One of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s genius ideas leading to the 2023 elections, was that he believes strongly that Nigeria has to bring back commodity boards as well as encourage commodity exchanges as key tools in rejuvenating the agric sector, banishing hunger, improving the lot of Nigeria’s farmers, and ensuring value-addition through a structured approach to cash crops in Nigeria. This idea made it into the manifesto called Renewed Hope – perhaps the best of such documents ever to show up in Nigeria since our democracy commenced. It is noteworthy that President Tinubu’s opponents, who had even more time on their hands could not come up with anything close.
The moment that this idea was being discussed in the media during the campaigns, some ‘market-savvy’ Nigerians have sought to shut it down. The idea of a commodity board has been poohpoohed as being backward. Some of these guys that I have discussed with said the farmers will get – or are getting – more cash when they are not organized into groups. They also claim that the commodity boards of yesteryears were cheating farmers. These claims are what I seek to interrogate today, and for good reasons.
Commodity boards particularly are of concern to me, because of their closeness to our farmers at the grassroots. Commodity exchanges on their part are very sophisticated institutions which help guarantee prices and oftentimes delivery of commodities into the future, through very strict contracts. Nigeria has a few of those already, though we cannot be said to have developed a culture of having our farmers transact on such exchanges. In Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa, have commodity exchanges and these countries have reaped the joys of such structure for their farmers.
As regards commodity boards, Nigeria used to have them up until 1986 when we embarked on market-oriented economic ideology. The Structural Adjustment Program of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sought to help Nigeria with its economic structural defects. As part of conditionalities for the loan that we sought then, Nigeria was asked to restructure public enterprises. This meant laying off quite a few civil servants and privatizing many government-owned enterprises. We were also asked to increase interest rates, and of course to get rid of these commodity boards so that our farmers could sell their products directly into the international markets. We did. But we did not reckon on whether our farmers could negotiate as equals with their foreign buyers, or whether they could keep to standards on their own. We did not also reckon with the consequences of their clumsiness, or the reputational damage that the infractions of a few of them could have on others – and the country at large.
And so, we could look back today to consider whether indeed our farmers have fared better – especially those that sell to foreign entities. Whether we are talking about the north of Nigeria and its sesame, sorghum, maize, hibiscus, soyabean, and whatnot, or the south and its Cocoa, wood, rubber, palm oil, and so on, it is doubtful that our farmers have done better than their forebears. We are not now talking about a few mechanized farmers but looking at the power of agriculture to change whole societies by lifting people out of poverty.
From my own personal experience in Ondo State, I think our farmers were better off under commodity boards. I recall when my brother and I were send ahead of the family back to Akure Ondo State in 1982 and we had much interaction with our cousins and uncle who was a cocoa farmer. In our farm settlement called ‘Ita Oniyan’, just outside Akure main city, there was a cocoa board office. In front of the cocoa board office and perhaps every other house nearby, cocoa seeds were almost always being dried aplenty. In front of most people’s houses and also the cocoa board, there were jute bags, stacks upon stacks of cocoa, getting ready for the market. Even in Akure city, it was the same. Cocoa was so popular that it made it into some of our ancestral cognomen such as ‘Omo Oligii so’o ogbon ijomu’. This translates into ‘the son of the man who had trees that fruited money at Ijomu Quarters. The marvel of the improved-seedling cocoa trees from Ministry of Agriculture, which bore fruits even on the stems, and whose seeds were shaped like cowries, made my people fashion this cognomen from my grandma’s side of the family.
It was therefore a prosperous time for farmers. Well, I couldn’t tell how it fared for groundnut and beans farmers, or those in the Niger Delta area who planted palm trees and rubber. But in that era up till 1986, southwest farmers came to their own. They built storey buildings called ‘petesis’ in their immediate abodes. I was recently at a street called ‘Oshinle’ in Akure, and I admired rows upon rows of those ‘petesis’, those storey buildings built with mud and with plank decks and stairs, proud symbols of that era that came to a screeching halt in the mid-1980s with the ill-fated experimental advice of the multilateral organisations.
I think that era was a great success and that success needs to be replicated under President Tinubu, for all farmers in Nigeria – from those in the vast farmlands of the north, to those in the south of Nigeria, including our livestock traders and even fishermen. We need to give back to these humble people who have been slaving to make our lives better. I further think that that period is a success because it was when we managed to build the tallest building till date in the entire southwest of Nigeria – aptly named Cocoa House.
Funnily, when the developed nations had issues in 2009-2011, they took the exact opposite of the medicine the prescribed for us. Rather than lay people off in their public sector, they employed more. Even during covid-19 they created millions of jobs around the pandemic (not only medical). They reduced interest rates to spur economic growth in that Great Recession (2009-2011). They also put taxpayers’ monies into private companies, nationalizing a few car producers, banks, and insurance companies. They pulled out all stops. I believe it is high time we thought for ourselves as nobody could know our country and economy more than we do. I fully believe and subscribe to President Tinubu’s idea about commodity boards/exchanges towards turning our farmers’ fortunes around.
Perhaps what spurred me to finally write this article is a story from cash-strapped Ghana. Our anglophone neighbor had been hailed by the usual suspects as it implemented a number of market-driven policies and topped them with borrowing of foreign currency from multilateral agencies. But now, things have turned southwards and the country is flailing. The last information we got was that the COCOBOD, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire’s commodity board for cocoa crop, will be bailing the country out with $400 billion. Imagine that a cooperative – which is essentially what a commodity board is – is able to manage its affairs and prosper so well as to lend a country such a huge amount. The Ghana-CIV COCOBOD earlier this year reached out to Nigerian cocoa farmers, offering to admit them to also enjoy the benefits of cooperation. Those two nations apparently never dismantled their own boards when Nigeria did. Not only have they been able to cooperate till today, providing support, succor, and guarantee for their members when prices fall, the production of cocoa diverged from Nigeria’s remarkably. Today, Ghana produces close to 700,000 tonnes while Cote D’Ivoire nudges towards 3,000,000 tonnes. Nigeria struggles to produce 300,000 tonnes.
Commodity boards and standardized commodity exchanges is a promise that must be kept.