Nigeria: Kogi Farmers Excluded From Billions of Naira 'Spent' On Covid-19 Recovery

Kogi State government says in a financial report that it spent over two billion naira on agric-related projects to help the sector recover from the COVID-19 pandemic but farmers in the state deny receiving any support.

Adams Aduojo was dissatisfied with the conduct of the labourers he contracted to plough his farmland for planting of beans.

The commercial farmer who lives in Enjema, a rural community in the eastern part of Kogi State, had hired their service a few months before this reporter visited but the farmland was yet untouched.

"They just collected my money and did nothing for more than a month. They must go there and do the work," an angry Mr Aduojo said that evening.

He was reporting the perceived laziness of the labourers to his aged mother when our reporter arrived in the community.

This is one of the challenges farmers usually encounter with labourers with poor work ethic.

But for Mr Aduojo, who was gradually recovering from the biting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world for more than a year, this poses a grave setback with the concern that he may miss the second window of the planting season, if the labourers delay any further.

Like any other farmer in Kogi State, he was badly affected by the pandemic, recording a huge loss, he said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

"Last year, during the harvesting of cashew (nuts), between the marketers and the whites, what transpired made farmers to be at a negative point because they cannot export. A bag supposed to be sold for N70,000 was sold for N12,000," he told our reporter.

That amounts to over 80 per cent drop in revenue for cashew farmers who depend largely on export markets for sales.

The drastic drop was linked to the COVID-19 restrictions that limited international travels last year. Experts said the purchase of cashews even stopped in some localities.

Mr Aduojo explained that while the price of cashew nuts fell, the cost of maintaining a cashew plantation remained high.

"You can use N30,000 in clearing the land. During September and October, you have to do the fire tracing so that fire will not get into it."

He was speaking to PREMIUM TIMES in company of his neighbour, Haruna Ajeh, who harvested eight truckloads of cassava but sold them for N100,000 instead of the N140,000 -- the market price before the pandemic broke out. Mr Ajeh, as a result of the price drop, had a cumulative loss of 320,000 naira.

Mr Aduojo recalled how the fear of the pandemic made some of his colleagues quit farming after the loss of capital.

"Some had their yams harvested. People ate their yam for fear of the unknown. It was a bottleneck on the side of farmers," he lamented.

Loss in millions

In March 2020, nearly a month after the country recorded its index COVID-19 case, the Nigerian government declared a total lockdown in high-risk states and consequently, a ban on inter-state travels, which lasted for weeks.

Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, a COVID-19 skeptic, refused a total lockdown but ordered a temporary closure of all land and water entry points into the state to curb the spread of virus in the state.

The restrictions on movement negatively impacted the supply of seedlings and other agricultural inputs for planting and marketing of farm produce.

"Farming is movement. It is not highly restricted in Kogi State (like other states) but later on, the restriction came. The restricted movement affected us," said Babaniyi Asorose, a Lokoja-based farmer.

The sexagenarian who mainly plants cashew, maize and guinea corn, explained that Kogi farmers are dependent on neighbouring cities like Abuja, Ilorin and Benin for seedlings and farm input.

He further stated that he lost an estimated five million naira to the pandemic, cumulatively.

Dada Emmanuel, a retired civil servant and cassava farmer in Yagba West Local Government Area, also corroborated Mr Asorose's claim.

The year 2020 has been the worst since he retired five years ago from the state's ministry of finance, he told PREMIUM TIMES. A large chunk of his monthly pension is what he invested in the three-acre cassava farm sited in Egbe.

"(When the pandemic broke out), activities were reduced nearly to zero level because movement was restricted and labourers could not go to farm. That affected the yield, resulting in nearly N1.5 million estimated loss," he told our reporter.

Ramatu Usman, 28, on the other hand, said she used to make an annual turnover of between N500,000 and one million naira from growing beans and vegetables and bambara groundnut but her revenue crashed last year.

"I could not raise up to N300,000."

She was only able to pay her children's school fees from the proceeds of her farm produce. No savings, she said.

Double blow

The effect of the pandemic on farming was worsened by the reduction in rainfall last year, which experts attributed to climate change.

Messrs Aduojo, Asorose and other farmers said the rain stopped in August as against the expected November, a shift from the routine weather pattern.

"The plot I marked for one hectare of palm tree, I have paid for them. 125 stamps. It was the rain that prevented me from transferring them from the nursery to the land," said Mr Aduojo about his botched attempts to plant palm trees.

Weather patterns in recent times have become less favourable and increase the volatility of crop yields, according to a research by McKinsey Global Institute.

Also, the State of the Climate in Africa 2019 Report noted that the changes are threatening food and water security, and socio-economic development in Africa.

For instance, the report noted that under the worst climate change scenario, there will be a 13 per cent reduction in crop yield in West and Central Africa, 11 per cent in North Africa and eight per cent in East and Southern Africa.

This climatic factor, coupled with the insecurity that has kept farmers away from their farms in the northern parts of Nigeria, has been blamed for the hike in food prices.

Livestock farmers not left out

The fate suffered by crop farmers did not spare their counterparts in livestock farming.

Jimba Umar, a fish farmer in Koton-Karfe in Kogi Local Government Area, lamented how he was jobless for nine months with more than a dozen mouths to feed.

The father of 15 children said he barely survived the lockdown because things were tough for his family.

"That time, we stayed at home, we did not move for nine months. No Sunday, no Friday," Mr Umar said.

Asked if he was able to access loans or reliefs, he responded in the negative. "Nothing. Ten kobo, we did not get," he retorted, paddling the boat towards the shoreline of the Lokoja river.

The 40-year old, who had since abandoned fishing, now ferries passengers from one end of the river to the other for a pittance.

He, however, said he is willing to go back to fishing if he gets the aid of the government.

Another livestock farmer badly hit during the pandemic is Ahmed Suleiman, a registration officer at the Ankpa local government secretariat in Ankpa.

He lost more than 100 fowls to flu last year and was gradually recovering from the loss when this reporter visited his community.

Unlike Mr Umar who abandoned fish farming, however, a resilient Mr Suleiman sold his goats to raise the capital to start afresh with forty chickens that were two months old when PREMIUM TIMES visited.

He sold four of the goats to raise money to buy the feeds and veterinary treatment for the fowls. His financial books perused by our reporter showed that he has spent N60,800 to feed and treat the birds.

"If I get assistance from the government, I have a large space to keep them," he said with hope of expanding the business.

According to the Food Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the pandemic prompted some households to sell off their livestock.

"Results from Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank last August showed that about 54 per cent

of households have been engaged in livestock production since mid-March, with nearly 36 per cent of them reporting that the pandemic had impacted their livestock activities.

While a significant share of households generally sell livestock at the best of times, about 17 per cent reported that the pandemic prompted them to sell," the FAO report read.

Government Intervention

In a bid to cushion the effects of the pandemic and ensure a more sustainable and resilient food system in the country, the federal and state governments rolled out different agricultural schemes.

One of them is the distribution of agricultural inputs, seeds and fertiliser to smallholder farmers in the state, which was flagged off by the Federal Minister of Agriculture, Sabo Nanono, last July.

However, some of these farm inputs warehoused at the Agricultural Development Project (ADP) office in Lokoja were later carted away by hoodlums who hijacked the October EndSARS protest. The looting spree also took place in Osun, Lagos, Edo, Kwara and Plateau states where COVID-19 palliatives were stored.

Mr Asorose, who is also the Lokoja coordinator of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said he was in attendance when the minister flagged off the distribution, noting that it was abruptly discontinued the following day.

He said he was lucky to get a bag of benniseed but other members of the farmers' group got nothing.

"The minister came. I was there and they test-run the distribution. The minister said we should be given. They promised to continue sharing the following day but none of our members was given anything," he recalled.

"During the COVID riot, the youth went there and packed them away. Why were we not given in the first place?" he queried, accusing the state government of not being transparent.

According to him, if properly distributed, the farm inputs would be a relief because fertiliser and seedlings were scarce commodities during the pandemic.

COVID-19 spending in Kogi

At the state level, an analysis of the audited financial report of COVID-19-related expenditure made available on its website, shows that over two billion naira was expended on agric-related projects.

The audited budget execution documents certified by the Auditor General of Kogi State, Yakubu Okala, noted that N16.8 billion was used to fund COVID-19 response and recovery expenditures as of August, 2020.

A further breakdown shows that a significant part of the total sum was from the federal government's intervention fund, donations from private organisations and loans from banks, while the remaining was from the state coffers.

Majority of the 11 agricultural projects funded cut across planting and cultivation, economic empowerment for different cadres of farmers and the supply of farm inputs. All these gulped N2.6 billion.

For instance, N400 million was spent to support women and youth in agriculture while the supply of agricultural inputs, including fertiliser, gulped N200 million.

Despite these claims, the farmers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES denied getting any support from the state government in form of financial assistance or supply of farm inputs.

Maria Egwemi, 42, said all she needed to cultivate her farm in Ajaokuta for cassava planting was N50,000 but she could not raise it despite efforts to obtain loans from friends and relations.

She started farming in 2002 with the support of her husband but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from continuing.

"Even yesterday, I was thinking about my three farms at Ajaokuta. I went to a local place to get a loan. It has been cleared but I could not turn it.

"The rainy season is almost over. If I get N50,000 now, I will be really happy," she said with a smile that concealed her frustration.

If she does not cultivate as at when due, weeds would take over the land and the rainy season will get past her.

"You know we women don't like to sit down. We like to support our husbands. If they can help us, if the government gives us loan, it is better than the local ones and the interest is not much," Mrs Egwemi added.

Both Messrs Asorose and Aduojo said those who might have benefited from the schemes are 'political farmers', who owned farmlands on televisions only.

They described the political farmers as those ones often paraded by the state government for publicity stunts but who do not have farms in reality.

Questionable accountability

PREMIUM TIMES wrote the state ministry of agriculture in June, requesting the details of places where the 11 agricultural-related projects in the audited document were executed and the contractors awarded the projects.

A month after the Freedom of information (FoI) request was submitted to his office, the state's Commissioner for Agriculture, David Apeh, responded, saying none of the projects had been executed.

"Apart from one project that we call Accelerated Agricultural Development scheme which is in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria... It is a special project. So, When I saw the list you sent, they are all budgetary provisions that have not been executed."

Mr Apeh said they have not been executed because the state does not have the money yet. "We have plans but we cannot do them now."

However, when our reporter drew his attention to the fact that the audited documents, wherefrom the projects were extracted, indicated that the monies have been spent, the commissioner responded; "it was not from my own office."

He then referred PREMIUM TIMES to other officials for further investigation.

All efforts to get the reaction of Asiru Idris, the finance commissioner who also endorsed the document with his signature, and Onogwu Mohammed, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Bello, were unsuccessful.

They are yet to respond to this newspaper's enquiries forwarded to them via SMS and known WhatsApp contacts.

Recall that a PREMIUM TIMES investigation into the state's COVID-19 spending had in the past exposed how the state spent N90 million on a COVID-19 software that cost N300,000.

The acquisition of the contentious software was contained in the same audited budget execution documents that referenced the N2.6 billion spent on agriculture-related projects.

Although the state government said it spent the N90.7 million on a collection of software not limited to the self-assessment software, it failed to highlight other software acquired.

Sources in the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) said the anti-graft agencies have taken interest in further investigating the state's COVID-19 spending.

This followed petitions submitted by two civil society organisations, Socio-economic Rights and Accountability Project and Citizen Gavel, premised on the PREMIUM TIMES's report.

Although EFCC and ICPC have received several petitions from citizens and groups that have never been treated, Femi Ajibade, the Operation Lead at Citizen Gavel, expressed optimism that the Kogi case will not be swept under the carpet with constant follow-ups by his organisation.

While the probe is in progress, experts have posited that without an appropriate funding of the agriculture sector, the country cannot achieve food security.

An agricultural scientist, Celestine Ayok, told PREMIUM TIMES that in terms of funding, agriculture should have been second to the defence ministry in the budget allocation.

But the case of Kogi State goes beyond budget increase for agriculture; it is that of poor accountability on spending.

Mr Ayok, however, said the states have a bigger role to play in achieving food security because the federal government depends on them.

A month after PREMIUM TIMES's visit to the Kogi communities, Mr Aduojo told our reporter that he was able to go ahead with the beans planting earlier delayed by the labourers. He is hopeful of a bountiful harvest.

Despite not benefitting from the state government's spending on COVID-19 recovery, he said he would continue to invest hugely in agriculture for its potential of saving the nation from hunger.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.

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