Food security and all that

Food security lies at the foundation of national power. Bonaparte famously observed that an army “marches on its stomach”. A viable state is not only one that is able to keep the common peace but also one that secures the lives and properties of citizens while feeding the population and upholding the rule of law.

During the first decade of independence, agriculture was the mainstay of our economy. We were relatively self-sufficient in food. According to economic historians, the only time Nigeria experienced real famine was in Sokoto, Katsina and Kano during the 1950s; in the aftermath of the Second World War, when colonial agricultural policy was redirected towards serving the British war effort rather than the needs of our people.

The other time was during the Civil War, when an economic blockade by the federal government led to a devastating famine in Biafra. The heart-breaking pictures of kwashiorkor-stricken children of Biafra continue to haunt me to this day. The debate on the morality of the blockade raises the same moral dilemmas as the decision by the Truman administration in the US to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in1945. The blockade of Biafra was a humanitarian catastrophe; but the brutal fact is that it also brought the war to a speedy end in January 1970.

The discovery of oil changed everything. Oil windfalls provided funding for roads and other infrastructures. More clinics, hospitals, schools and universities were built. But it also led our political elites into behaving like drunken sailors. We were afflicted with what economists term “the Dutch Disease syndrome”, characterised by high exchange rates and a shift of all productive forces into the import sector to the detriment of agriculture and industrialisation.

The commanding heights of the economy were geared towards catering for the appetites of the urban elites. Local food production became unattractive. It made more sense to import food from abroad than to cultivate it locally. The import-licensing system became the vehicle for massive corruption and rent-seeking. The cement scandals of the post-war era became the metaphor for our collective folly.

Oil has proved to be bad for democracy. A system anchored on collecting rents from international oil companies means that the rulers feel no sense of accountability to the citizenry. Political theory has established some correlation between democratic accountability and the extractive capacity of the state. When the state imposes taxes on citizens and they willingly pay, it serves to reinforce the social contract obligations underpinning popular liberal democracy.

From the seventies to our day, all sorts of schemes have been put in place to promote food security; from Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) to the Directorate for Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructures (DFRRI). Most have failed.

Last week our presidency gave an order to the CBN to cease provision of foreign exchange for importation of all food items. The directive was based on the presumption that our country is already self-sufficient in food. During a recent TV interview, I described it as a “primitive” way of making policy, as it was seemingly based on a whim rather than a proper technical-scientific study.

Whilst it is true that we have made significant progress in rice production, with the import bill having fallen by more than 70 percent over the last 3 years, it is a logical fallacy to jump to the conclusion that we are now a food self-sufficient country.

Truth is, there is hunger in the land. Recently, there was an outbreak of famine in some of the IDP camps in Borno. Famine would have broken out throughout the country today were it not for the extravagantly costly Anchor Borrowers’ Programme launched by the CBN. Unfortunately, government has sabotaged its own policies by conveniently looking away as murderous herdsmen militias ravage the countryside. Many farmers are keeping away from their farms for fear of being attacked by rampaging herdsmen militias.

While I applaud government’s drive towards food security, it must be made clear that no country can be said to be totally self-sufficient in every material particular. International trade theory since David Ricardo establishes that global welfare is best enhanced when countries concentrate on producing those goods in which they enjoy the highest comparative advantage. Even if we could produce temperate products such as wheat, grapes and apples, the costs might be prohibitive. There are cases where it is cheaper to import than to produce locally.

I also suspect that the new directive aims to take the wind out of the sails of states such as Akwa Ibom and Rivers that have decided to import cattle in order to revitalise their ranching industries. Some local notables have allegedly been bribed to acquiesce to the iniquitous Ruga policy. Blocking access to foreign exchange for food imports may therefore be in furtherance of more sinister objectives than we imagine.

Government also has no business dishing out diktats to the CBN. I know that central bank autonomy is a delegated privilege granted by parliament to ensure it works for the long-term common good rather than short-term electoral-political calculations. Today, I am led to believe that our apex bank has all but lost its autonomy as enshrined in the CBN Act 2007; captured by vested interests in government and the private sector.

Multiple exchange rates exist to cater to the selfish avarice of vultures. We hear these days that they are allegedly forced to pander to all sorts of shadowy people; including hiring staff whose principal qualification is that they are children of high notables while children of nobodies with first class honours are wandering the streets.

I innately dislike breathing down the necks of my former colleagues who often have to operate under difficult conditions. But I humbly submit that a central bank is not worth the name if it is not manned by the best brains that we have. The CBN that some of us knew was a world-class merit-based national institution. Today, the glory has departed. How are the mighty fallen!

Culled from Business day

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