Nigeria: Can Emirs Help Restart Farming?

Sani Abubakar Lugga, the chief advisor, or Wasiri, to the Emir of Katsina.

Food production in Nigeria is not keeping pace with population growth. The question is why? The country is not lacking in arable land and has not had a major drought for many years. So maybe the reason has something to do with changes to the way Nigerian societies are organized.

The country is a federation of states. In northern Nigeria, where food shortages are most acute, the society is organized into Muslim states known as Emirates, which were ruled by Emirs under colonialism. But since Nigeria's independence, though the Emirs still hold sway, each emirate also has its own state governments, which are responsible for passing laws and allocating resources.

I talked with Sani Abubakar Lugga, the chief advisor, or Wasiri, to the Emir of Katsina about problems of food production. Below are excerpts from that interview

HECHT: Have the Emirs traditionally played a role in food production?

WASIZI: Before the advent of Islam -- I am talking about a thousand years ago -- the kings of Hausaland were the primary movers of agriculture -- food production and livestock as well as crops like cotton used to produce cloth. The term Emir only came about after the Sokoto caliphate Jihad (1809) to purify Islam [at which time] the pagan kings were made Emirs.

HECHT: So how did these Hausa kings of old encourage farming?

WASIZI: If you look at the cities of the old kingdoms, like Kano and Katsina, you will see they all have [protective] walls. And the town walls at that time were an enclosure of not only the residences of people but of their farmlands as well. That was to ensure that, even during tribal and inter-communal wars, enough food was being produced. So that even in the advent of a raid, one town could [withstand a seige] for four or five months because they had all their farmlands and livestock within the enclosure.

HECHT: Did colonization change all that?

WAZIRI: In Nigeria, where we were under British colonial rule, textile mills and chocolate manufacturers in the UK wanted raw materials: cotton and groundnut and later products such as palm oil. When the colonialists came they promoted cash crop production in addition to the local production of food crops.

HECHT: Did that mean more farming had to take place outside the city walls?

WAZIRI: Yes, but by then there was peace. You know the city walls were protection, just like you had castles [in Europe]. But the tribal and inter-communal fighting stopped and there was no need for the town wall. The farmlands expanded. With better healthcare delivery introduced by the colonialists, people were living longer, more children were being born and, of course, farming continued to expand.

HECHT: So are you saying the British colonizers did more to encourage agriculture than the governments that followed independence?

WASIZI: With colonialism there was what was called the indirect rule system whereby the British ruled through the Emirs. They didn't rule directly. And the Emir's were in charge of agriculture, finance, water, roads, everything. The traditional heads -- the Emir, the district heads, the village heads – were the prime movers as well as the largest scale farmers. Whenever there was an introduction of new seedlings, or new chemicals and fertilizers, it was always introduced through the Emirs. They were tested on the Emirs' farmlands in order to convince people that there was nothing wrong with the product. But then with independence the various regional governments and federal government took over those responsibilities. So the Emirs became symbolic heads. They were not allocated any funds to disperse to the people or to use for the development of agriculture or any other form of development.

HECHT: So agriculture collapsed with independence?

WASIZI: No. Immediately after independence the first republic supported agriculture because it [was crucial to] the Nigerian economy. Up until the 1960's, 80 percent of Nigeria's GDP [Gross Domestic Product] was agriculture and 80 or even 90 percent of its foreign exchange came from agriculture. The largest ministries were the agricultural ministries. The most important men [in government] were the agricultural ministers.

HECHT: So when did that change?

WASIZI: With the first military coup in 1966 and the discovery of oil around the same period. And then, in the late 1970s, we had what was called the oil boom. I recall our then head-of-state, a military man, saying, "Nigeria's problem is not money but how to spend it." Unfortunately that is when agriculture was neglected.

HECHT: In what way was it neglected?

WAZIRI: I will give you a personal example: When I finished secondary school in 1968 I was among those fortunate enough to qualify for university. Now the ministry of agriculture came to lecture us and tell us that if we were willing to study agriculture then we would go as employees of the government collecting a monthly salary while we studied. If we were to study anything else then we would only get a stipend, just a small amount of money. Because of the encouragement, and the importance then attached to agriculture, I studied agriculture [and then went to work at the ministry]. But by 1973 when we had the oil boom I had to leave the ministry because suddenly we had nothing to do. And so I had to go back to school and studied business management and then join the private sector.

HECHT: And is that symptomatic of the government's attitude toward agriculture?

WASIZI: Well since then agricultural production kept on dwindling, going down to the level we are today that we have to import more than half of what we eat. It's not natural. We haven't had a drought for the last seven years in Nigeria. We have a minimum of six months rainfall. In the southern parts of Nigeria about 25 to 30 percent of Nigeria receives rainfall for 9 months in the year. So why should we not be able to produce enough food?

HECHT: Is it that Nigerians simply stopped farming?

WASIRI: Out of about 140 million Nigerians, over 100 million are still engaged in agriculture but they are doing virtually nothing. The yield per hectare is so low these days because we talk of fertilizer but it is not there. We talk of agriculture inputs, which are not there. We have encouraged the production of hybrid seeds that require a lot of care, unlike the local breeds, and the care is not there. We have a lot of problems with desertification and it's all man made: self-inflicted, self-created.

HECHT: Can't the Emirs help?

WASIZI: In the past, whenever the government wanted to introduce a new type of crop or new technique in agriculture, it would inform the traditional rulers and the traditional rulers informed the people and the people readily accepted. And up to today, they play that role. Up to today I think the Emir of Katsina owns the biggest farmland in the whole of Kastina Emirate. In fact [farming] is a major past time of the Emir.

HECHT But I met a traditional titleholder who told me that he sold his land because he couldn't make money on it anymore. That is a terrible example to show to people?

WASIZI: Yes and that is why people are abandoning agriculture. They are coming to the cities in search of white-collar jobs, which are not there. And that is why the rate of crime is increasing. It is no secret. People in the villages are moving to the cities for easy money, which is not there. So they are taking up arms and becoming robbers because they have nothing else to do.

HECHT: So what needs to happen?

WASIZI: If we want to be food secure in this country we must not only encourage the usual rainy season agriculture but also encourage irrigation. We have a lot of prospects for irrigation. We have a lot of natural rivers and natural dams, artificial dams, ponds and so on. The introduction of the river basin authorities during the second republic between 1979 and 1983 should be reactivated and sustained. Because that will encourage people to work on their fields during and after the rains cease.

HECHT: And can the emirs help?

WASIZI: Well the emirs can do a lot but only if the government does something. The emirs normally serve as a unifying factor. If there is any development problem being introduced by the minister of agriculture the emirs can come in and encourage the people to embrace it.

HECHT: But does the government have a plan?

WASIZI: The present minister of agriculture has plans that, if implemented, I assure you that within the next four or five years we would be self sufficient in agriculture. You can see from the 2009 federal budget that agriculture is the second largest item on the budget. There was a time when agriculture was second to last [on the budget]. And the minister of agriculture confided in me that he intends to reactivate all the irrigation projects in the country. And [the government] has released about $1.5 billion Naira to complete the canalization and other aspects of the irrigation facilitates in Katsina State in order to start irrigation within the next one and a half years. If that is done I believe this country will go a long way in solving the food crisis not only in Nigeria but also in neighboring countries. We are in a very, very good position to help feed Niger Republic, Mali, Senegal, Togo and others.