Mr. Ezekiel Simeon Ogbianko is the Bayelsa State Chairman of Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN). In this interview with PAULINE ONYIBE, he enumerates some of the challenges facing rice farmers in the state. Excerpts.
You have been in this struggle for eight years, how were you able to surmount the petitions and court cases?
The culture of a Bayelsa man is petition writing, they feel that God has ordained them with good resources, they don’t believe in too much work because of the resources that God has ordained them with. So when you come with ideas and vision, people will write petition against you. Political farmers are the people that have the ability to write petitions. A real farmer does not petition a fellow farmer.
A politician can petition a fellow politician but if you are a farmer and petition your fellow farmer who puts on tattered cloth to go to the farm and you are writing petition against that person, then you are not a farmer. A political farmer puts on the best clothes, presents the best proposals to convince his own fellow politicians. Farmers in the communities don’t have any time to raise biro and petition their fellow farmers.
So in Bayelsa, writing petitions against one another is part of our culture. I blame the law enforcement agencies, especially the DSS. When they fought me, the DSS, the monitoring unit, the conflict resolution, those were the places they took me to because they have their friends there. And it is very easy for these political farmers to convince the law enforcement agents with peanuts.
So when they receive all their peanuts, they do it anyhow. But I thank God that we have the courts, that was where the truth prevailed. Policemen cannot tell you the truth, they believe in money and at the end of the day, they tried to frustrate my project, but God intervened. I took them to court and that was where the truth prevailed and they withdrew.
They even took me to CBN, EFCC, but I’m not a politician. I don’t hold political office. I’m a private sector-driven person. You claimed that you are a farmer, you went to the bank to open an account, when the bank investigates, they found out that you are not a farmer.
How were you able to weed out the political farmers from the system?
I had to screen them and push them away, that was why they petitioned. If you petition, come and show me your farm. Show the policemen your farm because the policemen they were using to fight the project are their friends. They wanted to use that one to destroy the project that I’m working on. Nobody saw the vision for me, I saw the vision myself. And when people don’t know your vision, they will always suspect you.
The believe in Bayelsa is that they don’t like hard work, so I gathered those who know the value of farming, they believe in my vision, but the lazy ones stepped aside. And those who know the value have seen that farming is a very good thing, that if you get into it, you will benefit.
I was pooling 10,000 farmers in Bayelsa but at the end of the day, even the politicians that are heading the government, they convinced them because the politicians are not helping matters. They are not helping even their followers, their followers are moving around begging. Somebody that you handed gun over to and after winning, you refuse to take away the gun from him. What do you expect him to do? They will hunt for people to kill for their survival.
You didn’t show them the way of survival. You didn’t introduce agriculture to them. When the state government said it was giving loans, they gave it to political farmers. How do you expect political farmers to produce food? At the end of the day, we raised the alarm that loans had been given but he real farmers that dwell in the rural areas didn’t see anything. I’m not a politician. My own vision is to produce food and feed the state and the nation.
Has any agric loan been given to rice farmers?
The agric loan is meant for political farmers. They give to their followers and their followers refuse to pay back, then they will pay. Because the state government gives money to their political farmers and followers, they will ‘eat’ the money and go. When they say that they are giving to farmers, they give to political farmers. They don’t give to real farmers. Those that are dwelling in the rural areas are the real farmers we know, not those carrying portfolios raising proposals. But the real farmer don’t have any voice.
What is your relationship with state and the federal government?
For the Bayelsa State Government, they have thrown more weight on education. Though on education, I give the governor thumbs up. But when we talk of agriculture, we cannot say that he is trying because we have not seen any effort he has put in agriculture. For us, the rice farmers, we have not seen any good impact in agriculture.
But at the federal level, now that the APC has come to carry the farmers along, we are seeing the green light. Although when former President Goodluck Jonathan was there, he laid the foundation, today he is no longer there. Buhari is on board and Buhari has followed up the foundation. He has to build up the foundation that Goodluck laid.
You see now that everybody is clamouring for Agriculture. Food is now coming to the table of the common man. Buhari has put smile on the faces of the common man. If Buhari continues this anchor borrower’s programme, give him another eight years in government, food will be everywhere, hunger would be a thing of the past.
What is the response of rice farmers concerning the anchor borrower?
They are responding positively. What RIFAN is doing is that we are working on individual farms. But the RIFAN in Bayelsa is different from that of the Federal Government. We are now working on community farming, we have cleared lands everywhere. The communities cut across all the eight local governments.
We opened up the virgin bushes. But the only thing the Federal Government fail to understand is that Bayelsa terrain is very difficult. That is why I’m emphasizing that they should set up a committee to go round Nigeria and view the terrains and let them see what the Bayelsa man is facing in respect of agriculture.
Because we have virgin bushes everywhere and you cannot contest with machetes to clear the virgin bushes. We need a lot of support in terms of clearing, if they are giving the North 10 per cent for clearing, they should give the Niger Delta 20 per cent so that we will have enough food. God didn’t bless us only with oil, He has also blessed us with agricultural lands.
Our soil is the best all over Nigeria. We have very fertile soil, we don’t need much fertilizers, we don’t need much irrigation, we have natural irrigation. The government should help so that Bayelsans will key into agriculture fully and pipeline vandalism will be a thing of the past for Bayelsa youths
Have you been able to produce rice?
I produced rice a year before the last. I produced 3,000 bags of rice around Tombia Yenagoa road but the challenges we are facing is means of transportation to the milling machine. So we need the Federal Government to mount some milling machines in Bayelsa to enable us benefit. If there is a milling machine, it will push peoples to go into rice farming. If there is no milling machines, where do we carry the rice to? Those are the challenges we are facing. The Federal Government should mount atleast two milling machines in Bayelsa and you will see that rice farming will boom. You will see that when you carry your rice, you have somewhere you will go for milling. And then you can market your product.
What of the Peremabiri rice farm?
The Peremabiri rice farm belongs to the Federal Government. Right now, somebody from that community is working there. So anybody that does not belong to that terrain cannot go there.
What has been the role of the Minister of State for Agriculture, Heineken Lokpobiri in all these, being a Bayelsan?
We have been hearing promises but no practical. We have been hearing that he will support but we have never seen any tangible thing that he has done in respect of rice farming. As an agric minister, Bayelsans supposed to see the impact but we pray that God will touch his heart so that he will remember to do something for Bayelsans in respect to farming.
Do you think the anchor borrower’s programme will be a success in the state?
We have been crying to the CBN telling them the challenges we are facing and they are seeing it. They have given us a promise that next time anchor borrower will not be like this because the challenges in terms of transportation to bring goods down to the places that you will make your sales is very difficult. To even reach where our land is sited is almost N11, 000 to pay for transport to that place by boat one person. Even the transportation will claim all the money you want to use for the farming. That is why I’m telling CBN to go back to their drawing board to revisit their policy so that the Niger Delta will benefit from this good programme of Buhari. Let the programme not benefit only the North. Let them come down to the South South because our terrain and the Northern terrain are not the same. So we are appealing to Buhari to call CBN to order so that they go back to the drawing board.
How can rice production be improved, especially in the Niger Delta area?
What I will suggest is for the government to mount milling machines for us. That will ginger our youths to go into rice farming. Without milling machine, you produce your rice, where will you mill the rice, who will buy it. So if they can convince us with a milling machine like in the Niger Delta, if they mount like five machines, in Rivers and Bayelsa they can mount one big one and it can serve three states.
And it will prompt people to go into rice farming. That is the only thing, it is not just by policy. We need the practical aspect of these things we are talking about. Let the president sit down and call the ministers and ask what they have done for their states. Let him call ministers for seminars and tell them how they will develop their states and local governments. Buhari is lacking that knowledge, farmers have the largest population in this country. We farmers can vote him into power. If he listens to us, farmers in Nigeria can vote him to power. We own the country. Without us, there is no food.
You promised that a bag of rice will sell for N5.000 but that hasn’t happened. Why?
Now we will sell for N10, 000 because of the terrain. Our youths should join hands with us, we have been suffering for a long time from the hands of politicians but today the Federal Government has come with a policy of anchor borrower. CBN is ready to give money to go into farming. Let us forget about breaking pipelines, the oil belongs to the Federal Government.
We should forget about pipeline vandalism and key into agriculture, where you make genuine money, where you will have rest of mind. No arrest. No DSS will come and pick you. When you are busy working in the bush, they will bring their money and buy your food. Bayelsa youths and the Niger Delta youths should forget about pipeline vandalism and leave the oil for the Federal Government. Youths from the Niger Delta should drop their arms and embrace agriculture.
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