Audu Innocent Ogbeh Former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

Since Independence, from 1960 to 2020 Nigeria has embarked on several agricultural developments policies. In 1976 General Olusegun Obasanjo introduced Operation Feed the Nation, as a measure to achieve self-sufficiency in food production and inspire a new generation to return to farming and Alhaji Shehu Shagrari who took over from him in 1979 introduced the Green Revolution Programme to ensure self -sufficiency in food production.

In August 2012, the President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan administration launched the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, the goal was to add 200 metric tons of food to the domestic food supply by 2015 and to create 3.5 million jobs, etc., yet we have not achieved food security. In this interview, Chief Audu Innocent Ogbeh, former Minister of Communication (1982-1983) Chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) from 2001-2005 and former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (2015-2019) and a prolific creative writer, examines the journey into agricultural developments policies in Nigeria since independence.

What went wrong and what can Nigeria do to ensure food security and exportation?

Well, it’s quite simple what is going wrong. We have very good policies but policies have changed with every regime.
From Independence we depended on agriculture. If you take Eastern Nigeria for instance when Michael Opara was Minister of Agriculture in the East and then became governor, he did amazing things for palm oil and cashew nuts. Under him, Nigeria accounted for 44% of the total palm oil production in the world.
Today, we are number three. He planted cashews in the East for two reasons; one unknown to people was erosion control. Cashew roots are fantastic for holding soil. He did it in Okigwe and in other locations. In in the north, we saw the groundnut pyramids and sesame seed and all that.

Today we’re still number two in the world after the US. In the West, we had farm settlements by Chief Awolowo who did amazing things. So, we depended then on agriculture because oil didn’t come at that time.
But with each government and with each coup that came, previous policies was jettisoned. Then slowly with oil and gas in the 70s, we decided that it was cheaper to import.

People abandoned their farms and moved to the cities where earning a daily salary was more attractive than going to sweat on the farm. Slowly, we declined but all along that, population has been ballooning. Sometimes, it’s a three and a half pence. Your economy has never really grown in the last 10 years. If your population is growing faster than your economy, you are not growing and so you can’t feed yourself.

Of course, we had all kinds of fancy ideas. It was cheaper to import. Economists also fell into this trap. Of course, in theory, it was cheaper to import. Rice, sugar, milk, ice cream, powder, you know name its biscuits, cookies.
Go to supermarkets and everybody looks very well-fed. However, the cost you were refusing to acknowledge is in jobs.

Why are so many young men and women into crime now? When you look at the arrests of those who are arrested, the average age is about 25 even less. In Kastina, somewhere a few days ago, 15-year-old have kidnapped a baby.

So, when we argue that it was cheaper to import, we forgot the long-term cost of job losses. Economic decline and the propensity for criminality among unemployed youths who instead of staying in the rural areas to make money, have decided to migrate to the cities and look for work with doesn’t exist. So, then they turn to crime.

That’s where we are and there is a tough battle ahead to feed ourselves because in another 25 to 35 years would be 450 million. How much rice can you produce then? Those making yam hips are no longer there. They’ve all moved. Luckily, when I was in the ministry, we designed a new plan to make yam hips. That will help.

And cassava and beans and Maize which we were desperately trying to produce enough to satisfy our needs and the poultry industry. Everything is under stress because of the mistakes we made in the past.
How can we use agriculture to bring back Nigerians youths out of crimes?

It’s the only real big area of economic activity that can actually help them back. I’ve been reading a book comparing two countries in Asia. Southeast Asia with two countries in Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia compared with Kenya and Nigeria. In the 60s,early 70s and early 80s,we were way ahead of them. They have overtaken us now because they did something we failed to do. One leader in Nigeria tried to do it.

That was President Babangida. A programme called Directorate of Foods and Rural Infrastructure (DFRI). One of the most strategic programmes any government has ever prepared. When he left, they made a Rural Development and the Minister of Agriculture the same. It wasn’t the same thing.

The kind of budget he gave to DFRI was phenomenal. I praised DFRI. If only we had opened up the roads in the rural areas, built bridges over their streams and rivers, given them clean water, taken electricity, health services to them and improved their schools, 90% of these young people today roaming the streets and committing crimes wouldn’t be in the cities because you see some of them and I see them as our children.

They are young and they ask you what do you want us to do? We have nowhere to live. We would like to marry and have children. We have no jobs, even the agriculture. We have no money to go into it. What do we do? That’s not to say that criminality is excusable because understandable.

So the thing is to revive the programme like DFRI of course, the economy now is in so much trouble that programmes like DFRI would take a bit of planning and time and funding to reinstitute or reinstall, but having said that, the opportunities are just too many.

We are now the world’s biggest producers of cassava at 40 million tons. We can double that simply by teaching the farmers how to plant cassava. They don’t know how to do that. They stick one planting material and go one meter away and in between. The closer they are the higher the plant population and therefore the higher the yield.

The cassava leaf is a vegetable which most of West and central Africa people use as a vegetable for soup. We are the only ones who don’t do that. However, we can use the cassava leaf and the cassava pills to feed cows and goats and pigs.
So, you don’t waste them. One of the things wrong with us in Africa is that when you compare what we do with others, they don’t waste anything.

I mean you go round Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and you see how one waste is a raw material for another product. That’s how they conserve wealth. That’s how they keep away from unnecessary importation. For instance, when you took palm oil and crack the seed, the shell what do we do with it here, you throw it away! but no they shell and coconut shell are the most valuable items for producing something called activated carbon for treating water every but we waste our own.

Agric, yes but organizing it in such a way that young people can access facilities and credit is a major problem. First, we have a group called the Nigerian Agricultural Rural Development Agency. It was created by one former president.
You have to clear land.

If you are in the South East, South South and the lower part of the North Central,
density of trees is very high. If you don’t push down the trees in an organized manner to allow young people access, they can’t do anything. Secondly, we don’t have enough tractors. You don’t make them here. You have to bring them here. Thirdly, seed research.

We have to improve seeds and do more irrigation. We don’t have to wait for the rains, in fact irrigated agriculture is more reliable. Then livestock goat, pigs, chick, cattle and so on and their management. Right now, we have a demand for goat meat in the Middle East to the tune of 120 goat per week. I met ministers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia during a conference asking me to send them goats.

Luckily, there’s a lot of investment in goat farming now by the private sector in Nigeria. The last six months, I have put up to 400 goats on the farm and I’m targeting about 2,000 in another year and you know and goat milk is far better than cow milk. Yes, and the West African goat, that is the West African dwarf is better producer of milk than any other goat in the world. So, opportunities are there.

Last month, I read one Asian country saying that they have cut down their estimates for rice exports by five million tons this year because they lost the Nigerian Market which makes me happy because we were losing five million dollars a day importing rice.
Five million U.S Dollars a year for nearly 30 years! Which country can afford that? This is where we are and as for us, between now and 2050, we need at least 200 new rice mills; big integrated mills with a capacity of four to five tons per hour. If not, we’ll always be behind schedule. But each of these projects will cost you three 2.5 to 3 million dollars.

If I want to build one, where do I raise the funds? The banks want a collateral of six million dollars. Again, these are the issues. Government has to intervene, which was started initially. We did 10 mills and I think they will do more as time goes on. With funding by the ministry to the people who would pay back but that’s basically roughly where we stand but have a challenge.

Why are we still importing agricultural products despite the vast potential that we have?
This is it, many of us, the current political class, most of us have come from the same background in the rural areas. My father was a small-time farmer.

He was once a steward to a colonial District Officer called Captain Money. Then when Independent came, he did small-scale farming. He wasn’t a rich man by any standard.

If I may quote Obama, “We were a family of a humble background”, humble means for poor. Now not many of us after escaping the doldrums and the tedium of agricultural background and come up this way have shown any interest in agriculture. We have fled the misery and the penury of the village and we are too sophisticated now to understand that there’s no way we can go without dealing with that same background working for and that’s our village,


Unfortunately, 99% of us have really no deep interest in developing those rural areas. We have 774 local governments areas, 8009 wards in the country. Now ask yourself.

Is the local government functioning in this country? When did you see a grader grading a local government road or a village, when did you see a bulldozer in some states? There’s none clearing land for farmers.

So, we’ve all abandoned the village and our local governments and is easy to complain about the president in Abuja because we’re all here watching TV. How many of us ask any questions about their gross under development in our states and the hopelessness of a local government yet each month 120 million naira on the average or sometimes less goes to every local government multiplied by 774.

What do they do with it? Why shouldn’t each local government in one year build at least one agro-processing industry in the local government; palm oil, coconut oil, rice milling, archer processing, sesame, hibiscus flower processing, why not, one each year.

Imagine if you did that, 774 industries, small firms in each local government every year feeding on local raw materials, your GDP will rise to 10% but we don’t do that. So, when you drive along the Route in a whole state, you’re passing by there is no sign of an industry function.

I went to India, to the state of Gujarat where the current Indian Prime Minister comes, I drove through this place and I couldn’t believe it.

So, this is the problem. We don’t invest so we can tap the resources we have. We talk but nobody practices it. In some States like; Jigawa, Ebony, Anambra, interestingly are doing enough, Kebbi are doing serious work on Agric. The rest of them are trying and Cross River is making some serious effort too. You have 200 million people and they have to eat.

If you are importing toothpicks, ice cream powder and sweets and cookies and biscuits. Yes, because you don’t make it. If we’re going to do anything, the states and local governments have to hand walk individuals into a group production and agro industry and is a dangerous thing because I can tell you that we there’s no way we can go very far under this circumstance.

Do you think they are policies affecting this sector? What policies would have been changed or done differently?
When I came into the ministry, I put in place a policy called the Agricultural Promotion Policy otherwise called the Green Alternative.

I was looking at agriculture taking its place as an alternative to oil and gas and I distributed it to all the states. Some states governors responded very well. Some other state commissioners couldn’t really get it across. The policies are straightforward, replace oil and gas with agriculture, drive toward self-sufficiency and eat what you produce and produce what you eat with a small exception, maybe some little extra things everybody buys something.

That is the broad outline but you have to help fund young people who don’t have anything. Why do you expect a young graduate even a retired civil servant, from their savings to offer a collateral and take a loan of 10, 20, 30 million, import the goods, clear them at the port, build a factory, set up their generators and water supply? We are dreaming! We don’t have the means. However, you can organize groups of youths here, and we will help you do this.

The interest rate even though we borrow that 15 or 20%, we are giving it to you at 5%, tried to bring an expert who will train them and tell them you have to be disciplined because if you fail there are consequences.

You will out of every 10 efforts succeed with six or seven. We don’t have that. We don’t go that far. We have for some strange reasons too busy and at the end of four years you look around but achieve nothing.

So, this is it. However, there are private sector efforts going on now. As I speak with you, I’m working on the Palm Plantation somewhere in Kogi. We’re clearing. It’s not cheap. You rent a bulldozer at 200,000 a day.

The palm oil industry is 94 billion dollars in the world. Most of the cosmetics and all that are from oil with other additives like aloe vera and so on and so forth. We were number one but Malaysia and Indonesia came here and took the seeds in 1966 while they moved on.

Now we’re importing from Malaysia, Ivory Coast and from Ghana to satisfy our needs. So, there is fundamentally something not too committed about us. Politics hasn’t really been such a drive or a driver because there is too much interest in the position not enough interest in the philosophy of political governance. It will count and we are all in danger.

Make no mistake these young boys and girls are our children. Whether you are thinking you are connected with them or not, their unhappiness will affect you somewhere sooner than later. Why should we wait? That’s energy waiting to be tapped. There is a lot of stuff we can do but how do you convince the political class to take this matter seriously? That’s the major issue.

In 2005, I gave a lecture in Arewa Consultative Forum titled: North and the Future of Nigeria. I warned that there will be violence on the scale and people said I was being too academic. I said I can see signs.
Five years later in 2010 Boko Haram came. Now here I could see it. We drove around in big black cars to rallies and show and these little boys were looking at us waving. They didn’t come to the rally to hear anything. They hope somebody will throw 500 naira and they will fight over it. This is the danger facing us. See where we are. I’m not happy that is happening but I foresaw it. Yet you would imagine that all of us would say well this is dangerous deal with it. We haven’t got there yet. Somehow, we think is not real. We think we’re not going to be affected.

There was a time you talked about importing grass to feed cattles. Do you still believe if that was done, there would be a change in addressing farmers/herders crisis?

Yes, they would have been because no other country has succeeded in rearing their cattle without dealing with the issue of their feedlots and people making mistakes in agriculture that we distinguish between grass and weeds.
In Nigeria, people rose up and that’s the tragedy of this country. We are experts in every subject.

With all due respect, if there are a subject people don’t know, they should shut up.

No country, especially Brazil, New Zealand, the United States, has succeeded in their cattle programme without doing what I said. The Brazilians even took some seeds from Africa, which they multiplied in their tabs and are reexporting now to Africa. There must be a minimum protein content of 25 percent in the so-called grass they eat. That way they’ll grow fast, give you the right kind of milk for your health. Also, not when they are so hungry, they are chewing plastic.

I have seen cows eating plastic in refuse dumps. Cows, not horses, they don’t like walking. So, we match them around from Yola to Lagos. They’ve lost 40 percent of their weight. Their muscles have become too though even for meat. They lose pregnancies- those that are pregnant along the route. Then unknown to many people, many cows have TB. What they called bovine tuberculosis affects a lot of these cows and they spread it.
So, when I say confine the cows, give them grass and water, people say they want to take our land. No, I wrote to all the governors asking them.

The old grazing reserves are nearly five million football fields. We will like you if we can revive the one in your state. Sixteen of them replied, the rest, didn’t reply or said they were not interested. And I said, we have nothing to worry about. Nobody is going to touch your land. They said oh, no, it is an attempt to colonize us. northern Nigeria has 76 percent of Nigeria’s landmass, sparsely populated. We don’t need to force anybody. The state that say yes are mainly in the North. You have to confine these cows, give them the right kind of grass and water.

If you go to a farm in Holland, you see a bull weighing 800 kilograms, some 900. Some cows have to drink a minimum of 80 liters of water per day. Some might say, well, a minimum and here that is the hot climate, it could drink a 100, but you have a cow matching all the way from Kastina to Lagos, hasn’t had access to ten liters of water in a week- it will get sick. Nobody wants to to be patient enough to listen to it.

I’m not an expert very well, but I’ve been in this system from childhood, I followed my father to the farm from the age of 5. I’m 73 now. So when I talk with all due respect about this subject, I expect some people to be a little patient and humble, but I know they don’t know about this subject in practice. I have some cows; I have some few antelopes.

So, if we want to solve that problem, we have to confine our cows. We had even had a meeting with West African Ministers of Agric, telling them, under the ECOWAS Protocol, that there’d be free movement of men and goods and livestock. We have to stop them. We’ll do it here, you do the same in your place so that your cows don’t come here because in West Africa, Nigeria has about 20 million cows, West Africa has 60 million.

So we have one third of the cows in West Africa. They still come here in the dry season to graze. Under that agreement, you can send them away. It’s very complex. As they move around, they destroy crops. They destroy my maize farm in my village and I suffer too. We’ve to be a little more scientific and more serious too.


The rice policy wasn’t terribly popular with everybody, the big importers are not happy with me, I mean, losing business. I could easily have compromised myself by saying let’s talk but no. Fourteen (14) million families are feeding because they are growing rice right now; the numbers can rise to 30 million to be able to feed the country.

The money going abroad, should go to their pockets in the rural areas. They have a right to happiness. Why do you transfer all these abroad and complain that you’re running your foreign reserve down, that people are hungry and poor?

We did it and we need to do more because the price of rice has gone up There’s not enough that has been growing yet. Some people are now importing rice paddy from Mali because we don’t have enough. India produces 153 million tons of rice and has 30,000 rice mills. We only produce 27 million tons of Paddy which can’t satisfy the need. We have only 42 integrated mills and are not big enough. We need 200 more between now and 2050. So, there’s work to do, serious work.

With the rising population are our industry producing enough?
We need to invest more. The issue is where do we find the capital? I must congratulate the CBN, they have done a really great job.

I remember the first time I met Emefiele at Frankfurt Airport and was asked how it was getting on and he said he wasn’t too happy because he tried to limit items of Importation that CBN will found but people were very angry with it, and I said you did the right thing, don’t listen to them when we get back to Abuja, I will address the press. This was before 2015 that we were not yet in the cabinet because this thing you’ve done should have been done 20 years ago.

The way we are going, we’re going to crash. I’m not an economist but commonsense. He said I was the first person to tell him this. I said yes, go ahead. Today is bringing down interest rate.

Before he started this thing, 35 percent for interest rate and invested in what, in crime? You take a loan in your country at 35 percent interest rate and all these people lecturing us about economic growth, refused to mention that. How do you set up anything at 35 percent? So, the problems are there. Access to capital, power supply and no seriousness by the political class. There’s no point talking.

We are indeed in grave danger and the cities are not any safer. These boys are on drugs, many of them. They’ll begin to do things which will shock the world. We pray they don’t. We’ve got to get more serious.

Local governments should do at least one small scale agro industry everyone. If the governors decide to allow them to do so, they would add value and create wealth. broadening the base of raw material production. People think is going to go away. It won’t. Poverty doesn’t go away; you drive it otherwise, we will literally be a complete failure if we allow this thing to continue.

When the oil and gas boom came, some substantial elements were lost. This tendency for importation, this superficial sense of success and well-being, they don’t ship in everything, and when you’re traveling, you can take 10,000 dollars with you. We are the best shoppers in the world. So, I’m glad you’re raising these questions because we just can’t go on for it. The resources are not there. Oil come down today or tomorrow, for example, somewhere we will cut off 70 percent of the things we import into this country.

Africa is going into the operationalization phase of Africa continental Free Trade Area next year. Do we have what it takes to trade in agricultural sector among African countries?


Well, it’s not as if the rest are way ahead of us. Many of them have their own little challenges. However, I think the president was quite fair to Nigerian businessmen when he refused to sign in the first instance until he did consultations with them. We need to commend him for that.

Because he wanted to ask. I mean, ok, are we ready? Some people said it was disappointing that Nigeria, the biggest economy in Africa, did not sign. The President said, let me talk to the business community. He did consultations and he was told that certain areas needed tidying up. I believe that the Minister of Trade and Investment and Finance and so are looking at those in terms of readiness.


Every African country likes the Nigerian market. It is the biggest. 200 million people are a large market. So, they’ll be heading here. Do we have anything to sell to them right now? We don’t have much. But many years on from Borno and Yobe we supplied, beans, maize and groundnuts to Central Africa. Trucks are heading towards the Cameroon and Central Africa on a daily basis from the Baga market.

We have a lot to sell. They come to Sokoto Market. They come to Kebbi. They come to Kano. If anybody sees the number of trucks leaving Nigeria with gains to the rest of Africa in a day, you won’t believe it. Unfortunately, it is still informal trade. I was asking the CBN Governor once, why can’t the people bring the CEFA, change it in the bank before they take the goods? I guess they are working on it. We do have something to sell but not enough. The time will come when we will definitely be overwhelmed if we don’t reorganize our production strategy.

The only big question I keep asking about the Continental Trade Agreement is this: How do we move goods? The roads, yes, we are looking at the West African network, which AFDB is talking about. Fantastic!
How long will it last? So, there was a time, I was suggesting to a former Head of State of Togo. We were coming from Kenya conference, we sat next to each other and I said, why don’t we think of the Trans African Railway?

This sound ambitious but in the 18th century, colonialists in South Africa was talking about railway line from Cape to Cairo. So possibly Dhaka-Dharamshala and from the West Coast, you go up north to Mali, to Niger, to Burkina Faso. Now, if we hadn’t made some mistakes in the past, Nigeria would have been able to supply the tracks because after being Minister of Communications, I was also a Minister of the Steel Industry before the coup of 1983 and the medium steel section which produces railway tracks was ready to load.

We were making the railway tracks. Now, they would have come from China. We would have made them here because it was just a stone’s throw away. Make your railway tracks from Calabar to Cameroon to Central Africa to Uganda to Kenya and from Kenya to the Port of Mombasa across each country.

Is it trailers they’re going to carry the goods with all the insecurity? So, that’s something. Air cargo is not cheap. So when the details come, it may not be as smooth as we expect, but it is a good idea.

We have to get ready because then you can’t say don’t bring this in. You can bring that. Don’t bring this, because then you’ll be violating the terms of the treaty. If you are not able to satisfy the market and export and other people have to export, so be it. However, I do not think that any country has produced so much extra food in Africa that will serve the Nigerian market.

Today we are number one in rice in spite of our severe shortage; we’re number one in maize, 20 million tons, even though we’re number 10 in the world, we are number two in sorghum in the world after the United States.

So, we are number one in hibiscus. We can do this. We’re number one in chicken production now. We have the potential to be serious with you. It is about watching out for where we need to put in the right infrastructure.

Nigeria is 60 years after independence What’s your advice?

I’m very particular about cash crops.


We were leaders in cocoa production but we have slipped to number 7. I was thinking of relaunching the Five Cs: cocoa, coffee, cassava, cashew and coconut but time ran out. Two things have happened to Nigerian cocoa.

Most of the existing trees are too old. We haven’t done much of the investment in cocoa. Too many of the farmers have aged and gone. Young boys and girls are not very interested in it.

I wrote a poem once, I said: “if fortunes vast and profit fast been what you seek, put no feat in these terrains”. If you are not patient, don’t go into agric. So those trees are gone. We have to replant. Now, the political orientation in the southwest and part of the south-South today are very much interested not in this. It is a tragedy.

We have all escaped the peasantry, and we’re not excited about walking around in the bushes. Somebody has to drive and when we do, our policy should be this. Don’t look at Switzerland and Europe as the only market for cocoa because they usually pile up from Africa, South America and a little bit from Southeast Asia. Stopped by and form the best.

Process the cocoa for local consumption, add it to the school feeding programmes, Fantastic for the brains; add some milk. Our 25 or 30 million children in primary school will like a lovely cup of this twice a week. They will grow in the brain. That’s one orientation we have to drive.

Coffee, there are two types known to the world, Arabica and the Roboster, but there is a cross-breed now which is more expensive than the others. We can grow coffee in the same zone all the way to Plateau and Mambilla. Those are strategic tweaks we have to put into the system. When the oil boom came, we forgot everything and it’s not been easy.

Finally, there have been too many dramatic changes of government in Nigeria. Between 1960 and now we’ve had eight coups. India became independent on the 15th of August, 1947. I was only 20 days old. India went through hunger in 1966 when I was in form five, I remember the Prime Minister of India used to go on TV and radio begging Indian families to fast for two days a week and there was no food to eat. Today India is an exporter of food after feeding about 1.8 billion people and there was never a coup in India in spite of their religion, political and ethnic problems.

Let us keep working harder, asking young people to join politics and recognize that they have to come with a dream and drive it. We need to have hope, stabilize the system and watch those who govern us as nicely and politely as we can.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments