In spite of everything going on in this country, I still believe we live in interesting and important times. For us under-30s, the rhetoric of revolution and transformation is the essence of our youth. But many times I wonder how our parents felt in their day. How did they feel on the eve of Independence when Nigeria was finally wresting itself from British rule? How did they feel when state-led industrialisation became the order of the day in the ‘60s and the understanding was that in no time, Nigeria would assume its place of glory with the industrialised Western powers? How did they feel when the Shagari government announced the Green Revolution programme in 1979? They must have imagined that the woes of the past were finally coming to an end. And they must have pictured the whole world coming to eat from Nigeria’s basket. And perhaps, they, too, strongly believed that they lived in interesting and important times.
In the past two months, I have analysed – even if only cursorily – the National Accelerated Food Production Programme and the Operation Feed the Nation, schemes set up by governments past with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency in agriculture. Contrary to these aims, however, Nigeria found itself with a huge import bill by the time the Shagari government assumed power in 1979. It would thus not be incorrect to say that in spite, and perhaps partly because of these programmes, the agricultural situation had gone from bad to worse.
At this point, we now had a growing population on our hands, with the promise of industrialisation taking long to materialise and unemployment proliferating in its stead. It was for this reason that the Green Revolution was not solely focused on food output (as its predecessors had been) but rather encompassed a more holistic agenda. Indeed, the GR was about the birth and growth of industry and infrastructure catapulted by the machine of agriculture. The timeframe was seven years at the end of which Nigeria was to become not only self-sufficient in food production but also the hub of agro-based/agro-allied industries connected to markets and people through feeder roads and bringing wealth in the form of potable water, electricity, and health, educational infrastructure in the rural areas. Ultimately, Nigeria was to own the entire value chain by becoming a net importer of primary crops and finished products, ushering in a true revolution.
In principle, this was an excellent plan, and just as in line with the forward-thinking development rhetoric then as it is now. What could be more sustainable than mechanised and industrial agriculture that was embedded in infrastructural development and services for the rural and urban areas? Driving this agenda was the National Council on the Green Revolution. In crafting its policies, it seemed the council really thought of everything. They had even devised measures to include the private sector, particularly in animal husbandry and arable crop farming, because they believed that the best way to spur growth was through business. Many of these measures were also informed by a World Bank study, which predicted that by 1985, Nigeria was going to face a 5.3 million deficit of tonnes of grain and an even more dismal fate in the area of livestock and fisheries. The conclusion and resulting recommendation was that about $2.5 billion and a growth rate of 6.6 percent would forestall this disaster.
In 1980, implementation began in full swing, with an initial short-term budget of N18.3 million from which 200 tractors were to be bought and distributed for hire; unused arable land was to be cleared; fishing trawlers were to be made available to fishermen cooperatives; and 500 tonnes of improved rice and maize varieties and inputs, 500,000 tonnes of fertilisers, and drugs and vaccines to combat animal diseases were to be purchased and distributed across the 19 states.
Unlike other schemes which suffered from a lack of continuity and sometimes a dearth of institutional foundations for government projects, this programme would build on some institutional foundations of the past including research institutions, the agro-service centres and other bureaucracies concerned with food production and agricultural extension. While the extent to which the coordination issues of the past were resolved is not known, the fact that policy attempted to string together all these parts of the agricultural machinery was a plus for the project. Furthermore, the grains boards were reorganised to enable them cope with the increasing challenges of production, packaging and sale, a Ministry of Water Resources was set up to handle the project of water conservation, and a Ministry of Science and Technology was established as an umbrella body for research institutes and a conduit through which cutting-edge information would reach and be adopted by the agricultural field. In the area of finance, the National Council on the Green Revolution had devised various incentives: commercial farmers were to receive loans through the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme. They were also to enjoy free import duties on purchased farm machinery and tax relief on income and a risk-mitigating investment allowance of 10 percent.
Among the 11 river basin development projects, some of which embarked on important animal husbandry and inland fisheries schemes, were the Ogun-Osun River Basin Development Authority and the Anambra-Imo River Basin Development Authority, which were primarily concerned with the production of rice and maize; the Chad River Basin Development Authority for rice, sorghum, maize and cowpeas; the Cross River Basin Development Authority to produce yams, rice, cassava, vegetables and fruits; the Niger Basin and Niger Delta Basin Development Authorities which were primarily concerned with large-scale rice production buttressed by several irrigation projects; and the Sokoto River Basin Development Authority which focused on cowpea, rice, wheat, tomato, and millet production. In addition, housing units, drug control centres, laboratories, polytechnics and secondary schools were also set up to promote integrated national development.
At this point, one might be confused, puzzled, wondering deeply, “If all these happened, then why didn’t the revolution come about?” One important reason was the language and power of corruption, which had already become ubiquitous under the Second Republic. Military officers and other well-connected people used their connections to secure large plots of land as well as enjoy the financial incentives offered to commercial farmers. Some of these people had no real interest in agribusiness and therefore, in spite of their access to capital, inputs, and land, could not play any useful part in an agro-economic revolution. It would be surmised that this same corruption undermined the outcomes at the institutional level as happened with the NAFPP and OFN. In addition, many businessmen joined the bandwagon just to secure their access to land, which would be used to acquire further loans for other purposes. However, where agribusiness was the primary motivation, it was reported that the richer commercial farmers enjoyed the tax breaks and other incentives whereas their smallholder counterparts had a harder time securing these reliefs because these incentives were primarily meant to reward large-scale production.
In the early 1980s, one Adeyemo, a professor at the University of Ife, wrote: “Unfortunately, in the area of fish production, not much has been done to increase production. We are still importing fish into the country so as to supplement the fish we produce in Nigeria and if this situation continues, we do not expect the Green Revolution programme to perform miracles by 1985. There is now the need for promoting and organising new fishermen cooperative societies. The need arises because fishermen have been constrained by funds to buy equipment needed for fishing. The small-scale fishermen cannot secure boats, nets and outboard engines which are beyond their means. Also, [there is a] lack of capital for processing facilities for preserving fish, transport facilities for product evacuation and establishment of a marketing network. [There is also widespread ignorance] among fishermen … that the noise of the engine would drive away fish.”
However, there was no need to perform miracles in 1985 as the scheme suffered an untimely death in 1983 when Shagari’s authority was usurped by military intervention. It has nevertheless left us with very important takeaways: that good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainable development; that corruption, if not nipped in the bud, will remain a cankerworm gradually eating at the fabric of society until it loses its soul; that periodic evaluations and regrouping must always be done to make policy more effective; that the road we are currently travelling has been travelled before and a more in-depth knowledge of our history and shortcomings is non-negotiable and will light our way in the future; and that the task ahead remains enormous but ultimately not insurmountable.