The imperative of a plantation return
By Okofu Ubaka
It comes with convulsive pains to look back at the time Nigeria was ranked among top agrarian countries in the world. The golden stories of the groundnut pyramids in northern Nigeria, cocoa in the west, and rubber, oil palm and cashew in the southern and eastern parts of the country respectively, will continue to haunt our memories for a long time to come. Groundnuts, cocoa, oil palm, cashew and rubber are still relevant economically, and in high global demand. However, the sad story remains that we have lost our place in the production of these commodities that once served as the mainstay of our economy and were also strong foreign exchange earners for us.
Tellingly, no economic law frowns at complementing the agrarian sector of an economy with oil mining. Nonetheless, bolstering both sectors seem to be the secret of the success story of most developed countries of Europe. A nation must be able to feed its population before it can take active steps toward technological advancement. The US, Britain, France and China are cases at hand. Scarce foreign earnings must be prudently engaged to frog leap the economy, and not to be frittered away on frivolities. That Nigeria imports palm oil indicates that the managers of our economy lack focus. That action has now been taken to end the anomaly has shown that we knew exactly what we wanted, and that the root cause of our problem lies with the impatience to survive long term planning, which might be attributed to bad leadership and improper implementation of economic policies.
The pathetic story of a convulsive Nigerian economy started in the 1980s, and soon after we neglected the agricultural sector for crude oil exploration. That we ensconced ourselves in petro dollars at the expense of the production of cocoa, palm oil , and rubber where we once occupied an enviable position as world producers was actually where we had missed it as a country. Incidentally, rubber and oil palm are grown in the same terrain where crude oil is found: in Delta, Edo Bayelsa, Ondo, Rivers, Cross River, Abia and Imo. It didn’t come as a surprise that prodigious plantations of robber, cocoa and oil palm had to give way for the newly found money-spinner. At a time when countries of the world were expanding palm oil and rubber plantations as the cases in Cameroon and Liberia respectively, a few rubber and oil palm plantations in Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa-Ibom in Nigeria were being decimated in order to create access roads to oil installations! Artificial creeks and canals were dug and they have in turn despoiled the landscape.
It is imperative to note that the search for lubricants to drive the industrial revolution of 18th Century Europe was the real reason the earliest Portuguese traders invaded the tropics of Africa. The industrial revolution was sweeping hard through Europe, and oil palm was the cheapest lubricant at that time. And to keep the trade on, various colonial administrations also made it a matter of colonial policy to encourage the new trade. Further, it should be noted that Indonesia and Malaysia were two Asian countries that benefited from such policy. Palm seedlings were transported from Nigeria to both countries. Today, both countries have surpassed Nigeria, or indeed any other country at that, in the production of oil palm.
Exploration of crude oil in commercial quantities blinded policy makers to the need to protect the agricultural sector. There was no policy in place to sustain large plantations in the Niger Delta. Government was lackadaisical in confronting the challenges, Most of its policies to sustain the agrarian sector were lip service schemes. At least, we have the Nigerian Cocoa Research Institute (NCRI) and the Nigeria Institute for Oil Palm Research, (NIFOR). Mention mustalso be made of the contributions of the past governor of Osun state, Rauf Aregbeshola who, while in office initiated a programme to encourage the planting of cocoa in the state. The “Omoluwabi’ cocoa planting initiative witnessed the planting of millions of cocoa seedlings. He also took steps to reopen the moribund cocoa processing factory at Ede.
Each time the story is told of Nigeria’s once-upon-a-time lead over Ghana, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia in the production of cocoa and oil palm, the reality of the damage done to the Niger Delta region by oil exploration becomes grimmer. Nigeria has since slid downwards in the production of cocoa behind Ghana, Togo and Brazil, and this has in turn affected our economy which presently continues to limp on one foot. Sad.