West Africa imports a large amount of the food it consumes, leaving the region vulnerable to volatile international market prices that can cause riots in even the most peaceful countries. Nigerian officials say there is enough land and farmers for Nigeria to stop importing food and help feed the region.
Every year, Nigeria spends more than $8.2 billion importing basic foods like sugar, fish and wheat.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called the country’s 11-percent increase in food imports this year "unsustainable," and promised to make Nigeria a major food exporter during the next few years.
Member of Parliament Yakubu Umaru Barde says food imports are high because it can be more profitable to import than to grow food. Especially, he says, if you are a well-connected business person that can get a low-interest farming loan, even when you are not farming.
“It is easier, it is more profitable for me to import rice with the loan I took for agric[ulture]. To get my waiver, bring the rice to Nigeria and sell it," said Barde. "It is very easy. It brings more money to me.”
Barde says the government’s more than $40 million plan to eliminate rice imports by 2015 could be realistic, if the government can also eliminate corruption in the industry.
Nigeria is the world’s second-largest rice importer, consuming two-million metric tons of rice per year from countries like China and Thailand. Senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Abuja, Abubakar Kari, says importing any rice to Nigeria at all is unnecessary.
"Nigeria has the capacity not only to be sufficient in food production, but even to feed the entire West African region," said Kari. "There are so many rice belts in the country that, if encouraged, can produce as much rice as we want."
Kari calls the powerful merchants that control the rice importing industry a “cartel” that floods local markets, forcing small farmers, who are most of the farmers in Nigeria - to abandon commercial prospects. He says the government appears to lack the political will and the capacity to ignore special interests and provide farmers the help they need to commercialize, like fertilizer and irrigation.
"If the government gets the right focus, can have the necessary political will, it can easily ban the importation of rice, ignore the vested interest of the rice sector and give the necessary incentives to farmers," said Kari.
The main danger of having large amounts of food staples imported is that it makes food security directly tied to international market prices. In 2008, the United Nations reported riots across Africa after a sharp rise in food prices.
The United Nations says food prices are dangerously high in the Sahel, the semi-arid region that touches northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, northern Senegal and northern Cameroon.
The Sahel is facing a food crisis in which millions of people are expected to go hungry in the coming months. Analysts say if West African countries produced more food, this kind of crisis could be averted or at least its impact could be reduced.
Officials say home-grown food will create jobs, stabilize food prices and help build a more equitable distribution of wealth. Shehu Sani, the president of Nigeria's Civil Rights Congress, says a drastic reduction of food imports would help the country, but adds that he has heard it all before.
"From 1999, all the governments have made that pledge of stopping the importing of food from either the West or the East or anywhere and they also promised to pump in more money for local farmers to produce more," he said. "But it is very clear that that has never happened.”
Sani says current farming policies in Nigeria tend to benefit the rich and powerful. For elected officials, he adds, it makes implementing new policies harder because these wealthy individuals pay for their campaigns.