By Their Rice We Shall Know Them

By Dare Babarinsa

It is not too surprising that the Oyo State government is in tango with the Federal Government over rice. Last week the Federal Government donated 1800 bags of rice to the Oyo State government as part of palliatives to the people over the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oyo State government did not solicit for the gift. Similar gifts were also given to the governments of Ekiti, Ondo, Ogun and Osun states. By Thursday last week, an official of the state government addressed the press, asserting that the government was returning the rice to sender. He said the rice had been contaminated by pests and therefore may be unfit for human consumption.

The following day, the Oyo State government loaded the rice and its officials headed for the headquarters of the Nigerian Custom Service, NCS, in Ibadan. The NCS however shut its door, saying it was not authorized to receive the rice consignment. An official of the NCS explained that officials of the state government came to their office to take the bags of rice from the Custom ware-house.“They did not complain then, but then they went to address the press”. He said the state government should have first complained to the NCS before going to the press. He accused the government of bad faith.

The rice has been procured at great risk. They were those in the warehouses of the NCS, seized from those criminally enterprising smugglers who were bent on making blood money at the expense of the republic. In the process of seizing these bags of rice from these smugglers, lives may have been lost; of custom officers, of smugglers and of innocent souls caught in-between. Therefore, these are not just rice bought from the open and close markets. They are bags of rice that have stories to tell if only rice can talk.

Rice is perhaps one item that continues to command the attention of the high and mighty. There is no doubt that President Muhammadu Buhari must be paying attention to the issue of rice in the Federal Republic, especially those bags of rice rejected by the Oyo State government under the leadership of engineer Seyi Makinde, a governor elected on the platform of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. No one is sure how those bags of rice may finally end up, but I am sure that every grain of it would find its way into the stomach of one Nigerian or the other, pest or no pest.

Rice has toppled yam as the king of food for a long time. Its reign is not about to end despite the invasion of indomie, spaghetti and Dangote pasta. At independence from Great Britain in 1960, the Nigerian elite fell in love with rice. Since the common people were also in love with the elite, they decided to imitate them. An English proverb states that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and this is profoundly true of the Nigerian common man. We fell in love with rice and that love affair is still roaring. In the beginning, the love affair was coy and almost furtive. Rice was only eaten on Sundays and during festivals and other special occasions. The king of the brand in the 1970s was known as Uncle Ben’s rice imported from the United States. You could get it from the shelves of Kingsway Store and other elite shops.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Nigerians appetite for rice became insatiable and local producers muscled in. Farmers from the rice belt of Ekiti, Ondo, Osun, Ogun, Edo, Delta, Ebonyi, Anambra and Benue states made Nigeria proud by producing first class rice that were even considered better than the imported ones. There was a grain research institute in Ibadan that was doing a lot of work to improve rice production. The ministries of agriculture of these rice-producing states were very helpful. Every morning, as early as 3:00 a.m. you could hear the roars of the rice mills in Okemesi and other Ekiti towns where the rice merchants would have huddled for the great king of grains.

When General Olusegun Obasanjo became Nigeria’s military ruler following the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed in 1976, he decided to launch the Operation Feed the Nation, OFN. It was a great campaign and the entire country was mobilized to ensure that Nigeria was producing enough food to feed itself and have surplus for export. Students from universities, polytechnics and other high institutions were mobilized to go and work on the farms. They became enthusiastic, though poorly dedicated farmers. The OFN did not achieve its objectives totally, but it opened the eyes of elite Nigerians to the possibility of becoming farmers. When Obasanjo retired, he moved to his private farm, then known as Temperance Farm (now called Obasanjo Farms of Nigeria, OFN), in Otta, Ogun State.

Interestingly, Obasanjo elected successor, Alhaji Aliyu Shehu Shagari, himself a farmer from Sokoto State, pledged to continue Obasanjo Back to Farm programme. He called his own Green Revolution programme. By this time, our romance with rice was still roaring and rice farmers across Nigeria were smiling to the banks.

However, Shagari’s idea of a Green Revolution was different from Obasanjo philosophy about OFN. One day in 1981, President Shagari called a meeting of the National Council of State. All former Heads of State were statutory members and are still are. He informed the Council that as part of the Green Revolution, he has decided that the Federal Government would now import rice directly from Thailand on behalf of the Nigerian people. He said Nigerians were not growing enough rice to meet local demand.

“We cannot allow the poor of this country to go hungry,” Shagari told the meeting which included all the 19 state governors then. “We have a duty to feed our people.”

It was perhaps the most rowdy session of the Council of State meeting ever held. Shagari’s predecessor decided to tackle him with a barrage of questions.

“What right have you to import rice from Thailand or any other place when your farmers can grow rice here,” Obasanjo charged. “This is an irresponsible decision!” He stormed out. Shagari must have been aware of the verdict of Somerset Maugham: “A Prime-Minister out of office is a pompous rhetorician and a general without an army is a tamed hero of a market town.”

Obasanjo again never attended any Council of State meeting throughout Shagari’s troubled tenure. Despite Obasanjo bitter opposition, Shagari went ahead with his own idea of the Green Revolution. The American dollar is green and so was the Shagari’s Green Revolution and if you are a politician of the then ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN, you can hardly differentiate between the two.

Shagari wanted us to transfer the love we have for rice to him and his party. Few months to the 1983 presidential election, he set up the Presidential Task Force for the Importation of Rice. The chairman of the Task Force was Alhaji Umaru Dikko, the powerful Minister of Transport. We imported rice. We ate rice. Shagari was toppled. We are still eating rice.

Speaking in Goronyo local government area sometimes ago during the inauguration of the Dangote Rice Out-Grower Scheme, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Africa’s leading industrialist, said Nigeria spends an average of $2 billion to import rice every year. I don’t know whether Dangote’s figure includes those spent by the daring smugglers. At the current exchange rate, that is more than N400 billion; twice the cost of the 127 kilometres-Lagos-Ibadan Expressway reconstruction. There is no doubt Nigerians are in love with rice and it is right and appropriate that it should be subject of gubernatorial conflicts.

In the past, the Federal Government of Chief Obasanjo built giant silos across the country for strategic reserve of grains, including rice. Those silos are meant for a time like this when the next harvest is uncertain. We have one of those giant silos in Ekiti near the Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, ABUAD. I don’t know whether those silos now contain grains. If they are not, the Federal Government should act fast before it is too late.

Nigeria’s food security is facing threats on many fronts. We have the farmers-herders clash and the armed Fulani herdsmen invasion, which is driving farmers from their farms. Rain is coming late this year. We are in May and it is as if we are in January, even in Lagos. Then the COVID-19 is disrupting everything including planting. In the North-East of Nigeria, Lake Chad is drying up and it may be in the process of irreversible death. The Boko Haram terrorists, despite the valiant efforts of members of the armed forces, are still active in some areas. The prognosis is bad and unless our leaders move fast, Nigeria may be facing a worse problem than COVID 19.

Therefore, Governor Seyi Makinde insistence that he would not accept the allegedly infested rice from the Federal Government should be a wake-up call for our country. Let us do everything to plant our rice before the bad days come. We don’t need to wait for one Joseph to dream his dreams before we know that we are on the threshold of trouble. It is time we buckle up so that we can also be known by the quality and quantity of our rice.

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