We are passionate about foreign food and goods. If in doubt, consider a report last week that revealed the staggering amount of money that Nigeria spends every year on imported foods. According to a report by a subsidiary of the Central Bank of Nigeria, which is known by the name Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending Plc (NIRSAL), we squander every year $4 billion on wheat importation, $2.2 billion on cotton importation, $2 billion on rice brought secretly and illegally into the country, $623 million on dairy importation, and $500 million on sugar importation. Note that these figures are in US dollars.
Just before you go hitting your head on the roof, there is more bad news. The most damning and exceptionally worrying aspect of the report states that we spend approximately $623 million on importation of catfish alone and this is achieved through illegal backdoor channels. This is outrageous. Imagine the astonishing amount of money the country wastes just to sustain its large appetite for foreign food and the exotic. If the government could invest half of the money into boosting local agriculture, the outcomes would be improved agricultural production, the development of an export economy, and massive employment opportunities for the army of jobless youths. No, the government cannot see reason to engage in these meaningful development projects because we like to feed on what people in other countries have produced.
There is no way to justify all the money we spend on food importation. It is not economically sustainable. A nation that depends largely on foreign food lives beyond its means. By spending so much on imported food, we convey the message we are living beyond our means. One deleterious impact of this practice is the gradual destruction of our local food producing industry. Every time we import food, we send a message to farmers and other producers that they are not appreciated.
In 2011, the Minister of Agriculture, Akinwunmi Adesina, narrated to an audience in Ibadan the huge costs to the nation of excessive importation of food. He said: “In 2010 alone, Nigeria spent N635 billion on import of wheat, N356 billion on import of rice, N217 billion on sugar importation and despite the huge marine resources spent N97 billion importing fish. This is not fiscally, economically or politically sustainable. Nigeria is eating beyond its means. While we all smile as we eat rice every day, Nigerian rice farmers cry, as the imports undermine domestic production. Our farmers sow in hope but reap in te ars, as cheap food imports dash their hopes of better prices or incomes.”
Comparatively, the amount of money spent on food importation between 2010 and 2016 has risen sharply. Adesina also talked about plans by the Goodluck Jonathan administration to transform agriculture. He said: “We must turn Nigeria into a bread basket – a power house for food production. To do so, we must make a fundamental paradigm shift: Agriculture is a business, not a development programme. It must be structured, developed, resourced and financed as a business… We will revamp our cocoa and oil palm sectors and regain the lost glory in the commodities. We will revamp cotton production, as well as onions and tomatoes. We have also targeted major improvements in production and markets for livestock, fisheries and aquaculture.”
Whether the minister was able to achieve these lofty goals before the government was voted out of office remains a subject of debate. Whether we look at the 2010 statistics on food importation or the 2016 figures, what we see is the extent to which Nigeria is strengthening and boosting the economies of other countries and consequently undermining the growth and development of its own local economy.
When you spend so much foreign exchange on food and goods produced in overseas countries, you are inevitably telling the international community that you are in love with foreign food, that you cannot produce enough food for your population, that you cannot help yourself, that you have no option but to rely on foreign food, and that you are prepared to go to any length, including smuggling, to sustain your craving for foreign food.
It is alright to talk about a revolution in agriculture but a revolution that is planned and executed on a piece of paper is not good enough. Reform in the sector must be appealing and gratifying enough to make people want to go into agricultural production. At the moment, only a few people want to engage in farming because many unemployed youths were brought up with the misleading impression that agriculture is an occupation for people with low level skills and even people with lower intelligence. Everyone wants white collar jobs that are fast dwindling in public and private sectors.
We are blessed in many ways but we don’t want to harness the natural resources in our environment. Agriculture has been given a low profile for many years because no government has really shown strong interest in agriculture that would encourage many people to participate in farming. There are also diverse problems that tend to dissuade anyone, considering a move into the sector. We know that farmers have to deal on a daily basis with problems such as erratic supply of electricity, poor roads, lack of provision of fertilisers at subsidised prices, law and order problems, and lack of low interest loans to encourage popular interest in agriculture.
How can our economy improve when we spend scarce foreign currency on importation, of all things, catfish, sugar, cotton, and rice? The government could have used the money spent on these items as loans to increase participation in small-scale businesses that are vital to our economy but are currently cash-strapped. There are many unemployed people who need low interest loans to start some kind of business, particularly agriculture-related businesses.
Growing expenditure on food imports shows how irrational and narrow-minded our national economic planners are, the vacuum that exists at the national level in terms of failure to map out pragmatic agricultural development policies, and the degree of inferiority complex that has gripped policy makers at the federal level.
Our craving for foreign food is absurd. We consume more than we can afford. We consume foreign food to show off our unsustainable luxurious life and to create the largely misleading impression that we are wealthy, self-reliant, and self-directed. That is a paradox. A self-sufficient nation does not have to be dependent on food imports. Do we have a policy on food importation and/or perhaps food security? Do we have a sound policy on agriculture that encourages and rewards farmers? How do we plan to meet the galloping food needs of our population? These are uncomfortable but forthright questions. The extent to which the government is able to answer the questions honestly will show the extent to which it is willing to radically transform the sector.
At a difficult time when the nation should be working to conserve scarce and much needed foreign currency, we seem determined to invest every naira in our treasury on food imports. Why can’t we get our priorities right? Do we need expats to tell us how to curb our appetite for foreign food? Do we need international economists to educate us on the values of long-term saving as a facilitator of economic growth? Sometimes we make a mockery of our status as an independent nation.
If anyone has been searching for a formula for Nigeria’s failure, the answer lies in our mindless fascination for foreign food. The more we import food, the more we hand over to foreign powers the management of our economy and indeed the oversight of our country. As a nation, we are truly headed for an uncomfortable life at the bottom of the ravine.
What has happened to this country? Why did we abandon the natural resources we are so blessed with? Why do we prefer to give money to other countries when we do not have enough to cater for the needs of our people? Why do we opt to play second fiddle or serve as a second-rate country to other less endowed countries? We have lost so many opportunities but we do not deserve to be pitied. Political and military leaders who governed in the past and are currently in positions of authority grossly misappropriated our commonwealth. They promoted a culture of corruption. They failed to make positive impact on the lives of ordinary people. They see national resources as a free playground to be used to extend their illegally acquired finances and enhance their private property.
Someone once suggested that what is happening should be seen as a reflection of the good times we lived in the 1970s when the nation was awash with unparalleled oil wealth. At that time, General Yakubu Gowon chose to encourage a culture of excessive consumption rather than promote prudence and long-term saving that would keep us above water when the oil wealth would disappear, such as today. The extravagance that was promoted by that government through the controversial Udoji Award (essentially salary increments across the board) to civil servants in 1975 marked the beginning of a culture of profligacy in which many Nigerian citizens, emboldened by so much money in their pockets, chose to live the epicurean philosophy that encouraged them to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they shall be no more. Years later, many people are struggling because, after the good life, comes hardship.
When we wonder how and when we developed the hunger for overseas goods and food, as well as that tradition of wastefulness, we must look back at what happened in the mid-1970s when the government had the opportunity to save for the future but chose the Owambe (i.e., grandiose) lifestyle.