Interest rates, youth and Nigerian agriculture by Audu Ogbeh

Upon a reflection over the award I received few days ago in Lagos, the remarks below were considered necessary. Personally, let me state that I appreciate the prize and I am really grateful to Zik Prize Committee because it is an encouragement. It’s a fitting reward for one who has come into a certain line of public service with a great deal of personal action.

I have been in agriculture for virtually all my life, even in the days when I was in and out of government. But I am very grateful to Nigerians because, in spite of the many difficulties Nigerians are facing today, they have responded well to the call by government to return to agriculture.

Farmers are beginning to make money for the first time in their lives and they are happy. Young people are returning to agriculture in droves, only waiting for government’s support which we have to provide for them.

 We are now working towards reducing the interest rate on agriculture to five per cent, especially for the small borrowers. For us, the major achievement if we succeed in bringing interest rate to five per cent is, we believe in the next two to three years, this country will become a major force in agriculture worldwide. So I am grateful to Nigerians, the media, young and old, to the President for the opportunity given, but most grateful to a society that is passing through trials but is still good enough to say we recognise what you are doing.

I am of an advanced age, and the youth have the energy and the willingness. Don’t give up. Do what you must. I appreciate the honour and I will continue to do my best until we round off what we are doing, hoping then that agriculture will take off and climb to heights that it has never achieved in this country.

On my direct statements, which sometimes appear like self-criticism or criticism of the same government, I need to explain this. The frank talk comes from the fact of 40 years of participation in and out of government. I got into the contest for the House of Assembly 1978, became a Deputy Speaker 1979.  Before then, I was a teacher in the University in Zaria, teaching French at the institute of Education. But in and out, I have been in politics for 40 years. I have seen quite a bit of where the problems came from and if you can’t bring that experience to bear, then your presence is no value to your country. That is part of the country’s investment in a human asset; that investment has to pay off.

So, when I speak about these things, sometimes, I offend certain tastes. When I speak frankly that this economy has not really been growing, but that the only thing that has really been growing is poverty and hunger, I am not criticising the government, and after all, I am part of it. The truth is, that is what is happening.

Where in the world do you have interest rate regimes high, hovering between 25 and 35 per cent for nearly 40 years and the economy grows? People can’t take a loan. Young people have nowhere to look to. They have ideas, they can’t borrow and do what they want to do because I personally feel that Nigeria could very well be the capital of private enterprise in the world. Every Nigerian wants to do something for himself. But if you can’t borrow, how do you remove corruption?

 If people can’t be free to do it the way they want to, pay their tax and live their lives freely, how do you want the economy to grow? MSMEs don’t exist because nobody is funding them. I have raised this issue with bankers steadily and they keep telling me “the interest rate cannot be lower than the inflation rate.” How did Ghana bring down interest rate three times last year and also brought down inflation? Interest rate also fuels inflation. Why must we run an economy of traders? Import apples, sell; then the bank is happy with you. You want to produce apple; they don’t want to get involved in that. These are the issues and when I speak, I am speaking because I have seen how we went through, what we went through and I think we can never get it right unless we correct those mistakes.

I have this theory that no government in Nigeria will be popular for more than two years. If you like, bring an army of angels from heaven. If you don’t restructure and deal with your monetary policy, which I think is wrong, dissatisfaction will never stop. Our children will not stop crossing the desert. Now the vogue is that they all want to go to Canada. Why should young people in our country look elsewhere for survival when there is so much opportunity here? But you are importing rice, sugar, milk, toothpicks, toothpaste, tomato paste, honey, everything, shipment. We thought it was a fantastic theory. Why are you sustaining other economies when yours is dying?

So these are the issues. I speak frankly, but I don’t mean any harm. I am saying we can do great things. Our younger people can even be happier than we were. As it is, it is not so. I know occasionally I may ruffle certain emotions. I may also upset certain people but the truth is, it is for the good of our country. At my age, all I want to wish my society is a happier future than what we saw. As it is, we saw a happier past than what our children are seeing. That itself doesn’t give me a good sleep.

*Ogbeh is the Honourable Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

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