From Olanrewaju Lawal, Birnin Kebbi
when President Muhammadu Buhari launched the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme in Kebbi State in November 2015, it was attended with pomp and pageantry. Hopes were very high that it was a harbinger of economic prosperity and food-sufficiency in the state.
A total of 78,000 registered rice farmers keyed into the concept and were supported with nothing less than N40,000 each, in addition to other farm incentives such as water-pumping machines with a view to helping them engage in dry season farming.
The terms of the facility were also flexible, stipulating that the rice farmers would pay either in cash or with the harvested paddy rice at the end of the dry season.
The philosophy behind the deal was that, with the support of the government, the rice farmers would become rice producers while targeting rice mills in the state such as WACOT Ltd and Labana Mill Ltd, which would should purchase the paddy rice from farmers.
At the end of the dry farming season, expectedly, the rice farmers recorded a bumper harvest, with many among them smiling in to the bank. But, rather than pay back their loans as agreed, many of the farmers got enthralled by the thrill of sudden riches.
It was gathered over 85 per cent of the farmers used their new income to marry new wives, while some purchased hajj slots, in addition to the new wives. Only a few ploughed the money back into another farming season.
Daily Sun learnt that, after three farming seasons, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), through the Bank of Agriculture, raised the alarm over the antics of the farmers, especially their negative disposition towards the repayment of the loans.
Following this development, the state government constituted a body with the mandate to recover the loans, under the charge of Deputy Governor Samaila Yobai Dabai.
After a year of persuasion and engagements that seemed to be of little result, it was clear the honeymoon was over.
While the farmers continued to proffer flimsy excuses to explain their inability to pay their debts, including alleging a drought that never existed and a flood that was nowhere near the state, government has since made it clear that it would send defaulters to jail.
The committee assigned to recover the loans has been up and doing, going from one local government to another in search of defaulters while the farmers, sensing their arrival would exit their houses and farmlands.
As the cat and mouse game continued, it was gathered that some genuine farmers in Suru Local Government Area pleaded for mercy through their district leader. But others in 20 local government areas refused to honour the invitation of the recovery committee.
In fact, at Bagudo Local Government Council, 5,968 rice farmers who collected different loans disappeared into thin air. At Suru, over 11,000 were yet to pay while over 62,000 simply did not respond to the invitation.
There were indications that some local politicians had employed fictitious names to collect the loan and refused to respond to the committee. After rigorous efforts, 19 defaulters were sent to prison by a mobile court presided over by Justice Mukthar Tarifiki of Birnin Kebbi Magistrate Court.
Expressing government’s displeasure over the brazen breaches by the farmers of the area, Dabai told Daily Sun: “The level of response is not encouraging unlike in Suru Local Government. People collected government loan and they are not paying back; that is not acceptable to us. In Suru Local Government, they are responding, but here, nobody responded.
“That is why we are taking the action we took today. There is no way some people will collect government loan and not pay back; it is not possible. Someone has to be held responsible for the default. We are not here to castigate anybody, or make people unhappy. We want to make sure that the right thing is done.
“The Federal and Kebbi State governments would not be discouraged with these defaulters’ attitude. They would make sure that the programme continues. I am not happy to return here for the same issue. In fact, I am annoyed. But the district head pleaded that we should give a three-week grace and we shall give that opportunity.”
He told the farmers, “You have to repay the loan perfectly so that your local government, your district head that pleaded on your behalf, myself, the governor would not be put to shame.”
He added that, despite the poor attitude of most of the farmers, government would not be discouraged to assist farmers in food production.
However, one of the affected farmers, Suleiman Suru, claimed that they ploughed back the money realised from the first dry season farming into the fresh cultivation. He promised that they would repay the loan soon.