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We aim to achieve food security at Michael Okpara University – Nto

We aim to achieve food security at Michael Okpara University – Nto

Phillips Nto was one-time commissioner for Finance and Economic Planning in Abia State; a World Bank Consultant and the immediate past Provost of Abia State College of Education (Technical) and now, the Director, Agribusiness Incubation Centre, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike. In this interview with Udoka Agwu in Umuahia, he spoke on how the Centre will assist in reducing unemployment; enhance food security and other burning national issues. Excerpts:

As the new director of Agribusiness Incubation Centre, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, what are your plans towards achieving the core mandate of the centre?

I have by the grace of God occupied positions of responsibility in the past at various government organisations and agencies, but being Director of Agribusiness Incubation Centre aroused my enthusiasm more than the previous ones. The position, which is courtesy of the dynamic and visionary Vice Chancellor of MOUAU, Prof Maduebibisi Ofo Iwe, came at a very auspicious and critical moment of our national history. It came at a period when the country was facing serious economic challenges such as food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty. The position came when food inflation was at an alarming rate of over 38 percent, youth unemployment at about 53 percent, and poverty rate at about 40 percent. The Agribusiness Incubation Centre which is an establishment of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security under the Renewed Hope Agenda of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is the game changer. Coming to your question, the centre has as its core mandate to reverse this ugly trend. I want as the Director to achieve food security through more youth engagements in agribusiness. When more youths and women are engaged in agriculture and agribusiness, unemployment and poverty will reduce. As a centre which provides hub for agribusiness training and capacity building, it will help youths and women to acquire skills in modern agribusiness value chain and entrepreneurship. Our people do not tap from extensive value chains that agricultural crops provide. Through the training and sensitisation which the centre will provide, many young people will get interested in agriculture and agribusiness. It is our intention to achieve food sufficiency for every household at least in Abia State. If each household can produce what can sustain it, the country will not have these poverty-related and food crises. I always say that Nigeria is a blessed nation in all agricultural ramifications, but still under serious food bondage. The Bible said that any man that cannot feed his household is worse than an infidel; so, by extension, a country that cannot feed her citizens but depends on food donation from Europe and America is not worth being called an independent country. Our message and mandate are predicated on ensuring everybody engages in agriculture and agribusiness subsector.

What level of acceptance have indigenes shown towards the Centre, in terms of patronage?

It is a known fact that agriculture and agribusiness provide platforms for reducing unemployment, poverty, and boosting food availability. The level of hunger in the land makes acceptability of our programmes and packages very high. Since the commencement of the scheme in February, this year, the patronage has been unprecedented. It opened my eyes to the fact that everybody is interested in addressing the current hardship the country is facing. The centre provides training for various packages like processing of confectioneries from tubers and cereal crops; processing of consumables from ginger, tumeric, garlic, etc; as well as production of various drinks from crops. The centre also provides training on micro gardening and hanging or space farming. These packages have received patronage from the people, especially youths and women, because of interest to quit the labour market and poverty.

Many members of the National Assembly from the catchment areas are also partnering the centre to train their constituents on modern farming techniques and packaging for export. The same goes for state governments. We have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with some state governments to train their citizens from various Local Government Areas. The University, being an agricultural specialised one, is well equipped to undertake any number of participants who, at the end of the programme, are issued with a certificate of participation. Even the participants from far places are provided with accommodation.

Nigeria’s economy seems not to be improving despite measures so far put in place by the current administration. As a renowned economist, what can you pinpoint as the reason for this?

The problem is the nepotistic tendency of the current administration. Tribalism and nepotism make us not to look for suitable round pegs for the round hole. We even put square pegs in a round holes; so far, it serves nepotistic interest. A President that will turn the economy around must be one with a broad mind who will look for the best even if the person is not a Nigerian. You see so many advanced countries like Canada, USA, UK, etc engaging Nigerians in their critical sectors. Our problem is that the appointment of those managing our economy is based on a single criterion of the person coming from your place. The president cannot have the political will to sack CBN Governor or Minister of Finance that is not performing. Can you imagine how Betta Edu was quickly suspended as minister for Humanitarian Affairs because the appointment was not based on nepotism? The Economy of Nigeria is not irredeemable the way it is, but you need the right people doing the job. Can any of our leaders do trial and error in their choice of medical doctors that manage their personal health? Let the right people be employed to do the job. This will mark the turning point. This will mark the formulation of the right and unbiased policies. This will also rekindle the confidence of citizens and investors. If the President can look for the best medical doctors anywhere in the world, when he is sick, it is also of paramount importance for him to look for the best economists now that the nation is economically sick.

Despite claims by the FG that it is on top of the security challenges, the hydra-headed problem has persisted. Now that the National Assembly is deliberating the option of establishing state police, do you think this approach may be the solution?

The Federal Government may claim to be on the top of the challenge! Yes! they may be. But the citizens will only see it when kidnapping, banditry, terrorism are over; we can only accept the claim when traders and tourists can travel round the country without fear; when investors will troop into Nigeria as it were in the 70s and 80s; when farmers in Northern Nigeria will leave the IDP camps and go back to their farms. I feel sad to see the way our military men and police are being ambushed and killed on a daily basis. The challenge of insecurity is still there unabated. I do not see state police as the solution to the problem. What are the equipment the state governors will provide for the state police that the federal cannot provide for the current police? Most of these crimes are committed across state boundaries. State police can only handle minor crimes within the state. State police will never solve the problems of Boko Haram in the North East, banditry and kidnapping in the North West; or unknown gunmen in the South East or herdsmen problem in the North central and South West. As far as I know, state police will only arm the governors to hunt down their perceived enemies. There is nothing that they can do differently.

What is your assessment of the APC administration at the centre under the leadership of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu?

I take exception to the use of APC in your question. For me, he is now President Tinubu for Nigerians. He takes the blame and credit for every bad or good decisions he takes. However, if you compare the APC and PDP governments that left in the 2015, the response will be a different thing. Be that as it may, every government has its areas of strength and that of weakness. Every government has areas it succeeded and areas that it failed. Every assessment must have a component of bias. An APC person will tell you that the Tinubu government has solved all Nigerian problems while the opponent will have different answers. Same also the influence of religion and ethnicity on response to your question. But my assessment will be based on availability of food on the table of everyone; price of the food; exchange rate as against what it was last year; the number of hours a household enjoys power in his home per day; ease of doing business and ease of getting a job after graduation. For me, these issues raised and others will help one to properly assess the performance of a government. However, the government of Tinubu still has about three years to put all the things that will raise the standard of living in the proper perspective. Let the government bring in the right people who understand the problems of Nigerians and address them.

The economy in the South-East appears to be under serious threat with the continuous sit-at-home on Mondays. Do you think that if Nnamdi Kanu is released from detention, the tension will be doused in the zone?

There is no economy that is solely associated with the Igbos. What affects a tribe automatically will have adverse effects on the Nigerian economy. Sit-at-home will affect food items’ movement from North to South East since trucks and lorries cannot move on Mondays. It will also affect banking transactions, and so many commercial activities across the other zones will be affected. A trader in Aba cannot pay his associate in Sokoto on sit-at-home day. Also, if young people in the South East are not well tutored because of sit-at-home, the person may end up working in the North or West; so, the issue of sit-at- home should not be viewed as that of Igbo economy but Nigerian problem. However, so many personalities have called for the release of Mazi Kanu, I join my voice to others to appeal to President Tinubu to release Mazi Kanu.

What is your take on the students’ loan bill that has recently been accented to by the President?

There are so many worries on this bill that seem to provide loans to students of tertiary institutions. First, does the government have the statistics or population of students who qualify for this; secondly will they cope in providing the required fund? Who will accept to guarantee the loan when it is clear that there is no available job after graduation that will enable the student beneficiary to pay back within the stipulated period? In developed countries where students’ loans exist, the unemployment rate is very negligible. In our case, the implication is that the guarantor may end up being the person to repay. The government should rather give bursary awards to brilliant students recommended by various institutions. Besides, those recommended will also be subjected to general examination or aptitude test.

Condemnation has been trailing the open removal of subsidy and bringing it back secretly; what is your view on this and the impending implications?

Even the government of advanced countries allows subsidies to encourage production at lower cost. They even go as far as allowing tax holidays for startups. How can the economy that is battling to stabilise the effects of fuel subsidy removal also face that of power, and both are critical in production. For me, it will have a negative effect on production and also further increase cost of goods and services. However, the obvious fact is that the said power is not even available; hence, many companies are folding up because of the erratic supply. Removal of subsidy on power adds more to production challenges and to the suffering of ordinary Nigerians.