How IITA @ 50 outing turned Obasanjo to compere

Anyone who walked into the International Conference Center at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, just some minutes after 1p.m. on July 24, 2017 would be stunned to find Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo wielding a microphone and masterfully compering the occasion. The intermittent bursts of laughter, an endearing commandership and effervescent energy that captivated the hall was contagious and soothing, betraying the fact that the impromptu MC for this August event was a former president. The event was IITA’s 50th golden anniversary, a landmark celebration that captures the spirit and bubbling energy that permeates Africa’s foremost and illustrious agricultural research and development institute.

This wasn’t actually how the event was supposed to go. Obasanjo was invited as a Guest of Honor, alongside former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon — who promulgated Decree 23 that established the institute, and freshly minted World Food Prize winner and President of Africa Development Bank, (AfDB), Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina. Other key personalities at the event include the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbe, who represented Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo; Chair, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Sen. Abdulahi Adamu; former President, International Fund for Agricultural Development, (IFAD) Dr. Kanayo Nwanze; Director General of IITA, Dr. Nteranya Sanginga; representative of the Dangote Group, Engr. Joseph Makoju; entrepreneur and Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Tony Elumelu; Olubadan of Ibadan, Oba Saliu Adetunji, among others.

The extensive list of dignitaries was a tribute to IITA’s mandate and strides in delivering cutting-edge solutions to rural farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and a strong partnership with and support from Nigeria’s public and private sector. The institute has recorded immense success in uplifting smallholder farmers out of poverty, providing them with improved seeds and strengthening crop and food value chains for sustainable agricultural development.

Given his fatherly status at IITA and with the portfolio as the institute’s honorary international ambassador, Obasanjo had decided that he would not sit as a spectator to watch the proceedings.

Realizing that time was of the essence and that the penchant to delay was creeping into the day’s schedule, the General picked the gauntlet to compere the event. He didn’t mind asking the DJ to kill the music on certain occasions or pleading with excited guests, who lingered to reconnect with long lost friends, to take their seats so as not to move on with the day’s job. “I invoke the Decree No. 32 by General Gowon, which established this Institute in 1967. That would guide the proceedings of today,” he began, jokingly. Not one to toil with assignments, Obasanjo handled the task with panache. He entertained all with jokes, exhibiting a strong and enviable fraternal vibe with Gen. Gowon and other guests. He was, in short, at home with IITA, and the institute’s guests, alumni, management and staff saw in him, a caring and worthy patron.

This mood, one might say, has been instrumental to successes recorded by the IITA and perhaps, showed that the Nigerian government—even with several missteps along the way—values the imperative for research and a dedication to excellence, anywhere these traits are exhibited. These traits are what has kept the institute above board through the years. However, the main reason for the enthusiasm displayed by the former president, as he would later reveal, is because he heads the Zero Hunger Initiative, and hopes that he would live to see that Nigeria is rid of hunger before 2030.

IITA and General Gowon’s Role
The golden anniversary celebration is a tribute to the visionary role played by Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who with Decree 23, established the institute in 1967 in a not so comforting year. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations had earlier approached Nigeria to discuss prospects for establishment of the institute in 1963, after the idea was muted the previous year, in the wake of the agricultural revolution in Asia and the Americas. This was followed by extensive visits and consultations which culminated in the choice of a location close to the University of Ibadan. A striking bit of this story is the fact that Gen. Gowon issued this decree as a young soldier few days after the civil war broke out.

In his address at the occasion, IITA’s Director General, Sanginga, had this same thought, when he wondered what might have occupied the young general’s mind when he signed the decree. Nigeria was apparently in the middle of the fight for her soul, unity and future in those early days and the thought of setting up an agricultural institute was particularly not enticing. General Gowon’s commitment to ensure that country retained the status to host the institute remained firm in the face of distress and adversity, a decision that imbued the former Head of State with pride as he sat through the proceeding of the day to learn of the institutes prowess in breeding the best of crops and some of the finest scientists anyone can find in the field of agriculture, many of whom now head other organizations.

Developing Africa’s Agriculture
The institute’s strides in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is unparalleled. This accounts for why it has remained relevant, providing Africans with technologies to improve food and nutrition security, helping industrialists diversify into agriculture, and molding world-class scientists. Almost 400 varieties of cassava with increased yield and better resistance to diseases have been developed. Over 300 improved maize varieties developed with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been adopted in 13 countries. Among a long list of firsts, one of IITA’s groundbreaking feats is the development of vitamin A cassava, with support from HarvestPlus. This nutritious cassava varieties help rural farmers meet their daily requirement of vitamin A and at the same time, improves income for sustenance. A video presentation by the Presidents of Rockefeller and Ford foundations at the occasion underscored the place of the institute in the hearts of its visioners.

However, the institute hasn’t been without a fair share of lows. “This institution,” according to Dr. Sanginga in his address, “in 2011 was in a serious crisis. We had made mistakes as an institution and that translated into the loss of funding. The donors were angry and they cut the money coming to IITA for 11 months.” Dr. Sanginga, many staff would say, wielded a magic wand. He came around at this period and caused a turn-around, going by the testimony of Mrs. Ayoka Lawani, an IITA Alumni/Spouse Representative, who praised Sanginga for restoring the glory of the institute after the hiatus. Sanginga insisted however that the success the institute recorded in the last few years was a result of the support he received from Nigerian government and the benevolence of a number of the guest who were seated.

However, he was unhappy with the fact that IITA’s funding was coming from outside Africa. Pained by this, he argued for a review of government’s provision for the institutes operations. He said, “We import $35 billion worth of food in this continent, if we do nothing, this would rise to $110 billion. And we are importing what we are producing. IITA is funding with 99 per cent external funds. So, when these external forces decided to stop funding us, what happens to us? In 1994, IITA had almost 10 breeders of soybean. I didn’t know what was happened in the United States and they thought Africa was going to pose competition for soybean from the US. President Babangida was there when a message came that IITA should stop soybean research. And we stopped for almost 20 years. So, these are the consequences for us not investing in our own needs. I believe that for an institution like IITA to succeed in the future we have to change our mindset.”

Dr. Adesina, Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture, rose to the top after passing through the institute. In his address at the occasion, he praised IITA for its impact, stressing that development of improved varieties of maize, soybean, cassava and yam to transform agriculture in Nigeria and Africa are laudable. “That is why, as Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, I put IITA at the core of our Agricultural Transformation Agenda.” He noted that the Africa Development Bank has pledged to work with IITA to transform agriculture in Africa, adding, “The bank would be investing $24 billion in agriculture over the next ten years to turn agriculture into a business across Africa. Our goal is to ensure that Africa feeds itself, not in 30 or 40, but in 10 years.”

The Imperative for Nutrition-sensitive Agriculture
The imperative for nutrition-sensitive agriculture came to the fore at the event. Acting President, Prof. Osibanjo, who was represented by Minister of Agriculture and Rural Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe, said that rising population demands that Nigeria, and indeed, Africa fashion ways to feed herself and not have to rely on the benevolence of outsiders.

According to him, “The most urgent issue is that of the population bulge. At over 3 percent growth per annum, we are reportedly heading for 450 million Nigerians in the year 2050. The big question then is, how do we feed 450 million people in just 42 years from now. Then there is a question of nutrition, eating much is not the same as eating well. Carbohydrate is the bulk of our diet. How do we deal with issues of other nutrients in our food, of soil science and the application of the right kind of fertilizer, right kind of crop for the right kind of soil? We can do it with institutes like this and others joining hands with you. If China and India did it, we too, must. So, as we move on, we must reflect on the quantity of output, quality of product. To achieve this, we must engage in research, more research and even more research. You have done great things in the past. But it is not enough if the results of research are not marketed for universal application. In a society where the vast majority of farmers are small holders, aging and not educated, more needs to be done.” He urged IITA to commercialize its findings, assuring that the government would seek for ways to ensure that provisions are made for this to happen.

The Challenge Ahead
Former President, IFAD, Dr. Kanayo Nwanze, also an IITA alumnus, said that the time was ripe for African governments to prioritize agriculture, stressing that a lot of sermonizing had been done and it was the right time for action. He said it was regrettable that over 70 percent of Nigerians in rural areas are neglected but are expected to produce food for over 180 million Nigerians, noting that governments are failing in their responsibility to these set of people. “If you go to rural parts of Africa, where 80 percent of those who produce our foods reside and work, there are no roads, no clinics, no schools, no financial systems,” he said. “These people feed us. There are no social services in these places. When we say we are spending $35 billion importing food, it is not just about imports, we are putting that money in the pocket of others, creating jobs for thousands of farmers out of Africa, when we have the highest jobless rates in the world. That, for me, is the greatest shame for Africa. This is because that money can be invested in producing food and strengthening our institutions. Without strong institutions, Africa will never make progress.”

He urged IITA to work towards sustainability of its systems if it was ever going to continue its impressive performance in the agricultural sector. “You must engage in advocacy. you must engage governments to fund research as a backbone for transformation of agriculture,” he said.
As the guests lauded IITA’s impact and progress in developing agriculture in Nigeria and Africa, it became clear that the next challenge was that of building sustainable institutions, developing market-driven agricultural innovations, and taking strategic action to drive change, from the policy-making angle to rural villages. As the charge to go into Agriculture mounts, and the need to tackle hunger rises, it is only proper for institutions like IITA to take the lead, and the Nigerian government and the people invest in feeding themselves.
• Onyewuchi Ikechukwu, works as the Communication Officer for the HarvestPlus program in IITA

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