The state of the agricultural sector in Benue State is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader sector nationally. Hence, solving the food crisis in Benue could go some way towards solving the food crisis in Nigeria.
In the run-up to the 2023 presidential elections, social media was filled with incoherent ramblings about corn, or àgbàdo, by Nigeria’s new president, Bola Tinubu. By putting together bits and pieces from several campaign speeches with an 80-page manifesto which left a lot to be desired, we can safely deduce that the new government claims to have ambitious, albeit unclear, plans for the agricultural sector. The sector, which contributes 25 per cent to Nigeria’s GDP and employs 40 per cent of its population, is in a dire state as a result of severe domestic and international shocks since the presidency changed hands in 2015.
Several events have resulted in a food insecurity crisis which should be of utmost priority to the new government. Security issues such as the Boko Haram insurgency, banditry and herder-farmer conflicts have severely affected agricultural productivity in key states, disruption of global supply chains initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic and exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war have exposed the extent of the country’s dependence on imported food items, and the worst bouts of flooding in recent memory have led to widespread destruction of farmers, farmlands and farm produce. Although almost all states have been affected by at least one of these unfortunate events, their combined forces have converged to devastating effects in one particular state: Benue State.
In a far less popular gubernatorial election, Reverend Father Hyacinth Alia emerged victorious and is the new governor of Benue State. In his victory speech, the catholic priest spoke of a new dawn of shared prosperity and commitment to addressing persistent security challenges. Blessed with fertile soil and historically known as the ‘food basket of Nigeria’ due to the vast quantities of different crops grown in the state, Benue remains critical to food security in Nigeria. Benue State is the largest producer of soyabeans, cassava, mangoes and oranges in Nigeria, second largest producer of yams and third largest producer of rice. In many ways, the state of the agricultural sector in Benue is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader sector nationally, hence solving the food crisis in Benue could go some way in solving the food crisis in Nigeria.
WHAT’S GOING ON IN BENUE STATE?
In the past decade, herder-farmer conflicts have ravaged the North Central where Benue is located, with the region accounting for 60 per cent of all casualties in 2021. In April, there were reports of a devastating attack in Benue State which reportedly claimed the lives of at least 46 people. This recurring conflict has led to the displacement of over 1.5 million people in Benue State, the majority of whom are farmers and have been unable to access their farms for several years now. In addition, those who have not been displaced from their communities have been reported to face difficulties accessing their farms or transporting their produce to markets in other communities due to a justified fear of being attacked. The resulting reduction in agricultural production from the food basket of the nation has massively contributed to the food inflation seen in the country in the past few years. The price of garri, a staple food once treasured as a cheap source of calories for the masses, has seen its price triple in the last three years, largely driven by reduced cassava production in Benue State.
In addition to the security challenges, a devastating flood that washed through Nigeria in 2022 destroyed houses and farmlands and Benue State was one of the most severely affected states. Many of those who still had access to their farms prior to the flood saw their homes, lands and livelihoods destroyed. These events have resulted in Benue, with its vast amount of arable land and a history of farming, having an Internally Displaced People population only second to Borno State. While several reports have stated that climate change will result in increased and more intense extreme weather events such as flooding in the coming years, there was an all too familiar element of incompetence, neglect and unpreparedness—summed up as ‘anyhowness’ in Nigerian lingo—in the scale of the losses witnessed.
During the floods last year, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management decried that state governments did not adequately prepare for the floods despite ‘adequate and timely warnings’ issued by relevant government agencies. This finger-pointing was a case of the federal government throwing stones from its glass quarters; while the flooding crisis was mainly driven by heavy rainfall, another important driver was the release of excess water from the Ladgo Dam, which flows into Nigeria by River Benue, by Cameroonian authorities. Since the 1980s, both countries agreed to build a dam on either end of River Benue to contain the overflow of water, however Nigeria has still not begun its own construction. With a new government in office, the hope is that we move past the blame game to avert the crisis this time around.
WILL THE NEW GOVERNMENT LEARN FROM PAST MISDEEDS?
The alarm bells have started ringing. The National Emergency Management Agency and Ministry of Water Resources have sounded warnings to the federal and state governments that the country is projected to witness longer days of rain this year, compared to last. All states have been advised to set up a Local Emergency Management Committee to drive the community-level changes required to mitigate the effects of the heavy rainfalls. While action is already being taken in areas like Kogi State, where plans are reportedly underway to relocate thousands of people, as at the time of writing, there is no indication that Benue State has commenced any significant preparations.
In 2019, Benue State released its first state policy on agriculture, highlighting the herdsmen-farmer conflict and climate change as key threats to the development of its agricultural sector. The policy contains ambitious targets aimed at achieving its overall vision of a hunger-free Benue State, and while the past four years did not see the envisioned developments, the hope is that the actions by the incoming federal and state government successfully usher in a new era of stability and growth in the food basket of the nation. Our bellies may depend on it⎈
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