For a very long time, agriculture was the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. As a matter of fact, a lot of countries across the world depend solely on agriculture for their survival and sustenance.
The importance of agriculture in Nigeria can never be over-emphasised, as agriculture still provides livelihoods for a larger percentage of the citizens.
The determination of the ECOWAS member nations to fast-track regional development through economic integration was the raison d’être behind the decision of the heads of ECOWAS member states to enact and adopt the ECOWAS Free Movement treaty in May 1979.
The treaty aims at strengthening sub-regional economic integration via progressive freer movement of goods, capital and people, while consolidating the efforts of the member states to maintain peace, stability and security.
The ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of People and Goods ensures free mobility of the citizens of member states.
It confers on the people of the region, the right to enter and reside in the territory of any member state, provided they have valid travel documents and international health certificate.
Although the main aim of the treaty is to boost economic activities, including agriculture, concerned observers note that some citizens of member countries have been abusing this entry privilege, to the detriment of other member nations.
The member nations of ECOWAS are Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
In the case of Nigeria, some agriculturalists moan that the constant abuse of the treaty, owing to the porous nature of Nigerian borders, has contributed to some challenges facing the country’s agricultural sector.
They believe that implementation of the treaty in the region is somewhat an impediment to the realisation of the Federal Government’s plans to make agriculture the mainstay of the country’s economy.
They insist that the free movement of persons and goods within the region is a contributory factor to the rising cases of insecurity of lives and property, smuggling of agricultural produce, farmers-herdsmen crisis and transference of some animal diseases in the region.
Speaking on the impact of the treaty on agriculture, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, while analysing the achievements of the Buhari-administration in the agricultural sector, said that some ECOWAS citizens were abusing the treaty.
He said that the abuse of the treaty had promoted smuggling of agricultural products, particularly grains; thereby sabotaging the Federal Government’s plans to ensure Nigeria’s attainment of self-sufficiency in the production of rice and other produce.
“We will like to advise our neighbours who believe that the ECOWAS treaty means that Nigeria is a volunteer nation for economic suicide.
“We have no such plans; we cannot destroy our own economy to make any neighbour happy.
“The ECOWAS treaty does not suggest that any country can be an avenue of smuggling foreign goods, which are not produced in that country, for dumping in a neighbouring territory.
“If that practice persists, I do not think that government is far away from considering permanently closing certain borders very near us; and when we do, nothing will make us change our minds on the issue, ECOWAS treaty or not,’’ Ogbeh warned.
Reinforcing the minister’s viewpoint, Mr Lamina Rasheed, the National Chairman, Association of Indigenous Sea Food Stakeholders, said that Nigeria lost N9 billion revenue annually to illegal fish importation and smuggling through the land borders.
He frowned at the development, saying that it had negatively affected the business of many genuine importers and local fish farmers across the country.
Rasheed said that illegal fish importation was still ongoing through the land borders, adding that the establishment of a monitoring and prosecution task force would be helpful in efforts to curb the menace.
He appealed to the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to step up efforts to curtail the activities of smugglers.
Also speaking, Alhaji Baba Ngelzarma, the National Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), said that some pastoralists who engaged in conflicts with farmers were foreigners.
Ngelzarma, who bemoaned the excesses of some foreign herdsmen, urged security agencies to increase their surveillance on foreign herdsmen coming into the country in order to monitor their activities.
“If you look at the international routes that allow the international pastoralists to enter into the country, those routes are not monitored by any security outfit in the country.
“What we discovered in Niger is that before they allow their pastoralists come into Nigeria, they have to give them permits, know where they are going to and the number of cows that they are taking out before allowing them to go.
“And if the number of their cows increases when they are coming back, they would be questioned. However, that system of check is what is absent in Nigeria,’’ he said.
Ngelzarma also called for a synergy between the governments of those states in the border areas and the neighbouring countries in efforts to curtail the excesses of some international pastoralists.
“Niger Republic usually allows all their international pastorialists to come into Nigeria around December because by December, they must have gathered their farm produce but in Nigeria, our harvest period is not the same.
“The time they release their pastoralists to come to Nigeria is the time when our farmers are still busy with their cultivation in farms.
“There is no synergy between our country and the neighbouring countries; we have to work together and if this is done, the incessant farmers-herdsmen crises will reduce significantly,’’ he said.
Nevertheless, Mr Ernest Aubee, the Head of Agriculture Division, ECOWAS Commission, Abuja, emphasised that the ECOWAS protocol did not promote illegality.
He said that the citizens of member countries, who were fond of hiding under the guise of the protocol to perpetrate evils, were criminals flouting national laws.
Aubee, nonetheless, stressed that the abuse of the treaty by some citizens of member states was totally “unacceptable’’.
“No one should trade in commodities that are going to be detrimental to any member state.
“You cannot take something that is sub-standard – something that is bad – and then move it from country A to country B, just to make money.
“It is unacceptable for anybody to try to dump substandard foods in any ECOWAs member states.
“It is also unacceptable if you decide to violate, not just the regional laws but also the national laws of a country, when it comes to food quality and food safety issues.
“My appeal to all business people, especially those involved in the trade of agricultural commodities, is that they should respect the regulations and the protocols on free movement of peoples, goods and services.
“They should also respect other protocols dealing with the marketing products from one place to another,’’ he said.
Perceptive analysts acknowledge that no region of the world that is totally free from the incidence of trans-border wrongdoings in the agricultural sector but they insist that pragmatic efforts should be made to address the perceptible challenges facing Nigeria’s agricultural sector.
They add that the challenges that have somewhat resulted in poverty, inequality, hunger, unemployment and corruption in the country.
The analysts insist that if the Federal Government must succeed in its efforts to diversify the country’s economy through agriculture, it must initiate decisive strategies to combat all the barriers inhibiting the growth of the agricultural sector.
By Ginika Okoye, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)