Saturday comment1

Nwamadi M. Uba writes that the Kebbi State governor is lifting many out of poverty by empowering farmers

Atiku Bagudu likes to recommend ‘How Asia Works’, a book by business journalist, Joe Studwell, and which has been described by Bill Gates as “quite compelling”. Studwell’s book tries to answer two questions: how did countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China achieve incredible fast economic growth and why have so few other countries managed to do so? To answer the questions, Studwell developed a formula that starts with agriculture and ends with finance. According to the business journalist, developing countries aspiring to speedy economic growth must start by implementing land reforms that put the business of agriculture into the hands of small-holder farmers.

The reason for Bagudu’s love for Studwell’s book is not far-fetched. An economist by training, he is the Governor of Kebbi State, one of Nigeria’s largest agrarian regions and the Vice-Chairman of the National Food Security Council, which appears to be following the Studwell playbook by focusing the federal government’s efforts on ramping up the capacity of smallholder farmers through the provision of land, loans, farm inputs, and other extension services. “We are a very small economy,” Bagudu says. “Many people have not come to the reality of that.” And to grow that economy, it is important to engage more of the population in productive activities.

In the Studwell playbook, developing countries don’t need mechanized farming at the early stage of development, since they typically have an abundance of cheap labour. The theory goes further to expound that these labour-intensive activities carried out by untenanted farmers tend to produce higher yields than plantation-type agriculture. Besides, it helps to provide jobs which divert energies that could have been spent on negative economic activities into productive ones. Since he became Governor of Kebbi in 2015, Bagudu has carefully followed this development philosophy and has created some of the most audacious economic successes within the country in the past four years, especially in rice production.

Soft-spoken and articulate, Bagudu has a firm, well-rounded understanding of the Nigerian condition. He takes on questions by drawing references from across the country, telling stories and anecdotes, and marshalling them into properly attuned arguments that drip raw intelligence, patriotism and a keen sense of justice. This is a kind of greatness. Take, for example, his agricultural philosophy. Bagudu didn’t grow up poor. In fact, his father was the Director of Primary Education in Kebbi and he obtained degrees from the University of Sokoto, University of Jos and Columbia University. But the idea of empowering smallholder farmers is not elitist. Instead, it aims to democratize economic power and lift society’s poorest and most neglected out of the cesspool of poverty.

Bagudu believes in the creative capacity of the Nigerian nation to produce its way out of economic stagnation, a school of thought closely aligned with President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic agenda. In his native Kebbi, apart from leading a rice revolution, he is now spearheading Kebbi’s rise as a giant producer of ethanol.

Perhaps what bothers Bagudu the most is the psychology of those who believe that Nigerians cannot compete with the world in agriculture. “There is no reason why Nigeria cannot be selling rice to the world,” he says. “We are competitive. We produce rice in better, more conducive environment than many countries. There are many countries where people will not eat the rice produced there because of industrial pollution, high iron content. But here we are producing in lakes and river beds with very minimal or nonexistent industrial pollution.”

Nigeria’s current condition, where it is still grappling with third world problems like widespread hunger and tribal violence, is as a result of the country’s inability to deconstruct itself from colonial identities which were carved in fires of ethnic division and strife, Bagudu infers. “We are a nation angry with each other”.

This anger is not something Bagudu shies away from. As Vice-Chairman of the National Food Security Council, he worked closely with the Presidency to roll out the controversial Ruga policy, which was intended as an economic policy that would improve the agriculture fortunes of the country and limit farmer-herdsmen clashes. But the move was misconceived as a ploy to entrench Fulani supremacy across the country. The Ruga policy was withdrawn, but Bagudu has continued to implement parts of the vision in Kebbi, which he hopes to use as a shining example for the rest of the country. 

“The idea that was developed was that, for the states that have this anthropology, let us help those states, so that the Fulanis living in those settlements can have water, veterinary services, we can teach their women to make yoghurt out of the milk, rather than walk seven kilometres to the market to sell N600 worth of milk,” Bagudu says. “So they can stay in one place. What does a Fulani do in the morning if there is no water? They would have to walk their cows somewhere. It might be one kilometre to three kilometres. In walking their cows somewhere, that’s where things go wrong, because maybe six months ago, a primary school does not exist, and they have to meander around it. And in meandering, things can go wrong . . . Yes, it is private enterprise, but a responsive society should care for its weakest link. And the provision of infrastructure, ideally, should be for everyone . . . So it is part of governance for us to think for everyone. This is not a lifestyle that we should allow anybody to do. Any child waking up at 4am to follow an animal for 10 to 12 kilometres a day, the social contract between him and society is broken down.”

Bagudu believes that by showing economic results, more Nigerians will come to realize that the country is stronger as one and, in the process, forge a national identity that can become the quintessence of African unity. Till then, he has resolved to continue to work harder to bring economic gains to his native Kebbi and, in his capacity as Vice-Chairman of the National Food Council, help Nigeria become a net exporter of food.

Still, the task ahead is enormous. For Studwell’s theory to work, the government has to be laser-focused on improving efficiency and building world class products and services. Bagudu knows this and he has set the bar really high.

“We have two major rivers: River Niger, over 300 kilometres in Kebbi alone; River Rima, from Sokoto down to Argungu, another 300 kilometres; so we should be selling fish,” he says. “You should go to a restaurant in Japan or New York and order fish from Yauri; that’s my dream. I believe it would happen one day.”