Nigeria Ministry of Agric: From food stock to laughing stock

Akinwumi Adesina,Minister of Agriculture.“Nothing is more wasteful than doing with great efficiency that which should not be done”. Theodore Levitt, in Harvard Business Review, March-April 1933. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p 270).

The Minister of Agriculture, once a brilliant prospect for his position, is gradually giving his Fellow Nigerians more jokes than food with every announcement coming out of that Ministry. His latest joke about supplying ten million GSM phones to farmers has received a lot of attention in the media; there is no need to over-flog the issue.

It is only necessary to make a few observations and ask some pertinent questions – as someone who had been engaged in farming before. I watched as the Minister briefed selected media practitioners recently and made a brave attempt to mislead those present. He could get away with the answers he gave to, admittedly, mundane questions.

“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is only one step”, said Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769-1821; after the retreat from Moscow in 1812. At least the one-time Emperor of Europe had enough sense to retreat when he was beaten. Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, credited with great intelligence, had not yet seen the wisdom in turning back from a road leading nowhere.
Instead he had taken two more steps which have increasingly separated him from the sublime and are leading him to the ridiculous destination which supplying 10million phones to farmers represents.  That, of course, is not strange. David Halberstam, the author of best selling THE BRIGHTEST AND THE BEST, had demonstrated how the bright young Harvard professors assembled by President Kennedy, 1917-1963, led the USA into the disastrous Viet Nam war.

David ended up by describing the whole lot of them as “intelligent but not wise”. No doubt, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture is brilliant, so brilliant he falls into the same trap like other gifted people – he thinks he is the only one with brains. From the on-going controversy about 10 million phones he strikes one as being most unwise. He might have his way; but he will carry very few people, except Reuben Abati , along with him.

Second, having failed to persuade with logic and reason, the Minister, ill-advisedly and amusingly, went straight into the Holy Bible to borrow the cloak of Jesus. The problem with that step is that it overlooks the fact that about 70 percent of Nigerians are not Christians and have no knowledge of who Pilate is and what he represents. But, a proposal to spend public money on a monkey business, like 10 million phones concerns all Nigerians and should be explained drawing from our common experience.

The NATION in its back page HARDBALL section of Monday January 21, 2013, advised the Minister to “quietly and sensibly shelve it”. But, there is a risk in shelving it; the idea might be taken from the shelve when our collective attentions are distracted and quietly implemented. At Unijankara, we hold another view. We think somebody should SHOVE IT.

Still, the proposal to supply ten million farmers in Nigeria and invest N60 billion is fundamentally an economic and investment decision. Certainly, a study must have been conducted, either by the Ministry or by consultants, in order to arrive at a decision to undertake such a major investment. The first question is: where is a copy of that study? Related questions include, but are not limited to, “who undertook the study?”, “when was it undertaken?”, “when were the results published?”

These questions are pertinent because it would amount to monumental folly for any public servant, especially one internationally exposed as Dr Adewunmi, to champion a great decision based on guess-work. Surely, nobody would ask the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, to spend such a colossal sum without a study and a report to support the proposal. It would also be important to know, in quantitative terms, the returns on investment which the nation should expect from such an investment project. Even then, the questions are not exhausted.

The Nigerian government, like all governments, is operating with severely limited financial resources; so funds have to be allocated between competing needs – even in the Ministry of Agriculture. Surely, erudite Dr Adewunmi has heard of opportunity cost. Given all the other options for increasing agricultural productivity, Nigerians, and indeed the world, definitely would like to know how the returns on investing in phones will stack up against other options available for increasing agricultural output.

In a bid to make what is obviously a comical proposal more acceptable, the Minister, “informed” his audience that the Federal Government will not bear the total cost. The good intention of government is to subsidise the procurement of the phones.

Apparently, a government which abhors “subsidy” for the consumption of petroleum products for 167 million Nigerians is eager to subsidise 10 million unidentified farmers. They remain unidentified because, it is certain that the Ministry of Agriculture has no list of ten million potential beneficiaries of this give-away programme. The lack of a list of potential beneficiaries, which must satisfy several conditions, is the greatest indictment of the proposal.

Any subsidy programme represents, essentially and fundamentally, redistribution of revenue – it takes funds from a group (this time the rest of us) and gives to another group (the favoured 10 million). Surely, a Minister, as intelligent as Dr Adewunmi, must appreciate the fact that the rest of us (157 million) would want to know that the funds to be allocated to this scheme, or scam, would be equitably distributed with regard to states, senatorial districts, ethnic groups within multi-ethnic states, religion, gender, age, and without political bias.

The last point is the most important because unless the distribution of the benefits is non-partisan, it might amount to a PDP programme to steal funds from the national purse to fund its 2015 campaign irrespective of who is the presidential candidate.

Surely, the Minister, when he was in the various institutes of agricultural research, knows that the bulk of food in Nigeria, as in all third world countries, is produced by women. The percentages defer from nation to nation. If he cares to go into his bookshelf, he will also find abundance evidence that the typical farmer in Nigeria is a woman over 45 years of age, illiterate, and living on subsistence farming. To such an individual N4,000 or $250 is a fortune not easily accumulated in one year. Even, half of that sum represents a windfall for the vast majority of farmers.

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