Olaseinde Arigbede coordinates the United Small and Medium Scale Farmers Association of Nigeria. A medical doctor – neuroscientist -, he became a small-scale farmer heavily involved in the defence of Nigerian small and medium-scale farmers. Grain de sel: What does your farm produce?
Olaseinde Arigbede : On my farm, we produce like the farmers in Nigeria and most of Africa. We practise mixed cropping. I grow cassava, maize, yams, some vegetables. It is a farm slightly larger than other small holder farms (8 ha when the “normal” Nigerian farm would go from 0,5 to 1 ha).
GDS : What is your definition of an “agricultural policy” and what is its aim?
OA : “Agricultural policies” I think are regarded as the domain of governments. Governments legislate, regulate and determine the parametres for specific areas of national concern. So if it relates to agriculture, it is called “agricultural policy”. But for many farmers, it isn’t really agricultural policy most of the time. Because it doesn’t deal with the fundamental issues in agriculture. It just goes on piling policies one over another. Policies that respond to pressures from outside. For us proper agricultural policy making should start with the small holder farmers, whom are the “essential farmers”. Because without them, the nation would be totally dependant on food imports. We can’t trust so-called ‘large-scale farmers’ to do more than plant what sells on the international market – it may be flowers or anything. These are agricultural entrepreneurs. They are not farmers. If determining how agriculture goes does not start from the authentic practitioners themselves, if it does not give them a kind of power to determine how that process will be monitered, evaluated, improved, it can not be agricultural policy.
GDS : In Senegal, in Mali, there are agricultural policies. Is it the case in Nigeria or is it something that could happen?
OA : People would say yes that’s the case in Nigeria but we know that is not true. You set up a group and collect the organisation of farmers of Nigeria and all it does is use the small holder farmers to justify their leadership. Going to meetings once in a while is not enough. All the more so when it is to say yes to everything …“We are buying fertilizer” and they cannot ask Why? … “We are buying 300 tractors”. Why? One tractor needs 100 hectares to be economically useful. How many hectares are you putting this to ? Do we have that hectarage? If the farmers do not ask these questions then they are not authentic farmers’ leaders. We are not asking the leadership of farmers to know everything. What we are saying is they should have support within their own institutions. But we don’t have that. When we have farmers’ organisations leaders they are at the pleasure of governments, they cannot serve farmers so we don’t regard them as farmers leaders.
GDS : For instance your organisation was not invited to these negotiations?
OA : No! It wouldn’t be because we started from a struggle.
GDS : When was your organisation created?
OA : Elite farmers used to justify their leadership using small holder farmers. They generally got government to give them inputs (some bags of fertilisers, some inputs to spray coco, etc.) and they use this to prevent the small holder farmers from protesting. In 1969 farmers broke through that façade. Their was a farmers’ uprising in the country. I started working with farmers in 1973 and lived with them directly, left my appointment at the university. If we approved it as we did for the first nearly ten years, “head on”, we couldn’t win, we were too weak to do that. Farmers were entrenched. Governments were behind us. They treated us as disruptors of order, so we decided we would now use large scale farmers. Given that they continued to fail, the direction they were going to did not really satisfy the small holder farmers. So we said to the big ones “why don’t we all come together”. You can’t by yourself make serious change. But if we all come together we can get governments to listen. And this worked. We spent a long time beating about the bush. … looking for the wrong solutions. So by 2004 we finally got together, we started by bringing in the religious institution based farmers’ organisations. There were the closest to really empathic organisations. We held a national workshop, inviting 5 or 6 from different States of the country. One problem in Nigeria is representation, given the size of the country (there are 36 States, 230 linguistic groups…). That is how our organisation started. At that point we could not possibly ask small holder farmers to contribute membership fees. They had been exploited so often by different kinds of NGOs, governments, farmers leaders. So we refused to ask for membership, money or anything and just say “you organisations please come together”. So we brought them to an international platform, and took some of them to the FAO Meeting in Johannesburg, so they could see a wider vista…. Then we saw that agriculture for us in Africa has no future if the young people do not embrace farming as a vocation. In Nigeria today if a young man went to visit to his potential in-laws and the father of the lady says “What do you do my son?” and he says he is a farmer they will say to their daughter “Are you crazy do you want to live in poverty ?”. No young people want to be farmers and that is almost a global phenomenon now.
GDS : What are the margins of manoeuvre for a big country like Nigeria in a liberalised environment?
OA : There are a lot of margins but they are not taken advantage of. If you have a government that is properly rooted in his people and that have the strength to change it, Nigeria should have been that government. Because we are a very wealthy country we could easily marshal, mobilise other countries that are afflicted by weakness from size, climate, etc. Nigeria alone could move the entirety of West Africa notwithstanding sell out, corrupt leadership. We have the resources, we lack the vision because leadership lacks the vision. People like me are regarded as communists and rebels. We are hoping that an authentic organisation like our own will manage. I work since 1986 without donors’ money. We are very poor materially but spiritually very rich.