As Nigeria celebrates its 58th Independence Anniversary, Jonathan Eze writes on the need for governments at all level to go back to agriculture to achieve sustainable and long-term economic growth
In 1960 when Nigeria gained Independence, agriculture was the mainstay of the nation's economy, providing the largest portion of foreign exchange inflow into the country. Moreover, according to official statistics, it contributed about 63 per cent to the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The incomes were derived from the export of major cash crops as rubber, cocoa, palm oil, cashew nuts, groundnut and cotton, among others.
However, the discovery of oil shifted government's attention away from the sector.
But a bold attempt to revive agriculture started in 1976 when the then military Head of State, Major-General Olusegun Obasanjo, launched Operation Feed the Nation.
But instead of reforming it, his successor, President Shehu Shagari, quickly dumped it in preference of the Green Revolution of 1980 that ended in failure.
Since then, none of the agricultural policies of the government survived its initiator in office. The trend continued unabated, with easy oil money being squandered with impunity by government officials and some privileged Nigerians, especially since the return of democratic governance in 1999.
While revenue from crude oil came in billions of dollars, it was being spent extravagantly. Agricultural sector, infrastructures and other basic needs of humanity that were to grow the country's economy were virtually left unattended. Eighty per cent of the country's consumables were imported, while the local industries suffered neglect.
With the sudden crash in the price of crude oil in the international market in June 2014, Nigeria with a mono-economy became one of the worst hit countries.
Since then, the Nigerian economy has been in tatters. Not helping matters is the delay in clear-cut economic policies.
Recently, the government came up with a plan to revive agriculture as the economic mainstay of the country with the Green Alternative Road Map.
The policy seeks to reduce drastically Nigeria's over-dependency on imported food. Its fundamental objectives include stimulating agro-export for foreign earnings and achieving food self-sufficiency. Among other goals, the programme will boost employment with 100,000 youths to be trained in extension services, enhance wealth creation and drive economic diversification.
As good as this policy looks, it can only achieve the desired objectives, if it is implemented to the letter and other numerous challenges facing agricultural practice in the country tackled adequately. These glaring challenges include the herdsmen attack, high borrowing interest rate, poor rural roads network, importation of foreign food, lack of agricultural research, poor farm implements, poor storage and processing facilities and several others.
Nigerians who are into farming business also expressed their challenges, while suggesting way that government can help them key into the new "agrarian revolution."
Just recently, President Muhammadu Buhari said that the federal government is determined to significantly reduce the high bill for importation of food products to Nigeria.
"We developed a mono-product economy and lost opportunities to diversify in the past.
"We have great potential for agriculture and solid minerals; we are now determined to exploit them to the fullest," he had said while speaking at a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mr. Lars Rasmussen, in Washington DC, U.S.
Buhari had also reaffirmed his administration's commitment to the rapid diversification of Nigerian economy.
According to the president, addressing the past neglect of these two sectors would help to reduce unemployment and make Nigeria a more productive country.
"We will welcome more investment in our agriculture and solid minerals sectors from countries with expertise in the two sectors. "We abandoned them for petroleum; Now, we have to go back.
"Our bill for the importation of food and dairy products is very high. "We want to cut it as much as possible by developing our local potential," he added.
However, the general perception is that this administration has performed better in terms of agriculture development.
To the National Coordinator, Association of Small Scale Agro Producers in Nigeria (ASSAPIN), Mr. Adu Yerima, the Anchor Borrowers' programme alone provides many job opportunities for Nigerian youths.
"For example, the Anchor Borrowers' Project, which is a very sound and laudable project, can transform millions of unemployed Nigerian youths to become self-reliant.
"It has a full package for every person that is going into agriculture.
"There is a component for agric extension office; there is component for access to credit facilities and input; and there is also component for access to market.
"That means any youth that is going into farming through the Anchor Borrowers project is already farming, while the market is waiting for him.
"The problem there is that the capacity to deliver this project to the real people that the project is meant for is lacking," Yerima said.
Similarly, the Project Manager, Fertilisers Producers and Suppliers Association of Nigeria (FEPSAN), Mr. Gideon Negedu, commended the present administration's efforts in tackling challenges in the agriculture sector.
He said the achievement recorded was in spite of the serious financial situation the administration met at its inception. Negedu also lauded the increase in food production in the country due to the commitment of the administration.
"We have seen a marginal increase in key production areas.
"For example, in rice we have seen marginal increase such that Nigeria would be self-sufficient in rice very soon and in other commodities too.
"The interesting thing is there is a net effect on commodities like ours which is the fertiliser.
"In Nigeria today, under this administration for the first time in 2017, we saw consumption figures for fertiliser at the highest. You can quote me on that.
"We have the highest consumption figures ever and all of that was done without subsidy," Negudu said.
In the same vein, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, reiterated that the future of Nigeria lies in agriculture and not oil and gas.
According to him, the demand for Nigeria's agricultural produce by foreign countries and the efforts of the government to diversify the economy show that the future of the country lies in agriculture and not oil and gas.
He said poverty was the biggest threat to Nigeria's survival and must be tackled through agriculture.
"The key to Nigeria's future is not oil and gas, but agriculture. We must have to settle for agriculture which is our gift from God. "Poverty is the biggest threat to Nigeria's survival. Our task as government is to lead Nigeria out of poverty and we are doing that with the kind of progress we have made so far in the agricultural sector.
"The Chinese are demanding for two million tonnes of soya beans, the Indians are looking for our produce also. With these demands, we must all be involved in agriculture. "It is the constitutional right of everyone in government to own a farm. So, I encourage everyone to help out in this regard," he said.
He emphasised that the government had done a lot in the agricultural sector and would put in more efforts to get Nigerians out of poverty.