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SPECIAL REPORT: Fraud allegations, unremitted loans, crop failure, other anomalies dog Nigerian govt’s “rice revolution”

Speaking to a packed audience at the 10th Bola Tinubu Colloquium, an annual conference held to mark the birthday of Mr Tinubu, the national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), in Lagos in March, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said agriculture was at the core of the government’s economic policy.

He said his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari, decided “to invest heavily in agriculture as a means of creating jobs in the hinterlands, provide enough phone locally and for all of the urban areas.”

“I am sure many would already agree that this has been a tremendous success. Several millions of Nigerians have been employed in agriculture,” he boasted.

“In fact, Mr. President tells a story of his own village where people used to lease out farms to farmers from Kano but now nobody leases out their farms anymore. Everybody is on his own farm. The more interesting part of that story is that not only are more people going to Hajj, they are also taking more wives,” Mr Osinbajo said as the audience roared with laughter.

What his audience may not be aware of was that many of those whom Mr Osinbajo claimed travelled to Hajj or married additional wives may not have done so from the proceeds of actual farming but from their share of the over N55 billion disbursed by the government for the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP), its flagship agriculture programme, which they thought was largesse for voting in Mr Buhari, who is himself a smallholder farmer.

A PREMIUM TIMES and Buharimeter investigation in five states – Lagos, Ekiti, Kebbi, Kaduna and Ebonyi – and in neighbouring Benin Republic, revealed that the ABP, which was touted as the answer to Nigeria’s quest for self-sufficiency in rice production, has failed in most places with the government unable to recoup a large chunk of the N55 billion loan, already disbursed.

The ABP has given rise to a multitude of angry farmers who claim the programme has been hijacked by local politicians who disburse funds to fake farmers and has become a means of rewarding political patronage, our investigation uncovered.

An effort by the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) to salvage the programme is merely slogging by as complaints of the supply of expired herbicide, bad seeds and other funding, are threatening to derail it.

PREMIUM TIMES and BUHARIMETER Investigation further showed that the government’s boast of attaining sufficiency in rice production at the end of 2018 is mere wishful thinking as smuggling of rice from Benin Republic is still rife.

The Anchor Borrower’s Programe

If the sweltering heat of Birnin Kebbi was taking a toll on him, Mr Buhari did not show it as he read a prepared speech to a cheering crowd at the official launch of the ABP in November 2017.

“Economic diversification is no longer an option for us as a nation, it is the only way to reclaim the economic momentum and drive to prosperity,” he said.

“One way to do this is to go back to the land and develop our agricultural production. That is why I have high hope about the prospect of the CBN’s Anchor Borrowers Programme and its potentials to create millions of jobs and lift thousands of smallholder farmers out of poverty,” he added.

But contrary to Mr Buhari’s optimism, less than three years after, the programme, which has been described as “revolutionary” has run into trouble waters in several states, leaving a trail of bad loans running into several billions of naira, disappointments, accusation of diversion of funds.

According to the CBN, “the programme thrust of the ABP is provision of farm inputs in kind and cash (for farm labour) to small holder farmers to boost production of these commodities, stabilise inputs supply to agro-processors and address the country’s negative balance of payments on food.”

The programme, among other things, is expected to increase banks’ financing to the agriculture sector and to create new generation of farmers as well as to boast employment. Each farmer is given a loan of N250,000 per hectare of rice for land cultivation plus inputs such as herbicide, fertilisers and water pumps.

At harvest, farmers are expected to sell their produce to anchor or off-takers; the anchor will then pay the cash equivalent of the produce into the farmers’ bank accounts. The programme, among other things is expected to increase banks’ financing to the agriculture sector and to create new generation of farmers as well as to boast employment.

The targeted commodities include cereals (rice, maize, wheat etc.), cotton, roots and tuber, sugarcane, tree crops, legumes, tomatoes and livestock. But following the government avowed policy in rice sufficiency at the end of this year, the programme was mainly aimed at rice farmers. Farmers are issued the loan at nine per cent interest rate per annum.

Farmers interested in the loan are to form themselves into groups and cooperatives. They must demonstrate evidence of farm ownership and make a commitment to use the facility – both cash and input – for the purpose for which it was granted. They are also required to open bank accounts and obtain Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) before they can access the facility.

Also, as members of the ABP’s Project Management Team (PMT), state governments are expected to provide extension services to all participating farmers, logistics support and establishing a special ‘farmers’ court to try defaulting parties.

Free Money In Bullions Vans

The road to hell is said to be paved with good intentions. While the ABP might have been “revolutionary”, everything about its implementation suggests otherwise. The programme kicked off on a wrong footing. At least six months after the president’s rousing speech in Birnin Kebbi, and well after the planting season, farmers were still wondering if it would ever take off. The promised inputs and funds were nowhere to be seen. When the programme eventually kicked off, many of the guidelines in the programme were thrown overboard.

Instead of the loan being paid into farmers’ bank accounts after they must have made a five per cent equity contribution, money was ferried in bullion vans and handed over to them in cash.

“Farmers collected loans and they thought it was national cake being distributed to them. There were some local government chairmen in the north that told them that they shouldn’t bother themselves to pay the money because when they visited their farms, there wasn’t anything to show for the money they got,” Segun Atho, the deputy national president of RIFAN, told PREMIUM TIMES.

“And do you know they have to pick this money with bullion vans to their various locations?” he asked.

Mr Atho said many of the beneficiaries were not genuine farmers but people with political affiliations.

He also claimed that original ABP was exclusively implemented in the north of the country and no state in the south of the country benefitted from the programme.

Disillusioned Kebbi farmers

As we rode on his motorcycle through the vast rice plain along the Jega River in the Aliero area of Jega Local Government Area, in Kebbi, my guide, Umar Al-Hassan, who is also a rice farmer, reiterated Mr Atho’s accusation.

“The loan was disbursed indiscriminately. It was given to those who don’t farm, they don’t do anything pertaining farming and they were given the money in cash,” he said.

“Assuming now the local government chairman will say his people have not been taken care of. Party chairman will come and say his people are not taken care of. Member of the state assembly will say his people have not been taken care of. Senators, members House of Reps. Tell me, what can you do?”

He said in Jega, farmers bio-metric and mapping of farms were done after the money had already been disbursed just to create a semblance that the guidelines were adhered to.

PREMIUM TIMES spoke to no fewer than 10 farmers in Jega, none of them claimed to have benefitted from the ABP. While they all claimed they registered for the programme as instructed, they claim they have waited in vain for the both inputs and money.

With frustration written all over his face, Saidu Usman showed me round his farm. His almost ripe but yellowish rice plants sat on a paddy that has become parched and cracked. He lamented the crop were at the stage where they needed water the most, but he has run out of money to buy fuel to power his water pump.

But the lack of water may just be the least of his worries as rodents and birds were beginning to feast on his crop.

“The farmers here need government help. We would take anything, be it chemicals, herbicide or other necessary inputs. But whatever the government plans to give to us, they should hand them directly to farmers and not through politicians,” he said in Hausa.

Just outside Mr Usman’s farm, we ran into Yusuf Usman who had a shiny water pump tied on his motorcycle. He said he was forced to buy the new water pump after the old one he was using was stolen from his farm.

“I didn’t get anything from the government. No water pump, no pipes, no seeds, nothing. I had to buy everything by myself. I am just managing, because if there are no assistance from the government, a farmer cannot farm as he wants.

“My rice is beginning to flower, so it needs water now. I have to sell my goat to buy this pump,” he said.

The landscape of the Aliero rice plain looks like a giant checker board of green, yellowish-green and brown patches. While some patches of the plain looked well-taken care of with thriving plants, others looked asphyxiated with stunted and withered plants. But majority of the farmlands were scorched, uncultivated or abandoned.

About 1.5 kilometres from Saidu Usman’s farm, three farmers sat on their motorcycles enjoying the protection a neem tree offers from the sun while they chatted lazily. All of them claimed to be aware of the ABP but swore they did not know any farmer in the Aliero area who had benefitted from the programme.

One of the men, Ilyasu Garba, who owns 1.5 hectare of land, said this year is the worst farming season as far as he could remember. He said he managed to raise money to cultivate his land this season by trading in different commodities at the nearby market.

“Many farmers have deserted their farms because of the hardship. See for yourself,” he said with a sweeping gesture at the surrounding parched land and abandoned farms.

“These farms have been left uncultivated and this is the first time since I can remember that these farmlands have been left like this. There are people who even cultivated their land at the start of the planting season but abandoned their land after their crop failed because they didn’t have money to buy fuel to power their water pumps.”

As we rode further into the rice plain on Mr. Al-Hassan’s motorcycle, uncultivated and abandoned farms became more prominent. In a corner, a youth was trying to fix an old and oily water pump under a neem tree. Further down the plain, two men were coercing an aged camel which was pulling a plough on a dry and sandy farm.

“If you go to Birnin Kebbi, there are brand new tractors, power tillers and other implements parked there that should have been given to farmers like them. I don’t understand why they are not being put to use,” Mr Al-Hassan said.

Sitting outside his stall at Jega market, a large and middle-aged man, Ibrahim Maiyadi, said since 2015 he had opened at least five bank accounts but had not gotten any loan or input for his farms. He said he was able to partake in this year’s planting season from the profit he made from his cloth business.

He said because he could not afford enough fertiliser, yield per hectare has dropped by almost 50 per cent.

“We usually get about 120 bags of rice per hectare in a good year but because of lack of support, we now get between 65 and 75 bags of rice per hectare.”

He said having opened 5 bank accounts without getting the loan, he believed the ABP was a scam.

“They instructed us to get more farms with the assurance that we would be given N250,000 per hectare. But at the end of the day, I heard some farmers were only given water pumps and fertilizers. Each of those account was opened with N5,000 that is N20,000 in all. That money could have been used to fuel to power my water pumps.”

 

At Argungu, a town which gained international fame for its once-popular fishing festival, the story of woes continued. Uncultivated and abandoned rice paddy lined the general area of the milky Mata Fada River.

My guide, Mohammed Gulma, a journalist turn farmer, was visibly angry. He accused Kebbi State officials of demanding bribes from farmers before registering them for the ABP. He also repeated the accusation that politicians gave the funds to their friends and cronies who aren’t real farmers.

 

An official of the Kaduna State Ministry of Agriculture, who demanded not to be named because he could not secure official clearance to speak, said N4 billion was disbursed to over 11,000 farmers in 2016 but less than a billion was recovered. According to him the state even recovered that much because beneficiaries were threatened with arrest and prosecution.

“Unfortunately, the repayment was a problem. There were so many issues. Some of them were implementation and some of them were behavioural. By behavioural, I mean farmers are not very good in paying back loans. But like I said, some of the problems were implementation issues, for instance, some of the farmers complained; and this is correct, we know, they collected inputs late and it was really a problem,” the official said.

“It wasn’t that those that got the loans were at large. But what can you do with a person that reported problem to you from the onset? For instance, when they have infestation of diseases, most of them reported. Sincerely speaking what can you do to a person that you supposed to give input by May/June and on record you haven’t given input to him by the end of July or the middle of August and he happens to record very poor yield. The highest you can do is let him go.

“The insurance did not help matters. But upon the receipt of all the complaints as at when due only a fraction of the complaints was paid by the insurer,” he said.

CBN’s spokesperson, Isaac Okorafor, did not return several calls made to his mobile number over several weeks. He also did not respond to sms and email requesting his comment on the programme.

The Agberemi Failure (Ekiti State)

In Ekiti State, a co-operative society of 357 civil servants named Agberemi participated in the ABP. Each of the civil servants turned farmers was given a hectare of land in a cluster farm in the Oke Ako area of the state. They were not given cash but their land prepared for them and other inputs provided. In 2016, Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, visited the state to flag it off. Mr Ogbe praised the Agberemi cluster farm as a shining example of how Nigerians can enjoy the agricultural opportunities provided by the Buhari administration.

But behind the fanfare, the civil servants were nursing a palpable fear: they had commenced the planting in late July/ early August just after the planting season. They knew they had a fifty-fifty chance for the crop to either succeed or fail. They fervently prayed for rain and hoped it keeps running until December. The rain did indeed come but stopped abruptly in October when their crop was beginning to flower and needed water most.

The rain did not return until in December during harvest. Then it was too late.

“We lost completely. We were expecting a minimum yield of three tonnes per hectare (totalling about 1,071 tonnes); but in total we couldn’t realise 70 tonnes. So, it was a failure,” said Ogunrinde Agbeloba, the secretary of the co-operative, who is also a host of a popular agriculture show on radio.

He said the harvest was so poor that they decided not to sell the grains for food but to sell them as seeds for future planting.

The President of the Agberemi co-operative who is also a director at state the Ministry of Agriculture, Tai Komolafe, told PREMIUM TIMES that the Nigeria Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC) only agreed to pay compensation for the 150 hectares of the farm that did not produce anything at all.

“We committed up to N100,000 per hectare and that was exactly what they were expected to indemnify so we are expecting N100,000 times 150 hectares. Which would have been over N15 million we are expecting from them. We are processing an appeal for upward review,” he said.

Mr Komolafe said to repay the over N60 million loan they took in full, they intend to return to the farm this year.

“We have decided to enter the farm early this year. Last year we got to the farm late because money was not released to us by the Anchor Borrowers Programme until July last year. Last year the minister promised us some irrigation facilities. We have not seen anything. But if we start farming in the peak of the rainfall, there won’t be need for irrigation,” he said.

An official of NAIC, Ahmed Arabi, requested that inquiries be sent via email. He promised to pass them over to his bosses for response. Several days after, no response was received from NAIC at the time of publication.

The RIFAN Model

Following the challenges encountered by the CBN/state governments’ version of the ABP, the RIFAN this year decided to come up with its own model. According to Mr. Atho, instead of giving cash to farmers, farmers are supplied inputs such as seedlings, fertilisers and herbicide. They also have their land prepared for them.

“Let’s say a farmer is collecting loan for one hectare we have to EOP (Economy of Production) for that. If you are cultivating half hectare, we also have EOP for that. Under the model, the maximum land you can cultivate as a smallholder farmer is five hectares while the minimum is 0.5 hectare,” he said.

The value of the loans is calculated by the value of the inputs and assistance given.

The poster boy for the RIFAN Model in Ekiti, Kolawole Rotimi, a former Lagos-based insurance salesman who returned to his ancestry home in 2011 after being unsatisfied with his flourishing city job.

Mr. Rotimi, who is the secretary of RIFAN in Ekiti State, took me to a four-hectare land prepared for him under the RIFAN model of the ABP at Ijero-Ekiti. He said the RIFAN model is better than that run by state government where cash was given to farmers.

“(It) has more control in terms of monitoring. When something is not liquid, you can’t easily spend the money on other things. There are tractors on ground for farmers once the tractor prepares your land that is okay. It won’t come to you in form of cash but in the long run, it would be better off than when you get cash, and something happens in the family, and you say Oh! There is CBN money with me,” he said.

But this model also comes with its own drawbacks. Mr Rotimi complained that some of the inputs and services provided were overpriced.

He complained bitterly that the tractor operators sent by RIFAN service providers only spoke Hausa and this was causing conflict with the farmers who were having problems communicating with them.

“I am at Ijero now, I want to locate the tractor and the tractor operator because I don’t want the tractor to get stuck in the mud, I called him, but he doesn’t understand what I am saying. I am asking him, where are you? He doesn’t even understand,” he said with despair over the phone.

He also complained that the service providers were paying farmers N205 per litre for diesel which is sold for N220 per litre.

“We asked them to park the tractors in the farms, but the operators have been told to bring the tractors back to Ado-Ekiti at the close of work every day.”

At the warehouse of the Ekiti State Agricultural Development Programme at the Odo-Ado area of Ado Ekiti, I witnessed cartons of expired herbicides being replaced. Mr Rotimi said that was the second replacement within a month after the first replacement was discovered to be even more dated than the original herbicide supplied.

In Ebonyi, the Chairman of RIFAN, Livinus Okoh, told PREMIUM TIMES that the rice seeds they were supplied had to be returned because it failed to germinate, and inputs were supplied late for dry season farming.

He also said they were supplied organic fertilisers that were close to the end of their shelf lives.

“The organic fertiliser they gave us here, its expiry date will be on June 15. Our farmers refused to use it because our planting season starts in July,” he said.

He said what rice farmers in the state needed was cash to prepare their lands for planting. If not, it shows that the programme is not succeeding because some of them may dump it (input) without cash to prepare their land.

Mr Atho, however, dismissed the complaints of the farmers.

“Don’t listen to them, they are saying all of these because they wanted cash to be given to them, so they can use it for something else. What else do they want? We prepare their land, we give you pumps, fertilisers, herbicide and we pay for the diesel used.

“About the expired herbicide, I don’t see a problem as long as the bad one has been replaced.

Smuggling Havens

While the ABP is dogged by a myriad of problems, in the South-western borders of Nigeria with Benin Republic, smuggling of Thai and Vietnamese rice is flourishing like never before.

While rice smuggling activities are petering out in the popular Seme border with a few cars and a cluster of shops still dedicated to it, the new smuggling hub is Owode-Apa, west of Badagry.