has to do with the collaboration of our officials who encourage smuggling while also granting discretionary waivers.

The net effect of the foregoing is that the small holder rice farmers in Kebbi and the millers in Ebonyi cannot compete. Ideally, it would have been better to ban the import of rice but experience has shown that it would not work given the capacity of smugglers and the collusion of many of our customs men in the illicit trade. That is why I support the CBN measure but the Buhari administration must do more in the bid to protect our local rice farmers and millers. If we are serious, we can uplift our capacity and strengthen their competitiveness.

Indeed, the tragedy of our country is vividly painted by the scandalous sums of money we spend annually to import the most basic staple foods, including rice, fish, sugar and wheat. While available statistics may not be reliable, former Senate President, Senator David Mark, is on record as having said in May 2012 that Nigeria spends over N24.5 trillion on food importation per annum. And we are talking about a country where the total federal government budget for capital expenditure is usually less than N2 trillion per annum.

While delivering a goodwill message at the Nigerian Institute of Animal Science (NIAS) three years ago, Mark said: “Nigeria spends over N24.5 trillion on food importation per annum. Note, however, that this figure does not take into account food commodities, including animal produce that enter the nation illegally by the handiwork of smugglers who exploit our porous borders and existence of sharp practices at the entry points to flood”.

It is sad that in our country every government always begins by mouthing impressive development ideas yet almost always ends up as cronies of special interests and rent seekers. For instance, most people expected President Goodluck Jonathan to come up with the most innovative and development oriented policy initiatives in the oil and gas sector if only to help ‘his people’ but he ended up as no more than a hostage to the oil and gas special interest. We hope a similar thing will not happen to President Buhari with agriculture, the mainstay of his own ‘people’.

Anyone with elementary geography book knowledge of the Nigerian landscape would know that agriculture is the most viable alternative to an oil dependent economy. It will feed our multitude, employ most of our young people and thus quicken the end of Boko Haram and other death-wish militia. It will also feed processing industries and salvage many of our mismanaged and cash strapped states. The clear message is that we need to use agricultural investment to solve terrorism, create prosperity and bridge inequality, thus serving as a national security tool. But we still have a long way to go

Meanwhile, I believe that the Kebbi State Governor is right in his bid to seek the support of his Lagos State counterpart in the rice project. Purchasing power and investable capital reside mostly in the south while the land and natural resources which agriculture needs to thrive is more abundant in the north. That explains why Abuja should begin to get its economic policy position aligned with urgent national needs. But for that to happen, President Buhari must quickly assemble his team in order for government decisions to benefit from a pool of creativity and diversity of experience.

Atedo Peterside at 60

Mr. Atedo Peterside, who clocked 60 last Sunday, has had a remarkable career in banking spanning almost four decades, beginning from the NAL Merchant Bank which he joined at age 22, armed with a Masters Degree from the London School of Economics. In February1989 (at age 33), he established the Investment Banking & Trust Company Plc (IBTC)  following the liberalization of the banking sector by the General Ibrahim Babangida administration.
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Even when he was not considered one of the big players at the time, it was evident Mr Peterside was intent on creating a brand committed to cherished values with ethics and integrity as the watchword. It is therefore no surprise that he is today the Chairman of Stanbic IBTC, regarded as part of the largest banking group in Africa.

However, what initially endeared Mr. Peterside to members of my generation was not necessarily his accomplishment as a banker, but rather the principled stance he and a few others took following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Under the aegis of “Concerned Professionals”, they came out to challenge the military authorities at a time it was risky to take such public position.

Therefore, all factors considered, Mr. Peterside has earned his stripes as a genuine patriot. But with the prospects of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan (then the acting president) becoming the President of Nigeria early in 2010, following the protracted illness of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (of blessed memory), the respected banker succumbed to Ijaw “parapoism” (ethnic solidarity). For apparently no reason other than identity politics, I doubt if anybody invested as much time, intellect and personal resources in the Jonathan presidency as Mr. Peterside did (from 2010 to 2015) and that was the origin of the problem he had with me.

In my column, http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/their-son-our-president/107435/, published on this page on 19th January 2012, I narrated how Mr. Peterside sent me a very libelous SMS in May 2010, as I warned on the implications of what was becoming Ijaw triumphalism at the time. While I still believe that I had a right to be angry regarding the content of the text message in question, especially since Mr. Peterside admitted at the time that he copied it to a few other persons, I have since come to the conclusion that I was wrong to have responded in such a vengeful manner in my piece.

Whatever may have been my personal misgivings about how he treated me, the fact remains that there is much more to the Stanbic IBTC Chairman than one hurtful text message. I therefore apologise to Mr. Peterside, as I wish him all the best at 60 and beyond.

 

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The Verdict Written By Olusegun Adeniyi and Culled from Thisday; [email protected]

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