Senator Samuel Ominyi Egwu represents Ebonyi North Senatorial District on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and he is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Industry. In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID, he speaks on diversification of the economy and development of the agriculture among sundry issues
It is being said that this administration is just paying lip service to the issue of diversification, that there has not been any tangible effort to diversify the economy. What is your take on this?
I agree with that school of thought. I have this belief too. But it is not peculiar to this regime; even the past regimes made so much noise about diversification but there is nothing to show that they mean it. In the last administration, I was just laughing at them when they said that farmers could stay in their areas and get alert to go to different locations and get fertilizer for their farming. Is that any improvement on agriculture, is that the diversification?
After all most farmers have their handsets; by giving them phone, is that an achievement or that you have reduced distribution of fertilizer; from the middleman it goes direct to the selected government appointees or agents, is that an achievement in agriculture? The achievement should be to de-emphasise the use of inorganic fertilizer so that you stop massive importation, and emphasize the use of organic fertilizer.
How much has government put in for the production of organic fertilizers, how much funds has the government provided for that? How many times have they said let us classify our soils so that they know which region or location requires what type of fertilizer? How many times have they used the effects of research because we have research institutes to plan the economy in the agricultural sector?
Industries depend largely on raw materials from agriculture. In the face of the current abysmal state of agriculture in Nigeria, what does this portend for the economy?
Of course there cannot be any industrial revolution without agricultural revolution. Every industrial revolution in the whole world started with agricultural revolution because they depend on the raw materials for their production. So, the situation in the agricultural sector is adversely affecting the industrial sector in Nigeria. Look at the textile mills in Kaduna; they have been closed because they cannot get raw materials. Immediately we discovered oil, we abandoned agriculture because oil brings quicker income; government has also reduced interest in agriculture. Now, government has seen the danger of abandoning agriculture and is talking about diversification of our economy and going back to agriculture. Before we had oil palm in the East, groundnut pyramids in the North and cocoa in the West but because of oil our emphasis shifted.
Do you foresee a situation where we can effectively return to agriculture?
We still need the oil but what we failed to do was to use the resource of the oil to develop agriculture like it was done in Malaysia. They came in the 70s and collected oil palm seedlings from Nigeria and today they are exporting palm oil to us. They have even advanced further by using oil palm produce to get fuel and other chemicals.
The Senate was considering a bill on fertilizer shortly before the National Assembly went on annual recess. The bill recommended five-year jail term for offenders in the process of fertilizers production and distribution. Don’t you think that this is very stringent and should be reduced?
I don’t think it is stringent because of the consequences of that action of adulterating the fertilizer composition. Chemical fertilizer is no longer in vogue; in fact, it is no longer used in advanced countries. But unfortunately, in the third-world countries and Nigeria in particular, they are deep in use of chemical fertilizers for obvious reasons. You know most of the soils are not fertile again. And to improve the fertility of the soil, you need to add nutrients. But the nutrients that the soil require for the crops to grow and be good for human consumption are what you call the organic fertilizer as against the inorganic.
The inorganic is what we call the chemical fertilizer which is the one we see, which many countries of the world no longer use because of the adverse effects on the soil. And if it is detrimental to the soil, the effects will also affect the crop that will grow on that soil. And by implication by the time human being takes that crop, we imbibe those dangerous chemicals into our system. This is obviously one of the reasons diseases are on the increase now in the body.
So, many countries of the world no longer use chemical fertilizers because they have a lot of chemical implications on the soil, on the crop, on the animal and on the human being. And that is why too, in the advanced countries, organic foods cost higher than the inorganic. That is why if you go to shops, they label their food stuffs organic or inorganic.
So, the inorganic ones are the ones we grow with chemical fertilizers; the ones you use hormones to grow, they grow fast. The organic are the ones you grow through natural means, using decayed manures and not chemicals. It takes longer time to get the results but when the results come it becomes more sustainable while the other one is quick action. If you apply it today, tomorrow you start seeing the result but with injurious effects in the system.
So, in the bill we are considering, a particular section says those who adulterate these fertilizers in the process of production, should be sentenced to five years imprisonment without option of fine. And I am one of those who supported that provision because in Nigeria, if you don’t apply such stringent measures people will disregard the law and do whatever they like to the detriment of the people. There are other aspects of the bill where option of fine is allowed. For instance, if you are a seller in the value chain, it is obvious that you are not the manufacturer, and so it is not your fault. That is why we recommended that there should be option of fine in such circumstance because the adulteration is not from you but from the manufacturer. So, the penalty will be milder.
It appears that the zeal to study agriculture in the universities and other tertiary institutions is dying down. You taught agriculture in the university; what do you think is the likely effect of this ugly situation on the economy?
Of course it has a disastrous effect on the economy. Currently, the farmers we have are becoming very old because young ones don’t want to go to the field because of the nature of the practice. They look at it as a very difficult and odd occupation because they consider the harsh environment; you stay in the sun and you don’t dress corporately by wearing suit and tie to farm. But that has improved in other countries where technology and machinery have been used in agriculture; where modernisation has been used but we are still using the old method.
As long as we still see farming as a difficult and dirty job, people in school will not like to go into it. They see it as a job for the illiterates. Again, when we were growing up in primary school, if they wanted to punish you they sent you to farm. So the child has imbibed that culture that working in the farm is a punishment.
And they see people who go to the office, wear tie, wear suit, work in the bank; they want to be bankers, lawyers, engineers. But in advanced countries where technology is employed, once you are a farmer you are rich. There are so many of them who are very rich and control the economies of these countries. But in Nigeria, even when you produce, government does not even assist you. Overseas, when you produce, government will buy everything to make sure that you don’t lose anything but here in Nigeria you are on your own. Government doesn’t know whether you are surviving or not and this makes farmers to be discouraged in Nigeria.
Time it was when agriculture was one of the main sources of revenue to government but it is no longer so now. What do you think should be done to restore the lost glory of agriculture in Nigeria?
The first thing to be done is for government to create enabling environment by not only giving money but also ensuring that farmers don’t produce at a loss. They should come in and buy the produce over as is done in other countries. When this happens, the farmers will be encouraged to go to the business again.
Government has to buy these produce and store and in the time if scarcity they release it to the market. America even buys and destroys, and they give part of what they stored as aids to other countries. Their emphasis is that they don’t want any negative effect to influence the farmer. If there is any loss it is government that bears it, not the farmer that produces.
As a professional in agriculture both in training and in practice, now that you are a lawmaker, have you come up with a legislation to motivate government to encourage agriculture in Nigeria?
I grew up in the village and the area I come from is an agriculture producing area. However, it was medicine I wanted to study but I eventually studied agriculture. The reason was that in medicine I could not withstand the site of blood or dead person, so I was scared and decided to go into agriculture because it has the same basic requirements as medicine. Talking about laws, I can tell that there are laws that exist but government is not implementing it. If government implements the laws we have in our books it will go a long way to encourage people.
It is just a psychological thing. Another thing government should do is to create awareness and also coming up with a policy, that if you are studying agriculture you have bursary or scholarship. In other countries, the moment they know areas where people are scared of or less interested in or where they are lacking man power, they focus on those areas and give necessary incentives to encourage them and people will go into those areas until they get the number of people they require to feed that sector.
You explained the adverse effects of inorganic fertilizers to the soil, crops and human being. Why is the government encouraging the production and even importation of these harmful substances in the country?
When I was doing my masters, my topic was “effects of organic and inorganic on soil fertility”. I tried to collect data on the quantity of inorganic fertilizer that is being imported into the country to enable me write my thesis but I was blocked. I came to Abuja from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; I met some federal directors and what they told me was that they could not give me any information, and that if they do that they will lose their jobs. They said that a cartel exists in the ministry, who are benefiting so much from fertilizer importation.
Look at this matter this way, for a fertilizer to be put into a soil; you must know the status of that soil. There is what we call soil classification which ought to have been done for all Nigerian soils. This enables you know that this particular soil is lacking this particular nutrient and requires this particular fertilizer. But what they do is to import all these fertilizers whether we need it or not; whether this particular soil requires it or not because of the monetary value, they go ahead and import irrespective of the negative effects, it doesn’t bother the business people, who connive with the ministry staff, directors and permanent secretaries. So, the man told me that this is a war we cannot stop and that he cannot give me information because he will lose his job. Most of them know that what is happening is not good but they cannot stop it.
Do you know that there are some hormones that you apply and a flower that ought to flower within three months can flower within one week; and of course it is not the natural flower that you are seeing? That flower turns into a seed or fruit and you consume it into the body. There are chemicals that take time to grow; you don’t see the effect immediately but one to two years after, the real effects will start manifesting.
Don’t you think that it is high time government began to engage professionals to man different sectors of the economy so that they ensure that the right policies are implemented to catalyse economic development?
When I was a minister, I stopped the huge amount that could have been spent on the importation of inorganic fertilizer into the country. There was a proposal by the then Minister of Agriculture for a huge importation of inorganic fertilizer but as a professional, at the executive council meeting, I asked them where they intended to apply it and what type of soil; were there research results and so on? Of course the Executive Council shot it down and asked the minister to provide answers. The minister said that he was going to provide more information in the next executive council meeting. And the moment we finished, he came to me and said ‘Sir, the people who are going to benefit from this are already here waiting in his office.’ He pleaded with me not to shoot it down, that people are already there.
Then I told him that, as a professional, I will not be happy to stay in the executive council and approve what I know is not correct, I cannot be part of it. They wanted this money to be approved and at the end of the day the money will be shared among certain elements in government and even outside government. Of course, the former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, you know who he is, he stopped it and said until answers are provided but answers never came.
What is your advice to government on the use of chemical fertilizers, knowing the injurious effects it has on the soil, crops and the citizenry in Nigeria?
My advice is that government should start thinking about proper diversification because our farmers actually need fertilizers to grow their crops because they are no longer using the real cultural practices used in the olden days when farmers used what is called crop rotation. You grow a crop this year, next year you allow the soil to lie fallow so that grasses will die and decay and turn to manure which will give the crops nutrients to produce high yield when you plant again on the soil. We no longer do it. We now crop on a piece of land all year round and nutrients are being depleted. This is in addition to the effects of the environment: soil erosion, bush burning and others have helped to deplete the soil. And since we can no longer do that, we have to supplement by adding from outside organic manure.
But the farmer who wants to grow his crop and who is in a hurry to produce something to make money will resort to the use of any kind of fertilizer. And even if he is learned, he may not know the implication of that; and the government that should have been properly guided by these professionals is not interested. All they are interested in is that the cartel wants importation. So, mad quest for money overshadows national interest. What I will suggest is, let us come up with a time-table and say, in the next four-five years, let us phase out the inorganic fertilizers and start to encourage people who are interested in going into the production of organic fertilizers, give them money and give them enabling environment just as they did in cement production. Government said, go and build cement plant meanwhile, you have license to import. But as you are importing and making money, do backward integration; use the resources you are getting there to develop our organic manure plants.
And once you do that a lot of people will go into it, and by the time you know it, we have completely done away with the inorganic fertilizer and even if you are going to use it, let it be completely by recommendation of the experts. And let them also classify the soils and know the nutrient status of the soils region by region because the soil status in one region may be different from the status in another region. I am a poultry farmer as you know; I can tell you that I collected Agric loan, courtesy of the Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele who is supporting agriculture so much. But bird flu killed everything in my poultry farm and the bank where I got the money from has been on my neck to refund the loan. I even insured my farm but the insurance company said that bird flu was not included in the cover, which means I have to bear the whole loss. So, how can somebody who loses that kind of amount still be in business.
In advanced countries government will come and assist you so that you remain in business. But here, all they know and want to do is that you must pay back otherwise they want to collect your house or whatever you used as collateral. In that situation, how can you be in business?
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