Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
The Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information and state Orientation, Senator Emmanuel Onwe, has said the activities of herdsmen in the country pose the greatest threat to the diversification of the economy through agriculture, adding that until the government decides to take effective measures to stop these “pests” it may be difficult to effectively diversify the economy through agriculture.
You are the commissioner for Information and state Orientation in Ebonyi State. What aroused your interest in agriculture?
The interest of the government of Ebonyi State is my interest. The policy of Ebonyi State government is my personal commitment. When this government was inaugurated in 2015, the overriding policy commitment deriving from the manifesto was something we call PIE (People, Industry and Economy). The focus is on the people which encompasses empowerment, lifting the poor and most vulnerable people in society, particularly the infirm and the widows and of course, helping those individuals
who have creative ideas on how to establish themselves in various businesses or any form of profitable enterprise to do so. That is the’ P’. And of course, the economy – to diversify the economy and get Ebonyi State from being this small, microcosmic component
of a mono economy to begin to take creative steps to diversify because Nigeria defined Ebonyi as just a microcosmic component of a mono economy because the entire federation is a macrocosmic mono economy. And in diversification, you have to rely in part on agriculture; you have to rely on the historical mainstay of African societies. It is my belief that if the whole of Africa were to focus the requisite amount of energy on agriculture
as we focus on politics, Africa will become truly politically and economically independent. And of course, the’ I ‘represent industry: Cottage industries, conventional industries, and clusters industries comprising both. Right now, the governor of Ebonyi State has devised a means of building cluster industries in each of the three senatorial zones in the state. And once a policy is made by government, and agriculture being the only enterprise which a public office holder is legally entitled to embark on, I decided to put into practise, the policy of government.
In 2016, we put about 150 hectares of land into rice cultivation; in 2017, we escalated our effort and cultivated about 250 hectares. This year’s ambition is to see if we can escalate it to about 500 hectares. We also intend to diversify into cassava production in the years to come. But let’s first achieve some level of expertise and proper foundation in the area of rice production, and then we can move forward. So, regardless of being a lawyer, because that is the problem with Nigeria, we are status obsessed, that obsession with status is holding us back in so many ways and with devastating consequences. Your being a lawyer or architect or surgeon is utterly meaningless if you are starving and pompously parading your nominal status. You are a lawyer, you are a doctor, a pharmacist, a journalist, an economist, a banker, an insurance broker; it doesn’t matter what you are. Agriculture can still be practised by anyone. And what we have done over the last two years (this is our third year in the field) is proof perfect that you can achieve whatever you apply yourself to with dedication, passion and zeal.
In 2016, Ebonyi rice was all over the place. Is the rice cultivation being done by government or on a personal level?
The practical farming is done by individuals, small scale, medium scale and large scale efforts have aggregated to make the great waves that Ebonyi is making in the moment as far as Ebonyi rice is concerned. Government, on its own part, has been seriously concerned with providing both a conducive, peaceful environment to drive the effort, as well as procuring funds from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to assist the small and medium scale farmers. In terms of getting directly involved, government cannot make any business, particularly the business of agriculture, work. Government workers, government bureaucrats are inherently lazy. So, the policy of Ebonyi State Government has been formulated to facilitate private agro enterprise and the supreme headmaster of this is the governor himself. He owns his own farms, engaging in both crop farming and animal husbandry. His cattle ranch occupies a landmass of over 60 hectares and he is attempting to interbreed with native Igbo cattle with Indian cattle.
I saw a picture trending on social media recently where the governor was in a cassava farm handling the produce from his farm. He led the charge, encouraging not just ordinary Ebonyi citizens, but every single government appointee to own at least, one hectare of farm. If you like, let your hectare be in rice production or cassava production, potato production or yam; virtually everything that is growing in the soil is open season in Ebonyi because our soil type can support the cultivation of virtually anything. Ebonyi is only about 4,500 square kilometres, but extremely well endowed. So, every farming activity in Ebonyi State
is the undertaking by the effort of individuals, not government. Through the CBN as
I mentioned earlier, the Government has been accessing the funds made available for agriculture such as the CACS (Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme) and the Anchor Borrowers fund. These funds have been deployed to help ordinary people do one hectare of land through the provision of the necessary farm inputs – the fertilizers, the herbicides, the pesticides, the rice seeds and sometimes, assistance in land preparation.
Before now, the major problem was pests, birds eating rice. But nowadays, the major pests are the herdsmen. How has it affected you?
The herdsmen are the biggest pests ever to roam the face of the soil of Nigeria. Pests bearing AK47, pests herding thousands of cattle; the biggest pests threatening the very foundation and survival of this country are herdsmen. Until we decide to take effective action to stop these pests and guarantee that Nigeria continues on this trajectory of economic diversification through agriculture, then I am afraid the moment will be lost. The action we take in this regard will determine whether in ten years’ time, we would look back and take stock and perhaps congratulate ourselves for a stroke of genius that saved a nation or bemoan a lost opportunity – lost to the unusual brand of pests. If we allow these AK47 wielding pests, they will overrun us all. It doesn’t matter where you go, they will overrun you. I give you an example, in 2017, after the anti-grazing law in Benue State came into effect; herdsmen from that state began to move southwards. Their next ports of call were first Enugu State and then Ebonyi State. We had a running battle in my farm for more than four weeks and because of the extensive nature of my farm (we began harvesting in November and concluded in February) because in the absence of combine harvesters, our harvesting is still being done in the old primitive fashion. Anyone that understands what a hectare is, multiply that by 200 or 350 will understand the extensive expanse of land where you employ manual labour to undertake manual harvesting. So, it took us to a point where these AK47 wielding pests confronted us and by the great guidance and wisdom of God, and God’s own mercy, we were able to repel them without loss of life either on their part or ours. Who knows what will happen next season or the season after that?
So, it is important that the federal government, through its security apparatus, comes up with a policy, finds the sort of pesticides specifically designed to act effectively against the brand of pests that carry AK47 and drive thousands of hooves and horns.
How do you go about acquiring land for farming?
We have multiple options open to us. In Ikwo, for instance, we depend on inherited land and land purchased from private or communal owners. And in Ezillo, as we have in other parts of the state, we have government-owned land. The land you just visited is government-owned. So, it has been parcelled to individuals according to your capacity to farm.
Do you pay royalty to government?
Yes. In fact, for the land we used to cultivate in Ezillo last year, we were assessed to pay government N8.9 million. In 2016, we paid N3 million.
Because of the yield?
No. It’s arbitrarily determined by bureaucrats, but the governor doesn’t want farmers to be deterred by such arbitrariness.
What is your take on the committee on herdsmen set up by the federal government and headed by Governor Umahi of Ebonyi State?
I think the governor of Ebonyi State did a marvellous job and demonstrated great statesmanship. He devoted time to a task that was so delicate, so controversial and literally revolved on life and death on a large scale. He showed a strong spine and brought creative thinking to it. I have read his comments when he gave a press briefing in the State House, Abuja, to highlight the salient points of his Committee’s recommendations. You could see that it was a delicate, balanced, clever set of solutions to a very dangerous and bloody problem. But of course, it is one thing to do this assignment and make your recommendations, the implementation of the recommendations is completely a different ball game altogether. He cannot very well mobilise infantrymen or compel the Inspector General of Police to perform his duty. If a Commander-in-Chief of a republic gives a command, you don’t need to ask questions. You obey the command, you return with results. So, I pay great tribute to the governor of Ebonyi State for being the man seen as possessing the capacity to lead that effort of finding solution to the farmers-herdsmen antagonisms.
Have the recommendations been implemented?
Well, in Zamfara State for example, the governor of Zamfara State has now effectively resigned his position as the chief security officer simply because after the slaughter upon slaughter of his citizens and he has no capacity to either direct, instruct or command the security agencies within his own state on a course of containing the daily carnage, what is the point actually of a chief security officer? The last savagery that took place in that hapless territory saw to the loss of over 30 lives of Nigerian citizens. When you have the ceaseless slaughter of citizens carving tributaries of blood in every corner of the nation’s soil, then the very foundation of such a nation is soaked and threatened.