In place of awe at the spectacular sight of the rice pyramids stacked in the FCT in preparation for the president to officially unveil them on Tuesday, Nigerians have mostly expressed cynicism. Something about those thousands of bags of rice piled in the open feels both unrealistic and out of touch with reality. First, almost all the media accounts of the Tuesday ceremony laughingly repeated the claim that there were up to one million bags of rice in those pyramids. How could that be? In the days Nigeria had groundnut pyramids, each was estimated to have been constructed from around 15,000 plus bags. To build rice pyramids composed of one million bags means there should have been approximately 65 of those structures. But there were only 13!
It also did not help the government’s credibility that former Ogun governor, Ibikunle Amosun, once celebrated bogus rice pyramids. In 2017, Amosun claimed to have revived Ofada rice production in Ogun State. His notable feat soon turned into an online joke when the photograph of the rice pyramid, while it was being built, surfaced. It turned out that much of what the governor was passing off as a huge stack of rice bags were mostly the scaffold that held up the pyramid. Sceptics are now sharing photos of Amosun’s stunt to invalidate the current rice pyramids.
The lack of enthusiasm must be dispiriting for the government officials dutifully celebrating. They have spoken in superlatives, noting that these rice pyramids are a feat destined for the Guinness Book of Records. Yet, if the rest of the world has not paid that much attention to Nigeria’s rice pyramids, it is because we are not yet competitive in the global rice market. China and India that produce about 50 per cent of the rice consumed worldwide do not build pyramids to show off their outputs. Like most serious countries, they take their ability to produce staples for granted.
If Nigerians too are not jumping excitedly over the rice pyramids, it could also be because of the crass insensitivity of displaying them for photo-ops, especially when the prices of those items are soaring beyond reach. Nigeria is one of those countries in the world where, on average, people spend around 90 to 100 per cent of their income on food. The high cost of food, and the diminishing purchasing power of the majority, account for much of the poverty endemic in Nigeria. As such, the ostentatious display of that rice looks like a vulgar taunt of the deprived. Besides, what is the point of putting all that rice in the open? Rice is typically stored in roofed and air-regulated warehouses to lessen the possibility of moisture damage, so why did Nigeria store its own outdoors? Why risk all that produce to the vicissitudes of the weather and other agents of nature just to take their photo?
Nigeria’s demonstration is a tad understandable though. By stacking those bags in humongous piles, we are being asked to recall the glory days of the country when groundnut pyramids adorned places like Kano. The rice pyramids are a make-Nigeria-great-again sleight of hand. They are designed to invoke nostalgia for a phase in our national life where we had the capacity to produce for export and also connect that sentiment to this moment. The rice pyramids are staged to persuade us of our advancement as a society; that we are driving back to that period in our historical trajectory before we discovered oil and veered off course. With those pyramids, we are being nudged to believe that the capacity-building efforts of this government had paid off and we have renewed the knowledge with which we used to till the earth and make it yield its abundance.
Except, of course, something was off with such manipulative attempts. Unlike the rice, the groundnut pyramids are recalled as substantial achievements and not merely stacked for the eyes to feast. They were a symbol of national wealth and their mere sight told the story of a self-sufficient country; a nation where people actually worked hard before they fell into the trap of eviscerating the earth to rob it of its riches. Those groundnut pyramids were located at strategic places where they were routed through railway to the seaports, onwards to their final destinations. The groundnut pyramids had a reason to be where they were and were not merely an interloper of reality. Nobody needed to announce that Nigeria was self-sufficient at the sight of those groundnut pyramids because they matched the social reality. They symbolised our agricultural wealth and testified to our nation’s agricultural skills and entrepreneurial perspicacity. Quite unlike these days that merely feeding has become a luxury.
As I watched video clips of one trailer after trailer bringing the rice bags to build the pyramids, I could not help but wonder why even the choice of the FCT location. Is there a processing factory nearby? Why deploy all of these efforts to display rice in Abuja only to be dismantled all over again? At least, we were told by Shehu Muazu, Chairman Pyramid Sub Committee of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria that, as soon as the ceremony to unveil the rice was over, the bags would be allocated to processors who would complete the production and sell them at a discounted rate. Would it not have been much easier—and even more labour- and time-saving—for the trailers that brought the rice to have simply distributed them directly to those same processors? Why first assemble them in the FCT for a photo-op? The fact that we are still as wasteful of the resources invested in constructing the rice pyramids just for government officials to ceremoniously “launch” them shows that we have not even recovered from the habits that made us lose our way in the first place.
Rice pyramids look impressive but the questions of availability, affordability and even the sustainability that they raise are far more crucial. The last point is especially important given how much security issues have contributed to the decimation of farming in Nigeria. Ideally, rice pyramids would have been far more meaningful if they were constructed from a place of surplus and not scarcity. In other words, for a country to have invested so many bags of rice in forming rice pyramids, there should at least have been 100 times more of that number already in circulation. Using rice to build grand pyramids while people complain of its relative unavailability and subsequent unaffordability only prioritises show over substance.
Meanwhile, there is also the irony of how Nigeria’s generative capacity has supposedly increased sporadically but the food is far more out of reach than ever. According to CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, at the rice pyramids ceremony, the national output of rice production has gone up from about 5.4 million metric tonnes in 2015 to more than nine million in 2021 while the productivity per hectare of smallholder farmers upped from about 2.4 metric tonnes per hectare to around five metric tonnes within the same period. He also claimed that the CBN financed five million small-scale farmers. So, we are to believe that one out of every 40 Nigerians is currently a rice farmer and output almost doubled but rice prices shot up by nearly 300 per cent!
Again, the RIFAN officials promised that there would be a price crash as soon as they released the rice for sale. That is rather curious. Given how costly food products—including rice, of course—have been in the past years, one wonders why releasing the rice into the market was not hastened. Why spend months building a pyramid with bags and bags of unprocessed rice when they could have simply prioritised completing the production process and then facilitating the distribution across the country? That would have been more exciting. When you let the exhibition of unfinished produce take precedence over the urgent needs of those who need them, you cannot blame those who refuse to salivate over the sight of their food in a pyramid.