On Farmers as “Very Difficult People”
On August 29, 2017, Ghanaian Deputy Minister of Food and Agriculture (MOFA), William Quaitoo, resigned from his post. Quaitoo had been in hot water since he had appeared on a popular radio show a few days earlier and described farmers in northern Ghana as “very difficult people” and “liars.” His comments were in reference to calls for the Ministry to compensate farmers who had lost their crops to Fall Army Worm invasion. Despite very well documented devastation on farms across the country, Quaitoo claimed that there was little damage, and that northerners wished to extort the government for money rather than support.
Our brothers [in northern Ghana], it is so difficult to deal with them. I lived there for 27 years, I speak Dagbani like a Dagomba and all that. They are very difficult people. Nobody can substantiate. If anybody says that his farm was destroyed by armyworm, the person would have to come and prove it. We have no records of that. It’s just a way of taking money from the government; that’s what they do all the time. — William Quaitoo, fromer Deputy Minister of Food and Agriculture
The deputy minister’s remarks understandably upset many, and Ghanaians took to Facebook, Twitter, and the press to discuss his comments, which people characterized as “tribal” and “ethnocentric”. Soon, calls for his resignation came from members of the opposing NDC party, as well as from within the Presidential staff. On late Tuesday night, the President’s Director of Communications confirmed the deputy minister’s resignation on Facebook.
While the deputy minister’s remarks were certainly shocking in their blatant ethnocentrism, broadly speaking, the argument that farmers are cunning and difficult is actually quite common in Ghana, and in agricultural development literature. During my 13 months of fieldwork on genetically modified (GM) crops in Ghana, I frequently heard negative remarks from scientists, bureaucrats, NGO staff, and foreign development officers about Ghanaian (and at times, “African”) farmers. These, I argue, create a baseline discourse about agricultural development and Ghanaian farmers.
Speakers routinely described Ghanaian agriculture as marked by “inherent low yields” and “rudimentary tools and practices,” which were supposedly holding the country back. In every day conversation, Ghanaians described farmers as illiterate, uneducated, unknowledgeable about farming, and thus dangerous to the nation. A representative for a large English agricultural company said to a meeting of organic producers that Ghanaian farmers “lacked practical knowhow.” At a meeting of smallholder farmers and practitioners, then-Minister of Food and Agriculture Fiifi Fiavi Kwetey declared that farmers must change their “mindsets” and think like businessmen to move from “peasantry to prosperity.” This discourse, of course, stems from the African Green Revolution, a mega-project whose proponents argue that agriculture should not be seen as development or a “way of life,” but as a “business”. This mantra is echoed daily by a wide-range of development actors in the country, and around the continent.
There’s a lot that could, and should, be said about the “mindsets” of businessmen, farmers, capitalism, and racialization (I do so in my dissertation, and in articles under review and preparation). For now, I make note of these negative discourses to argue that the deputy minister’s remarks, though out of line, are not exceptional. This is significant, as a common discourse that designates Ghanaian farmers as unskilled, unequipped, and unknowledgeable assumes that a) farmers and farmer-epistemologies are not valued knowledge to build upon, and that they, b) require outside intervention. In other words, symbolic (as well as structural) violence underlies agricultural development policy, planning, and relations in Ghana.
Moreover, as I mused on Twitter, not compensating farmers seems to be a misstep on the part of MOFA. It sounds simple, but MOFA needs farmers to carry out their flagship programs, and of course, to feed the country. There is already severe mistrust and disillusionment in the countryside among farmers in regards to the state and NGOs, and this will only exacerbate it. Compensation could be an opportunity for MOFA to build trust, networks, and a more robust plan for agricultural development that includes state-sponsored safety nets.
Instead, focusing almost solely on inputs and yields, as the flagship Planting for Food and Jobs program appears to do, and approaching farmers not as knowledgeable actors but instead hindrances, points to limitations of “agriculture as a business” development schemes. Indeed, while Quaitoo may be gone from the ministry, the core of his argument will continue to live on.