Maybe he wanted some of them to sound like jokes, but Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Mohammed Sabo Nanono made several controversial remarks during last Monday’s event in Abuja to mark this year’s World Food Day. Screaming newspaper headlines quoted the minister to have said that contrary to the narrative in some quarters, there is no hunger in Nigeria because the country is producing enough to feed itself. He added, most sensationally, that food is so cheap in Nigeria that in Kano, one could eat to his satisfaction with 30 naira.
With luck, this statement could find its way to sit among the most notorious utterances of top Nigerian public officers in the last 40 years. Such as, the federal minister who allegedly said that there was no hunger in Nigeria because he did not see people eating from dustbins. Or, the military-era minister who said telephones are not meant for the poor. Or, the top military officer who said soldiers act like mad dogs when someone tears their uniforms. Or even, the president who said that Nigerians ignorantly describe ordinary stealing as corruption.
Already, one young Nigerian transformed the minister’s last assertion into a practical joke. He walked into a restaurant in Kano, ordered white rice with stew, beef and a packet of pure water. When he finished eating, he handed N30 to the food seller. There was proof of premeditation because N20 and N10 notes are very scarce in the Nigerian economy these days. A mob quickly surrounded him and demanded that he pay the balance of the bill. The smartly dressed young man said he would pay no more since the minister in charge of food said one could eat to his satisfaction with N30 in Kano. The mob obviously lacked a good sense of humour; one of the mobsters was heard on the video asking if Nanono was the uncle of that particular food vendor. Of course there was a big lacuna in Nanono’s assertion because he did not say where in Kano one could get N30 food, or even what kind of food it is.
By my own count, Minister Nanono made ten controversial statements at the World Food Day event, beginning from the assertion that there is no hunger in Nigeria. If that is true, then we probably have no need for the Ministry of Agriculture, which guzzles billions every year “without commensurate results,” to borrow from what President Umaru Yar’adua once said about the power sector. UN figures indicate that majority of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day, which is the definition of extreme poverty. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that “the central element of wisdom is to have a sense of proportion;” I think the central element of extreme poverty is inability to feed well, which is another name for hunger.
Nanono said, “From what I am seeing in this conference room, there is no sign of hunger but obesity. Only a few people like me are either trying to balance their diet or is it fasting that is responsible for the way some of us look?” Very good. Is the conference room of Hilton hotel, at an event full of top government officials, UN bigwigs, leading commercial farmers and agricultural contractors the right place to search for hunger in people’s faces? Did he try the Jabi motor park, under the flyovers in Lagos, or even the Dawanau market in Kano?
He then said, “When people talk about hunger, I laugh because they do not know hunger. If you go to other countries you will see what hunger is.” I beg, which countries does the Agric Minister have in mind? Indians and Bengals during the famine of 1970, Ethiopians during the great famine of 1984-85, Burmese Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refugee camps or even Biafran children during our unfortunate civil war? If ever we sink to that level, we will be looking up for help not to the Ministry of Agriculture but from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Food Program, Caritas, Oxfam and such other relief agencies. In any case, at least a million Nigerians in the war-ravaged North East have already fallen into that category.
Oga Nanono then said, “Food in Nigeria is fairly cheap compared to other countries. In Kano for instance, you can eat N30 worth of food and be satisfied. So, we should be thankful that we can feed ourselves and we have relatively cheap food in this country.” To say that food is cheap in Nigeria is not correct, at least as a proportion of a worker’s income. Even if a satisfying meal costs N30, times three meals a day, a worker on the new minimum wage of N30,000 [which, by the way, has not been paid in most of the country] will expend his entire salary on food alone in 33 days, leaving nothing for clothes, rent, transport, medical bills or school fees. This is not the definition of cheap.
The minister also dismissed fears that insecurity and flooding in parts of the country could lead to food shortages. He said, “Although there has been flood and insurgency but I think the surplus that will be created in other parts of the country will balance up food shortage in other areas.” The problem with this calculation is that it matters not to people in Borno, Zamfara, Katsina, Benue and Taraba states that could not go to their farms due to insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, farmer/herder clashes or Tiv/Jukun fighting that farmers in other places had bumper harvests. This is because they are not going to give the food to them free of charge and without harvests of their own, they have nothing to give in exchange.
Nanono also said, “In Nigeria, we are lucky that one of the food security spots is in Dawanau market, Kano. But what we need is to reorganise our markets to solve the problem of malnutrition and other issues.” Is it reorganizing local markets such as the great Dawanau grains market that will solve hunger in Nigeria? In what way? Even in the days of the old Native Authorities, which were ten times more effective than the present local governments and they enforced measures, prices and sanitation in markets, we still had hunger in Nigeria.
Minister Nanono seemed to blame immigrants for food shortage in Nigeria. He described Nigeria as “a buffer zone for migration for the rest of West African sub-region” and said there are “lots of people from other African countries in Nigeria, who often blend into the system and are not easily identified except for their accent.” Oga, there are millions of Nigerians in Sudan alone, yet they are not blaming us for their problems. Millions of African migrants moved into South Africa since the end of Apartheid; xenophobia did not include starving them of food. A million Syrian and Afghan refugees went to Germany in recent years but food is still plentiful and cheap in Cologne.
The minister also said, controversially, that the problem of high cost of imported wheat would be solved if only Nigerians decide to stop consuming wheat bread. Bread, he said, is food for the elite and ordinary Nigerians eat more of local foods for breakfast than bread. Actually, bread is a small part of the menu in middle- and upper-class households. It is for the urban working class that it is the main food in combination with tea, akara, sardine, geisha, beans and soft drink. As for non-wheat bread, we tried it in 1986 when FIIRO produced a sample that was served at a meeting of the Armed Forces Ruling Council. It did not fly.
Finally, Minister Nanono urged Nigerians, particularly the aged, to shed weight by eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. If a person’s budget for a meal is N30, how can he aspire to eat a balanced diet?