Ending rice importation in three years: GAF overstepping the diving board

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Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

It is with much dismay that Gambians and non-Gambians, have read the disturbing announcement by the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) that it is about to embark on a multi-million dollar rice-based agricultural development project.
GAF said it will, among other things, achieve our long-cherished ambition of ending rice importation in the country in three years and, also save the government up to D48 million it spends annually to feed soldiers (The Standard, Tuesday 14 May, 2019).

This is a policy proposal that is fraught with suspicion, challenges, technical deficiencies as with failure to provide the needed socio-economic information for assessment.
I believe that the key to national vitality and progress in food security will always be the degree of consolidation of purpose and resolve we, as Gambians and as voters, are able to forge between our people and their government.

Under the current government in transition, we secured this bond, temporary though, in a manner we had not known throughout our national history and, the result has been a period of national stability and a hoped-for development generation and growth?
Today, this bond must be enshrined in a broader format of government and in a political order that befits a nation and a people who have known great crisis and challenges and have surmounted them.

The time has come to ask ourselves a fundamental question: how much have we progressed in the making of a new society in transition?
In a crucial sense – where we began, where we are now, and where we are headed for – are questions which our people will be asking seriously as they face the new dictatorial/revolutionary announcement by GAF that, it has, seemingly, empowered itself to be involved in rice-based multi-enterprise production and other related issues.
Of greater urgency, however, is our capacity for understanding our present circumstances that prompted GAF to make this extra-ordinary proposal. When we speak of a new society, New Gambia, are we specific enough about what makes it new? For, indeed, not all the ills of the past 22-year dictatorial epoch have been eradicated. One cannot transform a whole society in two-and-a-half years nor in five-and-a-half years. And, interestingly enough, neither can we expect GAF, our national security hope, to generate self-sufficiency in rice for the country, even in ten years. But the essential point is whether the old order has been effectively replaced, whether the grand strategy of transformation is working. Like many other Gambians, I believe that there is a basis for thinking that, at the very least, the foundations of a new, better life for all is not properly outlined. But to simply assert this conviction is not enough; we must go beyond the realm of statement to the realm of reality.

The realm of reality
In our resource-poor Gambia, smallholder agriculture is the main source of employment and livelihood for the majority of the rural population, and the bulk of the staple food, rice, and other food items are produced by this segment of the population. During the first Republic, these resource-poor smallholders made The Gambia one of five countries in Africa, out of a total of thirteen the world over, that met the targets of the first World Food Conference. During this time, the country was 25% self-sufficient in rice and 80% in coarse grains. Plans to significantly improve on these achievements to 65% and 100% respectively, were spread over a ten-year period. Somehow, these gains and the institutional support set-up that made them possible, were completely destroyed by the very GAF that is proposing to generate rice self-sufficiency in three years. Gambians may wish to be reminded that, the second Republic, under GAF dominated Government, was characterised by declining food production and, as a result, stagnant growth took centre stage, prompting extensive rural to urban migration. Furthermore, the agricultural gross domestic product (AGDP) started falling, resulting to a stabilised downward trend in per capita food production. The imposition of a unilaterally declared wasteful Vision 2016 on a threatened citizenry in a threatened economy, under the management of a foreign consultant, was the last straw that break the camel’s back.

Allocating 50,000 hectares of land to GAF, a new entrant, for a rice-based multi-enterprise agricultural development programme (ADP) is, in deed, a very critical national issue that must, necessarily, invoke some professional public debate. The proposal is, essentially weak, amateurish and technically impossible. What prompted GAF to come-up with this daring ambition now with a profit seeking transnational company. What is the justification for the project? Who is going to finance the project? What will be the role of the transnational company in the project implementation and in the sharing of profit? How will GAF develop the acquired land area? What will be the projected annual phase development in hectares? What type of production system will be used: lift-pump irrigation, tidal irrigation or rainfed? What are the projected yield levels that will ensure self-sufficiency in three years? What will be cost of a 50 kilogram bag of milled rice to the consumer (unless the domestic rice is 20 -25% cheaper than the imported rice, the venture nay not be worth undertaking? Was the proposed project endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), National Environment Agency(NEA), Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency (GIEPA) or the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs (MoFEA)? Has it received the blessing of the National Assembly?
Escaping the unproductive growth of the state and/or agriculture, a situation deliberately manipulated during the Second Republic, will nonetheless require something much more subtle than the proposed “laisser-faire” GAF rice development economics. This may lead to a situation where actors in this proposed self-sufficiency drive may use governmental agencies to achieve personal and extra-organisational goals first, and formal goals second. Using GAF and its profit oriented transnational company to cure this Second Republic generated problem, amounts to a new form of purposive irrationality.

For GAF to succeed and earn Gambians respect a proposal urging the European Union to end the tour of the Ecomig forces in August to be replaced by the proposed 1,000 strong battalion, programmed for rice self-sufficiency, could be the sine qua non for confidence building. GAF will need to produce visible and distributable benefits for their survival. Their priority should not be to dismantle an institution like the Ministry of Agriculture once and for all, but to gradually redirect their activities into national security areas that combine economic returns with high political pay-offs.

Rather than using the seemingly redundant 1,000 strong battalion, it is also possible to look at our existing food gap as a tremendous opportunity for employment creation. The existence of such large shortfalls provides a potential market for resource-poor smallholder farmers, unemployed youth (including returnees from the Diaspora) and women farmers, amongst whom poverty and hunger are concentrated, to expand their output and improve their livelihoods, in turn enabling us to reduce our import dependence.
Through this rare opportunity we can create series of value chain connected employment in service provision: in areas of crop production, provision of production inputs like land preparation, seed production, on-farm service providers, produce processing, storage providers and marketing. These are areas that can offer unlimited employment through a self-employment assistant programme.
The fundamental reason for building a new society has to do, in fact, with the outstanding characteristic of our age: the rebellion of the poor. This is a rebellion over which the might of government should support and promote, for the poor are, in many ways, the people for which governments exists.

Issues for consideration
The point is that the national agro-rural development process would have been adequately stabilised and sustainable by now if the APRC government was not an enemy unto itself, by serving as a stumbling block. There is the need to consider the following:
1. Efforts to transform the agricultural sector with specific reference to the rice sub-sector, must begin with a searching analysis of agricultural development programmes. Why had our rice development programmes failed in the past? Why was the rice economy perennially in crisis? How can the rice economy break out of stagnation and drift?
2.. Institutional restructuring of the Ministry of Agriculture which would require i) a targets-based production system; ii) drafting a comprehensive agricultural development policy; iii) a professional rice development strategy; iv) a moratorium on new agricultural development projects; v) to mandate the National Audit Office to provide the needed monitoring of all agricultural development programmes as well as performing the required performance audit for all programmes/projects; vi) put a control on lending institution interference on funded projects.

3. Raising the productivity and output of the rice sub-sector depends on the decisions of thousands of households throughout the country and, in such a situation, the role of the government should be to provide an economic policy and framework as well as a legal and institutional dispensation conducive to rice production growth, including well-functioning factor, support systems and product markets. With such a framework in place, the farmers themselves, through a targets-based production system, can make considerable contributions to the investments required to raise and stabilise production.

Our new dispensation, with more than Billion Euro support, from Donors and Lending Institutions, could be characterised as some kind of manna. Part of this “manna” could be meaningfully used for the strengthening of domestic capabilities in the country which is essential not only for the rapid acceleration of our social and economic development but, most importantly, to overcome our excessive dependence on other foreign consultants. A point raised by Mrs Lagarde, IMF managing director, during the recently concluded Economic Form in Davos, Switzerland. A recognition of this type of domestic capacity building and challenge was reflected in the operational arrangements of the recently concluded Janneh Commission and, is currently reflected in the on-going Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission as well as the Constitution Review Commission. These commissions have adequately controlled capacity imports while promoting domestic capacity development and innovation building. Their operational strategies could be hailed as contributing prerequisites for a meaningful transition to generating and sustaining development takeoff.

All of these suggested considerations are geared to reinforcing the capacity and understanding of the smallholder rural producer and the policy and decision makers to the very simple but crucial fact: the gradual awakening of the people’s consciousness to the reality that the resource-poor smallholder rice farmers and NOT the soldiers must be supported to generate the needed self-sufficiency in rice.
The author, a former international civil servant, served as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture.