It looks like a road in West Texas leading to New Mexico. The cactus, sagebrush and tumbleweeed provide a scene worthy of a Hollywood western -- except for the goats and camels that replace cattle and horses. Distances are long, and there are no speed limits, so Peugeots and Mercedes race along the well-paved highways at 80 miles or more per hour. This is northern Nigeria's Sokoto state, the ancient trading center for Africa's Moslems heading east to Mecca, and also the home of Nigeria's President Shehu Shagari.
Here Nigeria's two worlds meet, as modern men and machines gather at the traditional Argungue fishing festival. Argungue is a small town located on a tributary of the River Niger. Centuries ago, the emir of Argungue declared this territory a fish sanctuary from which villagers can fish only once a year, just before the spring rains. Because it is a safe haven most of the year the fish abound in the waters at Argungue. But for one week, there is the festival in this little village, with fishing, dancing, trading, sports and cultural competition. The festival concludes with thousands of men, using hand-held nets that float on large calabash gourds, trying to catch the largest fish. The 1981 winner exceeded 150 pounds, and it took three men to wrestle the five-foot fish to shore.
Most of the fishing at Argungue, however, is not conducted in the water. Business and political discussions take place during the festival. Governors from other regions, ministers of the Cabinet, members of the National Assembly and businessmen and diplomats from all over the world come here to curry favor in Nigeria's future agribusiness center.
The debonair young governor of Sokoto state, Shehu Kangina, has just allocated $600 million for agricultural development. Nigeria seeks to feed its 80 million citizens with the fruits of its oil revenues, now $30 billion a year. There are newly announced tax incentives for foreign and domestic investors in agribusiness, and credit facilities for land and water resource development. This presents an attractive package for those who have learned that business in Nigeria, as in most other places in the world, survives on friendships made at social occasions.
This is the heartland of Nigeria's green revolution, the region that Nigerians hope will one day sprout Iowa corn, San Joaquin Valley fruits and vegetables, Georgia peanuts, Mississippi Delta cotton and -- especially -- Louisiana rice. The land is ready and so is the government, but people and technology have yet to be put together to produce the desired results.
Water resources are a major problem. The climate is hot and dry most of the year, but water is plentiful 70 feet below the earth's surface. Tapping this water and irrigating the land is easily possible through the modern version of what was America's prime water pump prior to the 1930s -- the windmill.
The market for American farm methods is enormous in this country, which is more than twice the size of california. Trucks, tractors, combines and processing machinery of all varieties are very much in demand. Yet very few American companies have seized this opportunity. Most American businessmen who travel to Nigeria spend their time and money in and around the capital city of Lagos seeking "get rich quick" schemes. Usually they get taken by Nigerian hustlers who frequent the overbooked Lagos hotels with promises of contracts and connections. Profit and opportunity in most instances exist outside of Lagos. Doing business is difficult, but as one Nigerian businessman put it, "You work hard in your country for a 15 to 20 percent return on your investment, so you ought to expect a lot more hassle for the 50 to 75 percent return on investment in Nigeria."
At the conclusion of the little-noted fishing festival of international significance here, Americans on a joint U.S.-Nigerian committee for agribusiness development were meeting in Washington. The committee grew out of former vice president Walter Mondale's visit to Nigeria last year and is now chaired by former agriculture secretary Orville Freeman. The agribusinessmen meeting in Washington were discussing how they could break into the potentially profitable Nigerian market. Yet the two interests are literally, physically and culturally miles apart.
Nigerian presidential adviser and cabinet minister Umaru Dikko, who is grappling with the difficulties in producing food on a massive scale, asked, "what is the problem? Six months ago Nigeria signed a joint communique with the American vice president committing the two nations to cooperate in food production. Nigerians expect the rice to be growing by now."
The tragedy is that the two interests have not had much success in bringing together U.S. technology and Nigerian oil wealth. Nigerians know that they must use their oil income to produce food, and American businessmen know that food production on a massive scale in a nation like Nigeria is profitable and in the U.S. national interest. The big question is: Can U.S. agribusiness help Nigeria to accomplish in 20 years the kind of agricultural output developed over 200 years in the United States? U.S. economic security greatly depends on success in Nigeria and elsewhere in the developing world, and Nigeria's stability depends on that same success.