NEWS depicting the reality of poverty in Nigeria is coming in cascades. An alert by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation that 9.8 million people in 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory suffer from mass hunger and malnutrition was followed by a spike in inflation and a slide into recession, the worst in 33 years. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic-induced meltdown, insecurity, joblessness and restiveness, the government needs quick, creative intervention measures to boost food production and job creation.
In its October/November 2020 Cadre Harmonise Analysis for 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory presented to stakeholders in Abuja, the FAO listed Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Benue, Gombe, Taraba, Katsina, Jigawa, Kano, Bauchi, Plateau, Kaduna, Kebbi, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara states and the FCT as areas afflicted with food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. The World Food Programme and FAO had jointly named Nigeria among 25 countries faced with impending “devastating hunger” arising from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic in July. About 138 million persons worldwide are in danger of hunger, they said. The Global Hunger Index 2020 ranked Nigeria 98th of 107 countries with a score adjudged “serious.” As it is with the rest of the world, in Nigeria, the hungry mostly live in the rural areas and are often also farmers. Most are also women.
Nigeria is in dire straits and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should take the ameliorative counter-measures. The economy contracted by -3.62 per cent in Q3 2020, after declining by -6.1 per cent in Q2, thereby sliding into its second recession in five years. With resurgence in banditry, insurgency and general insecurity and damage from the recent riots that followed the #EndSARS protests put at over N1 trillion, experts fear GDP may decline further than the -4.3 per cent forecast by the IMF by year-end.
Neglect of agriculture and failure to reform the security system have caught up with the country. In the North-East, an 11-year-old terrorist insurgency has displaced millions and disrupted farming, including in the fertile Lake Chad basin. In the North-West, bandits and kidnappers levy protection charges on farmers where they allow production at all; they have rendered the highways and villages unsafe. In the North-Central and the South, kidnappers and Fulani militants are also active. Consequently, farming, which employs 42 per cent of the workforce, has been severely curtailed. COVID-19-induced lockdowns, restrictions and general slowdown have worsened food insecurity. The National Bureau of Statistics in 2019 estimated that 82.9 million, 40.1 per cent of the population, lived in extreme poverty. Of this, 52.1 per cent of rural dwellers are dirt poor compared to only 18.04 per cent in the urban. Nigeria is the world capital for extreme poverty and 67 per cent of rural households saw further declines in income this year. The Farming Early Warning Systems Outlook raised Nigeria’s famine threat level by early 2021 to ‘crisis’ level in the North-West, and ‘emergency’ to famine levels in the North-East.
Deteriorating macroeconomic conditions due to depressed international oil prices, low foreign reserves, devalued naira that coupled with the recent increases in fuel prices have driven up transportation costs and thus food prices. The NBS attributed the rise in inflation rate from 13.71 per cent in September to 14.23 per cent in October to higher prices of staples.
Had successive governments paid proper attention to food security and security of lives and property over the years, the situation would not have been so dire. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, recalls that Nigeria’s oil and gas “resource curse” saw the long, steady decline of and underinvestment in agriculture that was once the primary source of revenue and foreign exchange earnings. “Today, despite its vast agricultural potential, the country is a net food importer of food, with the vast majority of people engaged in agriculture operating at subsistence level,” it added.
Between 1990 and 2010, the country spent an average of N1.92 trillion annually importing food, said the NBS. The World Bank predicts Nigeria to be one of the three countries to record the highest increase in the number of poor people because of COVID-19, with five million additional poor, compared to India’s 12 million and Congo DR’s 2.0 million.
A holistic programme to tame insecurity, get farmers back to the farms, make the highways safe, emergency and long-term intervention to direct cheap credit, provide storage and preservation facilities as well as farming inputs and machinery, should be undertaken. All levels of government should roll out agricultural extension services, research, pest and disease control, and rural infrastructure such as roads and irrigation systems. This must be both collaborative between the federal, states and local governments and contemporaneously, with individual initiatives by all tiers. The CSIS declares, “Stabilising and rebuilding livelihoods must be a central focus for public and private sector actors.”
Truly, the Federal Government and the Central Bank of Nigeria have several ongoing initiatives to boost agriculture, including credit schemes, deferments on loans, tax breaks and tariff concessions. They should be more effectively administered and impregnable firewalls against corruption and politics erected. Farmers need strong support through extension services and strenuous efforts to mechanise agriculture. There should be strong collaboration with the private sector to attract investments, local and foreign. Experts recommend immediate, short, medium and long-term strategies, including humanitarian aid, rebuilding communities in conflict zones, strengthening local food systems resilience and long term economic strategies aimed at diversification, job creation, applied technology and rural infrastructure.
Poor storage and lack of access roads cause harvests to rot in place, while high costs of haulage discourage production. States should urgently provide basic infrastructure in the rural areas. These are cheaper than the white elephants in urban centres and impact positively on more lives since the rural population is much higher in most states.
Buhari must secure the country. Urgently, policing must be decentralised as the current system has failed while the deployment of soldiers has not worked. Unless the farms are secure, the roads made safe, bandits, terrorists, kidnappers, armed robbers and killer herdsmen will keep millions in hunger and poverty with attendant social unrest.