There is no better way for a rich man to flatter the poor than to call himself a farmer. Except for symbolism and passing curiosity, the rich farmer does not smell the earth, skin a goat, and scoop the crop. He loathes the ritual drudgery of seed time and harvest. The poor sow in tears; the rich reap in joy. He is the boss, owns the large hectare of land, prefers the Mercedes coupe to the tractor, would rather roll in cash than in grass.
There are exceptions to these executive farmers, though. Take the exponent of Ujamaa and the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere who turned his country into a vast idyll of farmers. He died as a humble tiller of the earth. So is Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the 78-year-old president of backwoods Uruguay. He is the acclaimed poorest president in the world, who lives on his farm and shuns the glitz and glam of office.
As an earthy man, the Owu chief, according to urban legend, exults in the ambience and toil of farming. But he does not work his farms into bountiful harvest. His hirelings do.
Writer Eugene Ware does not like to call most of these big men farmers. Hear him: “The farmer works the soil, the agriculturist works the farmer.” So where do we place Ebele Integrated Farms Ltd? Is President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan of shoeless origin a farmer or agriculturist? He has not come out to say a word about his 94 hectares of land originally meant for aviation purposes.
In refined democracies, presidents defend themselves in their own words and voices. His spokespersons say he has done nothing wrong owning a farm acquired while in office. Farming is allowed for all public officers. On that score, the president has done no wrong. He is contributing to food security. But there are Orwellian questions to ask.
How come the president is giving himself 94 hectares of land? Experts say a hectare approximates a football field. So 94 hectares will amount to 94 football fields. So, President Jonathan does not only hail from a village, he has made one. He is both village chief and president. He is not only the president of a vast Nigeria, but the owner of a village farm. You may call it Ebele village.
How come a president acquires a company when he is in office? He has collided a right with a wrong. The right is that the law allows him to own a farm while in office, according to subsection 2 (b) of part 1 to the fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The wrong is that it is unlawful to do business while in office. Those two wrongs cannot make a civic right. It means no one is expected to do the business of farming while in office. The law therefore espouses the humble farmer. It means you cannot allow the task of farming to detract from your civic responsibility.
If you cater to the welfare of over 100 million people, the law forbids you to run a business. The president knows that the farm is not just a farm but a huge investment for profit. We know that 94 hectares is not to feed his family or sell a few bananas. So those who defend the president should understand the law. The president has violated the law in spirit, even if he can defend himself that he is technically allowed to farm. We must note that most public officers do this under fronts, which is roundly condemnable. It is remarkable, though; that the president pursues his farm dreams with sinful audacity.
The more crucial point is that the president acquired the land through his appointee, the Abuja minister, Bala Mohammed. The man allotted 94 hectares to the president. He then allotted over 40 hectares to himself. How could the president complain when he too is on the take? That is what is called conflict of interest. Was that not the reason he fired his best minister yet, Barth Nnaji? Now should the president not fire himself – and of course the FCT minister?
That is why we have an Orwellian matter on our hands. In Animal Farm, George Orwell’s animals that make the laws say, “all animals are created equal.” Later when law meets experience, the reigning pig acquires more powers and privileges. It then turns the matter around: some animals are more equal than others.
The farm laws are different for the president. He can appoint the man who gives him the plot of land, and he can be the entrepreneur, president, lawgiver, profiteer, etc.
That is different from the average farmer in Otukpo, who tills out oranges, yams, tomatoes from his humble earth. Is he a farmer like Jonathan? He does not occupy a public office. Even those who do know they cannot own businesses, no less farm businesses. It is like the story we read in younger days: Jonathan’s farm is bigger than theirs. His is a presidential farm. All agricultural laws are not made equal. Jonathan’s is more equal than others.
If the president had acquired the land without attaching it to a company, could we have defended him? Not easily. We should have asked, when will he have the time to juggle his work as commander-in-chief chasing Shekau and saving the Naira from its monumental crash? That is the spirit of the law. Once you have it as business, you have negated the principle of integrity in office.
In the case of the Owu chief, he is not innocent. Did he not acquire some of the farms across the country when in office? The reference by the Jonathan defenders to Obasanjo Farms Limited does not justify the president’s action. Two wrongs, as the cliché goes, cannot make a president right and another wrong.
I don’t think it is only a matter of law, but of decency. We recall the obscenity of the probe of the former FCT minister, Nasir El-Rufai, and how some of those defending the president now took a swipe at the FCT minister then over conflict of interest.
Nothing wrong with a president retiring as a farmer, even as an agriculturist. It glorifies the earth and enhances food security. It laughs at H.L. Mencken’s assertion that “no one hates his job so heartily as a farmer.” Not so for United States presidents who were farmers. But they did not allocate lands to themselves. Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson and even Washington were farmers to varying degrees. In modern times, Jimmy Carter is the most famous, and to lesser degree, Lyndon Johnson. They could not contemplate allocating such swaths of land to themselves.
The difference between that society and ours is the rule of law. They obey, we defy. Unlike the animals of George Orwell’s novel, no one is a law to himself.