This is not the best of times for the Minister of Agriculture Dr Akinwumi Adesina, a man - I must state my bias upfront - that I admire. A few days to the end of last year, Ibukun Idusote, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, was reported as saying that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture would procure ten million mobile phones, worth about N60 billion, from China and the US for free distribution to rural farmers across the country.
Idusote was also quoted as saying that the plan was part of the Ministry of Agriculture's "e-Wallet project under which the ministry officials would be able to educate, inform and communicate with the farmers in the rural areas across the country on the latest and best agricultural practices, as well as the current prices of commodities in the market". Understandably a flurry of negative reactions followed the announcement, which perhaps forced Dr Adesina to issue a press statement through his Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, Olukayode Oyeleye, saying that Mr Idusote had been misquoted.
The Minister said there was no way he could have approved such a project, because "the government's focus has been to create jobs in Nigeria, not to export them."
I do not see anything wrong in using subsidies and freebies to incentivize workers, including farmers. That is often the practice in many Western countries that hypocritically frown at any government effort in Africa to make things a little easier for its populace through subsidies. In Europe for instance, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) - a system of European Union agricultural subsidies and programmes used a whopping 46.7% of the entire EU's budget in 2006 to subsidize agriculture in 2006. CAP's aim is to provide European farmers with a reasonable standard of living and to provide rural heritage. Under CAP, there is both a direct subsidy payment for crops and land which may be cultivated with price support mechanism including guaranteed minimum prices, import tariffs and quotas from certain goods outside the EU. The US has a similar subsidy regime for its farmers.
It is understandable that the highly urbane Dr Adesina, who has extensive experience in working in international agricultural centres, including as Vice President (Policy and Partnerships) for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization established with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, would be inspired by the freebies enjoyed by Western farmers. What the mobile phone plan probably did not factor in is the exceptionally high level of distrust of government - especially when it comes to money. There are certainly several legitimate questions to be asked about the project, especially as what was apparently an effort at damage control by the government, was not convincing. The 'damage control' did not deny plan for a free ten million mobile phone for farmers. In the new media, some Nigerians now daub the yet-to-be purchased phones, 'Jona-phones' (from President Jonathan's name).
Some of the relevant questions Nigerians are asking about the project include: How did the government establish that there are ten million peasant farmers in Nigeria? If, as widely reported in the media, the project would cost N60 billion (meaning N6, 000 per phone) is this value for money especially when some phones could be bought locally for as cheap as N2,000? Was the whole project spurred by a desire to award contracts and the kick-backs and kick-forwards that often arise from such? Are Nigerian peasants literate enough to read text messages on their phones? If I own a small garden in my house, do I qualify to get one of such phones? Are there alternative investments with such amount of money which could have been more beneficial such as using it to provide agricultural extension services to farmers in their local languages while simultaneously providing jobs to others in the process?
Apart from understandable anger from the populace, there are now also several conspiracy theories concerning the projects - trust us Nigerians. One of such 'theories' now making the waves in the cyberspace is that the project is part of President Jonathan's attempt to bribe Nigerian farmers ahead of his anticipated re-election bid in 2015. Another is that it is part of the white elephant projects' being created with the aim making money available to the PDP ahead of the 2015 presidential elections. I do not believe in any of these conspiracy theories. My feeling is that the phone plan for farmers it is a good project, but which was not properly thought-through before being unveiled.
Re: Sanusi has raised a very important question, but...
Below are some of the readers' reactions to my last week's column on Lamido Sanusi Lamido.
'Please allow me to be more simplistic (naive) by suggesting that the remaining 50% will be more conscious of competition when they wake up to the realisation that they are, equally, dispensable if they do not perform. To the contrary, instead of holding out for higher pay-off (bribes), they should double or higher their efficiency. Remember, it was inefficiency that led to the underperformance ("not enough to do" - in your words). It is all in implementation. Also, for the remaining 50%, the professionalism should be in the form of awareness that the jobs must be earned and not entitlements and that unemployment is the deterrent for non-performance. Therefore, there should be no need to raise their pay scales to meet world standards - as you alluded. Nigeria is not or should not be competing with the rest of the world's labour market (with the level of well-educated unemployed workforce [we currently have]). You are simply demanding your compensation's worth of work.
'Sir, I read your Thursday column on Daily Trust (3/01/2013) with relish. Thanking you very much sir for your educative and informative piece. You simply made my day in a special way'.-Mansur Kotorkoshi
'Compliment of the season, Mr Jideofor. On Sanusi and his questions, you really said all about him. I hope he will read this masterpiece about himself and take necessary corrections. Continue to educate, Mr Jide. Your passionate weekly follower from Kaduna.'
'Your column omitted the key drainpipes on the nation's resources. Check Wiki's number of aides [for political office holders] who also front for contracts. See what is spent on [political] aides, Board Members etc. What is spent on one political appointee monthly can offset the wages of a whole department of an MDA'.-(Text message, Nator, Abuja).
'Hi Jideofor; your Thursday column on Prince Sanusi is absolutely correct. Sanusi favours neo-classical thinking against a Keynesian approach. President Obama adopts a Keynesian thinking. I enjoyed your piece'.
'Good piece as usual. But you should have summed up as follows:
Radical + Conservative = Confusionist'.
'Sanusi has never got it right lately. As far as it is glaring, the recent issue of N5000 bill and his call for the sack of 50 per cent of [the country's] workforce lacks sincerity of purpose and were misplaced priorities. Or is it that the few capital projects affected by high current expenditure in budgets are even implemented in the first instance? So what is Sanusi's point?
'Always right, Sanusi: When in the year 2000, I met the man at Arewa House function, I was least deceived by his Queen's English. It was not what people around were seeing that was on my vision. It was the real Sanusi of 1950s and 60s. The very one that forced many Kanawas out of his emirate because of his pseudo scholastic arrogance and intolerance. So what is wrong with dismissing the entire Nigerian civil servants as long as the decayed institution he represents will [not be affected]?
(Text message, Muhammed Mansour Hassan, Kaduna).
'I have read your column on Sanusi and have one question: why is the civil service bloated? I believe you know the answer. I agree with Sanusi on the assumption that as long as there is no conducive environment for people to turn to, government work will always stand out. The robotic response of those in power [to the challenge] of creating the desired environment coupled with the NLC's misplaced priorities should be revisited. No retreat, no surrender'.- (Text message. Muktar, Katsina).