Of a Food Blockade and Common Sense

“Babe, the market is scanty. Many fresh food sellers did not show up, and those around said food supplies are limited.” My wife’s voice on the phone finally made it personal. I had been following reports online of a “food blockade” on Southern Nigeria by Northern Nigeria, but now it had gone beyond mere news reports to something that would make our family spend more on food this month. Fortunately, we could stomach the higher cost of limited supplies at the market, but I wondered about the infamous pyrrhic victory and a seemingly maniacal drive by some persons to cut off their nose to spite their face.

To provide some simplified context, Nigeria arrived here after a series of mismanaged events that eschewed any consideration for consequences and progressively emboldened different groups to act in opposition to national unity and progress. Lingering complaints about murders and destruction of farmlands by “Fulani Herdsmen” somehow led to a riot in Oyo State where northern traders were attacked and scores of northerners and southerners were killed. Since the northern regions are largely agrarian while the southern regions despite having more rainfall focus more on trade and skilled jobs, a group of northerners decided to “teach the South a lesson” by stopping food-laden trucks from heading down south.

Although the blockade has reportedly ended, I want to flag some vital points the conspirators north of the Niger might have failed to consider in their foolish quest.

    I.        Impact on perceived “national unity”

Word on the streets is a rising disdain for our northern brethren. Time would tell how much damage this blockade has done to any consideration of unity, especially in the minds of those southerners who could not afford inflated food prices and see the North as having tried to starve them to death.

  II.        South-based northerners as collateral damage

How do you punish a cosmopolitan city like Lagos that has residents from all over the country shopping from the same markets? Would elves and reindeers be engaged to deliver food to northerners based in the South? 

III.        Potential impact on revenues for Northern farmers if the South “finally” takes agriculture seriously

If the Southern states finally borrow some wisdom to take their food security more seriously, there would be quite some impact on income levels up North given that a relatively larger proportion of Northerners depend on farming for their livelihoods. With abundant rainfall, a South that embraces mechanised farming and invests in food processing facilities would not just out-produce the North per unit acre but would be in a position to preserve food year-long, and export excess production via seaports down South.

IV.        Potential impact on revenues for Northern farmers if the South begins importing fresh food supplies from elsewhere

While this is a theoretical risk for the North, I doubt the Federal Government would allow Southern states to implement such a policy shift given that Southern seaports and international airports are under Federal control.

 V.        Market size of Nigeria’s neighbours compared to Southern Nigeria

Some of the Northern blockers boasted about diverting farm produce to Niger Republic, Benin Republic, Chad and Cameroon. However, the total population in those four countries (<78 million) is less than the estimated population of the 17 southern Nigerian states (>94 million), and the citizens of those countries are relatively less affluent than those in Nigeria’s South. Even the northern Nigerian states are less affluent than their southern counterparts.

VI.        Ability of Northern farmers to reach export markets

Northern Nigeria is landlocked, hence, excluding Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger with which it shares borders, exporting its farm produce would be an issue, assuming those four neighbours cannot provide enough demand, and Southern Nigeria is an unwanted customer. Maybe exports can be routed through seaports in Benin or Cameroun, or via air freight from Abuja or Kano.

VII.        Mix of food production and impact on preservation, processing and export

Nigeria lacks adequate processing facilities that would enable farm produce last much longer, and transform them to a state suitable for export. While it may be relatively easier to preserve things like beans or rice, the same cannot be said for tomatoes, peppers, oranges and many other perishable goods.

VIII.        Potential for escalation if a “petroleum blockade” is imposed in Southern Nigeria

If despite the existence of a Federal Government and all its security appurtenances, a group could prevent food trucks from heading to the South, it may not be too naïve to assume another group down South could copy from the playbook and find a way to prevent petrol tankers from heading to the North. The total production from the refinery in Niger Republic is inadequate to meet Northern Nigeria’s daily demand for refined petroleum products, so any such “petroleum blockade” could be quite devastating except imports are routed through Benin and Cameroon.

ᴥ ᴥ ᴥ

I think Nigeria has expertise in making a bad situation worse. The events that led to the food blockade are a sui generis example of leadership nonchalance, incompetence, and a society where actions do not beget state-sanctioned consequences. Each time a group is allowed to get away with madness, another group gets emboldened to try its luck. As for the protagonists of the food blockade, they may want to review the 1973-1974 Arab Oil Embargo, and the role it played in pushing America and its allies to seek greater energy independence, and research alternative energy sources.

Regardless of how the current crisis is handled, I hope that Southern states would now take agriculture—built around mechanisation and processing capability—very seriously. This goes beyond food security, but to provide another revenue stream for residents and state / local governments, jobs, and technological advancement. If all Nigerian regions are producing surplus food, we can then look at exporting fresh and processed food. Above all, I hope in the next 5 – 10 years, we would not be in a situation where any region can weaponize food supply.

Image Credit: tribuneonlineng.com

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