By Olalekan Abdulsalami

The history of agriculture in Nigeria dates far back to the pre-colonial era. Subsistence agriculture was overwhelmingly dominant on the eve of European colonial rule in Nigeria. In this enterprise, food production featured prominently and there was self-sufficiency in the food supply. Major crops include beans rice, sesame, cashew nuts, cassava, cocoa beans, groundnuts, gum arabic, kola nut, maize (corn), melon, millet, palm kernels, palm oil, plantains, rice, rubber, sorghum, soybeans, bananas, and yams.

With the country’s vast agricultural resources and a large expanse of arable land, well-distributed rainfall and warm temperature all year round, Agriculture played a progressive role in serving as the major source of livelihood to the country’s population.

Nigeria was famous for the export of groundnut and palm kernel oil, but, over the years the rate of export of these products has reduced. A few years back local Nigerian companies have commenced exporting groundnuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, moringa seeds, Ginger, cocoa, etc.

Before the colonial masters arrived on Nigerian soil, our forefathers engaged primarily in farming as a major occupation and means of sustenance using crude farm implements and despite the crude implements used, enough food was produced to feed themselves and cash crops were produced and used for barter system of trade across the Sahara and the Atlantic Ocean.

The economic crises experienced in Nigeria today have historical antecedents. The British Navy attacked Lagos, Nigeria, in 1851 and by 1861, Lagos became a British crown colony. One of the major reasons why Britain colonized Nigeria was to ensure a cheap and steady supply of raw materials to British industries. The colonial administration completely discouraged the cultivation of food crops while encouraging cash crop productions. They diverted attention away from local creative potentials and resources by forcing on the production of primary resources needed by the Europeans. The colonizing powers in Nigeria ensured the specialization of the country in primary production by adopting a system of quotas and tariffs which heavily favored unprocessed primary commodities from the country.

To actualize their intentions, different economic policies were put in place. The incorporation of peasant producers in Nigeria into the world market is one of the most successful colonial policies that removed thousands of Nigerian farmers from the comfort and stability of subsistent and semi-subsistent production and placed them in the complex web of the uncertain, volatile and exploitative world market. The British colonial policy in Nigeria was shaped to a large extent by economic considerations which were propelled by the industrial revolution in Britain during which more raw materials were needed in British industries. As at that time, there was an urgent need to get the resources of other lands for the survival of the British economy. Britain, therefore, took control of the export of raw materials of the West African countries particularly Nigeria and shipped them abroad. The British colonial policies and practices on agriculture were directed at organizing and using all human and material resources in Nigeria in the production and export of cash crops needed to fuel the industries abroad and thereby forcing peasant farmers to abandon food crop production and focus on cash crops.

The Nigerian colonial economy depended on three major export crops. They were Cocoa, Palm produce and Groundnuts which accounted for about 70% of Nigeria’s total export in colonial times and farm produce from Nigeria was exported to Britain and other European countries under trade terms decided by the colonial authorities. The palm-produce evacuated from Nigeria was about 66,000 tons in 1901; rose to 272,000 tons in 1921 and 497,000 tons in 1951. Palm oil alone fetched £981,330 for 110,243 tons in 1938. In the same year, 180,136 tons of groundnuts valued at £1,305,828 and 97,000 tons of cocoa valued at £1,305,828 were exported. In 1945, the colonial development and welfare act was introduced. The act proposed a ten-year development and welfare plan with the intention to develop all avenues that could facilitate the colonial exploitation of local resources. Consequently, research institutions and marketing boards were established to improve the production of cash crops as well as handle the storage and marketing of export crops respectively.

The implication of the British colonial agricultural programs that emphasized the production of cash crops for export and nothing to promote foodstuff production was seriously noticed in the post-independence economy of Nigeria. While Nigeria became poorer and more dependent on British merchants, the commercial firms in Europe grew richer.

While agriculture was the mainstay of the colonial economy, the emphasis was on export and not on food production. The present food crisis in Nigeria could, therefore, be traced partly to the advent of British colonialism which changed the focus and objective of production away from food. Prior to this period, there was enough food for the Nigerian people. But the incentive created by the demand for raw materials made the local population be inadvertently complacent about food production and there was not enough food for accumulation and export. Following the emphasis on cash crop production by the colonial agricultural policy, land hitherto used for food cultivation was diverted to cash crop production. This shifted the attention and expertise of farmers from food crop to cash crop production. The Nigerian economic landscape became dominated by the groundnut pyramids in Northern Nigeria; cocoa warehouses in the West and the palm produce stores of the Eastern region. These features were detrimental to the production of adequate quantities of rice, maize, and cassava for consumption by the people.

Cocoa was the main thrust of economic development in western Nigeria. Most of Nigeria’s 350,000 cocoa farmers were located in western Nigeria. In the 1950s, Nigeria’s share of world cocoa trade increased from roughly 14% to 18%. In the mid-1960s, the volume of cocoa export grew from approximately 100,000 tons to 229,000 tons yearly over the 1963-67 period. Cocoa export grew at a compound average growth rate of about 7% per year in the ten years between 1956 to 1967. By the early 1960s, the production of cocoa had risen by about 80% above the previous 1950-51 high following the acreage increase in cocoa cultivation of about 15%. The increase was attributed to the widespread use of insecticides, fungicides, improved seedlings and other improvements that had been seriously promoted through subsidies, credit schemes and extension services by the western regional marketing board.

Despite Nigeria’s enormous potential in agriculture, the country still lost its place in the global community as a major player in agriculture. In the 1960s, Nigeria’s exalted position was distinct. That glory was visible for all to see. Nigeria accounted for 42% of the world’s exports of shelled groundnuts. Our total export volume was 502,000 MT. This declined to zero by 2008. The major problem we had was aflatoxin which we did not bother to fix. Nigeria lost its leadership position and was overtaken by the USA, China, and Argentina. Nigeria was also the largest exporter of palm oil in the world and accounted for 27% of the global export volume for palm oil. The total export volume for palm oil by Nigeria was 167,000 MT in 1961. This declined to 25,000 MT by 2008. As the global export volume rose from 629,000 MT in 1961 to over 33 million MT in 2008, Malaysia and Indonesia took over using the oil palm seedlings obtained from Nigeria! Today, Malaysia earns $ 18 billion from the export of palm oil alone.

The neglect of the agricultural sector and almost total dependence on oil export has been a disaster for the country’s economy. If Nigeria had held on to its market share in palm oil, cocoa, groundnut, and cotton, it would be earning today at least $10 billion per year from these commodities

Nothing can be done about how the agricultural economic past in Nigeria has played out and going by the rate of awareness and momentum of the call by all economic indices for the nation to return to an all-out promotion and support of agriculture in Nigeria; it is certain that the days of negative influence and neglect of agriculture are numbered and when it finally ends it is hoped that corruption will eventually die in the hearts and consciousness of this generation and there will emerge a Nigeria where generations not yet born can be proud to call home and the population of the country’s citizens both living and dead who have suffered from the political/economic indiscretions of Nigeria’s past leaders can finally be at peace.

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