The Jonathan administration needs to buy a white cock and go wash its head by the riverside in order to know how to start a new year without irritating Nigerians. Luckily for President Jonathan, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, his Minister of Agriculture, is the one who has opted to usher Nigerians into a new year with a half-brained initiative. Last year, the culprits were President Jonathan and his fuel subsidy cabal – Diezani Allison Madueke, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, and our alienated friend, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who had serious trouble knowing which kind of fuel the ordinary Nigerian uses for his I-better-pass-my-neigbour. It seems the administration can only start a new year with steps that attract fury or scorn and contempt. Last year, it was fury. This year, it is scorn and contempt and they are being generously heaped on the head of the Minister of Agriculture. His sin? He wants to spend sixty billion of our hard-earned naira buying cellphones for farmers in rural Nigeria. I heard with one ear that the target is ten million phones – or handsets as they call it out there.
It’s been laffomania and ridiculepalooza on social media since this initiative was announced. My good friend, Kayode Ogundamisi, announced the arrival of “Harvard-trained lunatics” (I think he meant Purdue-trained though) in government. However, before we get carried away by the hysteria, it is pertinent to look at the profile of the man in the eye of the storm. This will help us address pertinent questions. There are several detailed online profiles of the Minister but this one from the website of the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria will do. It’s a three-paragraph bio and I don’t want to summarize it. Bear with me:
“Akinwumi Adesina is Vice President (Policy and Partnerships) for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization established with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of bringing a green revolution to Africa, and lifting millions of poor farmers out of poverty and food insecurity.
Mr. Adesina has over 20 years of experience in African agriculture, development policy and rural development. of Nigerians. Despite massive injections of subsidies, productivity remains low, with many concerns about the effectiveness of existing programmes. He won the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Research Fellowship in 1988, which initiated his career in international agricultural development. He has worked in senior research positions in international agricultural research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. He joined the Rockefeller Foundation, New York, as a senior scientist for Africa in 1998 and later served as Rockefeller Foundation representative for Southern Africa, based in Harare, Zimbabwe (1999-2003).
He is also an associate director (food security) at The Rockefeller Foundation, based in Nairobi, Kenya (2003-present). Dr. Adesina helped to design, inspire and galvanize support for the landmark Africa Fertilizer Summit. He is consultant on agricultural development issues in Africa by the World Economic Forum, World Bank and African Development Bank, among other institutions. Dr Adesina was a lead organizer of the Africa Fertilizer Summit for African heads of state in 2006. He was instrumental in framing the soil health policies adopted there by over 40 African governments, the African Union the New Partnership of African Development (NEPAD), and other leading global development institutions. Mr. Adesina has worked in senior research leadership positions at IITA, WARDA and ICRISAT. In July 2007, he received the YARA Prize for the African Green Revolution in Oslo for his pioneering work with agricultural inputs and agro-dealer networks in Africa.
In 2008, he was honoured with Purdue University’s College of Agriculture Distinguished Agricultural Alumni Award, for his inspiring leadership in spearheading transformative change in African agriculture. In 2009, Mr. Adesina was appointed into the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Advocacy Group that will drive the rapid achievement of the Goals across the globe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described him as an “eminent personality’’ who had shown outstanding leadership in promoting the implementation of the MDGs. Dr Adesina holds a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University (USA). He is married to Grace and together they have two children, Rotimi and Segun.”
I have gone to this length to show that contrary to a certain impression of him now circulating like a wildfire in the harmattan on social media, this Minister has nothing in common with the caterwauling charlatans gorging in government and in the corridors of power. This is not the profile of your typical government official. The man we have on our hands here is an intellectual with unimpeachable academic achievements, a seasoned technocrat who has cut his teeth at the highest instances of international development. The question we need to ask, the puzzle we need to address is: how on earth did the man profiled above come up with such a brain-dead idea?
I’ve been following Dr. Adesina quietly for a very long time. Whenever a new government is formed in Nigeria, I check out the profiles of the new players in town to determine who is worthy of higher levels of expectation from Nigerians. My system of assessment of those running our lives has an unapologetic Apartheid ring to it. Usually, one look at the cabinet and list of other appointees is sufficient to determine that only a few names are worthy of retention. The rest are usually pedestrian come-and-chop political jobbers unworthy of one’s attention. Once I determine the few whose work and progress I will monitor carefully, I set the bar really high. For instance, I have written previously that I cannot assess Sanusi Lamido Sanusi or my friend, Sam Amadi, with the same yardstick I use for the school certificate forgers who populate the National Assembly. In essence, when you hear certain names, you raise the level, the bar, or the benchmark of expectation or whatever you prefer to call it. With other names, you shrug and expect the usual. When I hear Diezani Allison Madueke or Tony Anenih, for instance, I lower the bar because I expect to find only charlatanish corruption going on and nothing cerebral.
This explains why my pen can be very violent whenever Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Sam Amadi or any of the few people with cerebral minds in government misbehave. As the Yoruba aptly put it, it is disappointing if you find yesterday’s leftover eba and rotten okro soup where you expect to find steaming pounded yam fresh from the mortar and egusi soup. Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture being one of the two or three positive needles in the monumentally corrupt and clueless haystack that is the Jonathan government, we must repeat the question: how have we ended up finding yesterday’s eba in his “sakani” (domain) when we expected fresh pounded yam?
How on earth did Dr. Adesina sign on to this project? Why has such a cerebral technocrat joined the ranks of the resident comedians in the Jonathan cabinet? Yes, the cabinet has comedians. One wants to go to the moon – or is it Mars – by 2015. Another one says evils spirits are responsible for inefficient power generation. And, now, this brilliant technocrat wants to spend N60 billion buying cell phones for farmers in rural Nigeria. The idea is actually not bad. I think the Minister has been inspired by similar cases elsewhere in Africa. Consider, for instance, this case: (http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine/2009/jan/04/katine-uganda-africa-mobile-phones).
The tragedy here is that the Minister is going to waste public funds on a project that should be entirely private sector-driven. He should have used his good offices to approach a consortium of NGOs and development funders to buy the phones and work in partnership with cellular providers in Nigeria to ensure cheap access to airtime for the concerned farmers in a carefully determined framework. He could even run a pilot in all geopolitical zones to see how things work out.
The second tragedy – and this is very important for Nigerians in the diaspora as well as highly-trained Nigerians circulating in international organizations and global agencies – relates to disconnection and deracination. The story by now should be familiar to Nigerians. Every new government in Nigeria casts its net wide, plucking compatriots from the diaspora and from international organizations to come and run the show. They pluck them from European, American, Canadian, and Australian Universities; they pluck them from the UN System, the Africa Union, and the European Union; they pluck them from Bretton Woods; they pluck them from international Foundations, Thinktanks, and Institutes. Usually, they have excelled and made Nigeria proud in all these places. Then they get to Abuja and fail colossally. We get rotten eba from them instead of fresh pounded yam. The failure rate is so overwhelming that I can’t even immediately come up with success stories. They brought Aganga in from Goldman Sachs and I don’t know what to make of his service; they plucked Arunmah Oteh from the African Development Bank and she has ended up a total disgrace; the jury is still out on Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. And now the Minister of Agriculture is running the risk of becoming a comedian.
Perhaps there is something about the culture on the ground which these naïve returnees from the diaspora or from international agencies and bodies misjudge in terms of their own modes of reinsertion into Nigerian society? I suspect, for instance, that Dr Adesina imagines that he is still shaping policy and initiatives for the Rockefeller Foundation or for NEPAD. Perhaps he imagines he is still working on MDGs for Ban Ki-Moon? Somebody had better wake him up and tell him he is in Abuja. He will understand the folly of this cellphone project when he starts receiving letters from above regarding whose wife or whose concubine should get the contract for the importation of the phones. He will wake up to the reality of Nigeria when body language begins to tell him how many of those phones – if they ever get to Nigeria – should go in Easter hampers to Aso Rock, to fellow cabinet members, to members of the National Assembly, to party chieftains and elder statesmen. He will understand Nigeria when, he after allocation to the 36 states, the phones disappear on arrival in the state capital. He will understand the nature of things when he discovers that virtually every civil servant in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture has opened a cellphone supplying shop or business and are already quietly telling potential customers that they are awaiting stocks and consignment.
Dr. Adesina has ample examples of Ministers embarking on woolly-headed projects to learn from. There is Dora Akunyili, who wasted millions on her moronic rebrand Nigeria project and castigated those of us wailing against it as noisy armchair critics. What did Nigeria ever gain from that project? Hundreds of millions of naira down the drain. Just like that. I once called for Dora Akunyili to be prosecuted for criminal wastage of funds. Perhaps that would have dissuaded Dr. Adesina from buying cellphones for farmers with public funds? Why can’t he go to his people at Rockefeller and sell this idea to them? Why can’t he approach the oil subsidy cartel in Nigeria and see if they could cough up the funds for his project? Why not approach corporate institutions and see if they want to come on board and fund part of this thing as corporate social responsibility? Oh, I better not mention corporate social responsibility. Our unpredictable CBN Governor may get to read this and rush a check of N60 billion to the Minister of Agriculture, claiming it is the corporate social responsibility of the CBN to provide the phones.
Anyway, I hope the Minister did not burn bridges at Rockefeller. When this foolish project bites the dust, he may need to pack his bag. It’s a familiar story. After failure at home, we usually tuck our tail between our legs and return to the diaspora or to our respective international agencies to resume the task of accusing Nigerians back home of not knowing how to run Nigeria.