How corruption stalled 30,000ha local rice production in Taraba

The fact that Nigeria is an investment hub in Africa has long been laid to rest, at least the daily influx  of investors into the country to exploit the investment potentials, especially after the privatization drive of the government under former president Olusegun Obasanjo, is a case in point. JOHN OBA writes.

Nigerians have been bombarded with figures of potential investors seeking to invest in different sectors of the economy, but evidences have shown that most of these investors end up leaving without committing a dime to the country for no fault of theirs, as they cannot cope with the high level of rot in the Nigerian system.

Also, lack of political will or unhealthy political interests from individual have seen most investors leaving the country.
A case in point is the proposed 30, 000 hectares local rice farm in Taraba state involving an America company, Dominion Farms.
It could be recalled that in 2011, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, announced the intension of Dominion Farms Limited, a company registered in Kenya, with headquarters in Oklahoma, US, that is owned by US-Canadian businessman, Calvin Burgess as part of his “Dominion Group of Companies” to invest in Nigeria with the development of a 30,000 rice farm in Taraba State.

But the project has since generated a lot of controversy and foot dragging because of the improper way the handlers went about it. As usual, the habit of going about government activities without due process which has always been the bane of the country’s development became the order of the day Blueprint discovered.

The Dominion Farms project in Taraba is supposed to be part of the co-operation framework agreement of the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa.

Dominion Farms signed a letter of intent between the Government of Nigeria and the G8 aid donor countries that involves a $40 million investment in “growing and processing rice on 30,000 hectares of land, a rice mill and the training of Nigerian youth at Dominion’s Kenyan operations.

Blueprint investigations show that after farmers in Taraba state raised the alarm over Dominion farms land grab revealed a lot of unwholesome handling of the whole process, first by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina and the political power play between the state government and General TY Danjuma. Infact, General Danjuma’s involvement seem to have strengthened the resolve of the state government to fight against the success of the project.

At first the land given to Dominion farms limited was not properly processed, the way the minister of agriculture went about getting the land for Dominion farms, Blueprint learnt was inappropriate. According to inside sources from the Ministry of Water Resources, the land belonged to the Upper Benue River Basin Development Authority, under the supervision of the ministry of water resource.
Based on a report of two Nigerian civil society organisations, Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoEN) and Center for Environmental Education and Development (CEED), with the support of Global Justice Now and GRAIN.

It was gathered that the land given to Dominion Farms are part of a public irrigation scheme that thousands of families depended on.
The local people, it was revealed, were not consulted about the project even though the company has already started to occupy the lands, they are still completely in the dark about any plans for compensation or resettlement.

This assertion was corroborated by a source at the river basin who did not want his name in print.
He said: “I could remember that the minister of agriculture brought the company to our office in Yobe state after they had concluded agreement on the land knowing full well that the land belong to the basin and after some discussions, the company instead of starting their 30,000 hectare project from a virgin land, they started working right on the about 2000 hectares that we have facilities and in the process destroyed some of my underground irrigation facilities.

When this reporter contacted the Dominion farms through an email, the Chairman of the company, Mr. Calvin Burgess, went down memory lane, as he revealed what has been a painful experience of an investor brought about by lies, lack of proper handling, corruption, ineptitude, political interest and insecurity.

This is even as he alleged that the current state government has been using the management of the river basin on whose land the project was to be sited and the farmers, against his company because of their political differences with General TY Danjuma.

He also alleged that, even when President Goodluck Jonathan gave an express order to the Minister of Water, Mrs. Sarah Ochekpe for the land to be released, the river basin management refused to honour the directive.
Narrating his ordeal, he said: “In August of 2011, I was contacted by the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and begged to come to Nigeria.

He had just come from visiting our sister company in East Africa. He was very convincing. I along with another board member soon arrived in Lagos to a great fanfare of private planes, helicopters, and fancy hotels. We were promised the world, if only we would come to Nigeria to build another Dominion Farms.

“The 30,000 hectares of land offered by the government looked great for farm development, located right between two rivers. Abundant water, the promise of a paved road, low interest government loans, streamlined import procedures, and help directly from the President himself. It was all “too-good-to-be-true”.
“We said we would consider it, and we did. Our first trips were to the community, the state government, and to Upper Benue River Authority. In the community I personally spoke at every Church, open in the town and at the Mosques. Additionally, we held town hall meetings, sponsored by the Emir for everyone in the area. Next, we went to the state where I addressed the legislature and held press conferences. Lastly, we went to Yola and spent a half of a day with the Upper Benue River Authority executives. In Abuja we had extensive meetings with the minister of agriculture, the minister of water, the ports and Customs office and the US Embassy. All agencies offered their firm support for the project. We had several trips later and we made the decision to proceed.
“On 17 February 2012 in the Abuja Hilton Hotel, we signed an “MOU” with the State of Taraba and the Government of Nigeria. Hundreds were in attendance inviting us to come to Taraba and begin. Some of the terms of the agreement included Dominion training in modern agriculture for the masses, the State of Taraba paying all compensation to anyone on the land, and for a new road to be constructed,” Burgess stated.

Explaining the operational modalities of the project, he said that 90% of the land was to be utilized in a community farming operation with trained local people being in possession of these lands and the remaining 10% used as a nucleus farm for training purposes and support.

Adding that to further the implementation of the project, Dominion farm in conjunction with Taraba state paid for 50 local Nigerians to go to East Africa for six months training.

Lamenting the delay in the take-off of the project and series of government failed promises, he said: “What was supposed to happen in six months is still in the process over three and a half years later. It has been a calamity of failed promises. The government’s contract for the provision of a new all-weather road never came to pass, however, it is still a dirt trail as the government funding did not exist. The promised financing from both the state of Taraba and the government of Nigeria was all talk but no money. “Help from the President came in the form of a waiver for all duty on agricultural equipment for everyone in the nation, not just us. Treasury and Customs quickly hid the waiver and hid it in their “Secret Files”. We, Dominion Rice and Integrated Farms Ltd fought for a year to get the promised exemptions and only after tape recording the direct demands for bribes from high officials in the treasury did we even find out about the “Secret File”.
“The Treasury attempted direct extortion from our manager and he recorded it and gave the copy to the highest law enforcement agency in the land, but the culprits scoff at us with impunity. Government officials asked us to just forget the whole thing and pretend it did not happen. That was two years ago and nobody has been prosecuted to date. In every facet of Nigerian society money does all of the talking, corruption reigns supreme, and nothing moves without dirty money to grease the way.

“As our equipment arrived at the ports, bribes were demanded. The clearing agents added “extras” to our billings and when we demanded to know what these were there was no response. We would not be part of their corruption. We eventually changed clearing agents and it helped for a while but it always came back to a hold-up about something. New rules were put into place as we attempted to bring in 120 shipments of supposedly exempt tractors, rice mills, and the like.

The agents ignored the President’s directive. The minister of agriculture tried to intervene many times but to little or no avail. In the end we paid massive amounts of duty not budgeted for, but not one bribe! Delays added up so much demurrage that finally it was necessary to quit the fight,” he said.

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