Burgess idea is to build Africa's largest rice farm – Dominion Farms. See further on Calvin Burgess involvement in Africa's land grab here
(Not) Doing business in Nigeria
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 Mosque. 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. Several trips later 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. Ninety percent (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 ten percent (10%) used as a nucleus farm for training purposes and support. The following day Dominion in conjunction with Taraba State paid for 50 local Nigerians to go to East Africa for six months of training.
What was supposed to happen in six months is still in the process over 3 1/2 years later. It has been a calamity of failed promises. The Government contracted for provision of a new all-weather road 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 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.
The land leased to us was and now still is partially occupied by Upper Benue. They have no lease nor is it in their mandate to occupy land, only to control the rivers. A broken down water treatment plant and many unoccupied homes and buildings came with the project. These were all master planned to be immediately converted into a training school with dorms, classrooms, and sports fields, but as we arrived Upper Benue changed their minds and refused to leave. Pleas to the Government brought little relief and finally they recommended we just build new facilities, but we had not budgeted for this. The State and Federal money promised for financing the project were just not there so finally TY Danjuma, a very influential and wealthy person from Taraba State came along and requested to be part of the project. The Danjuma Foundation committed to constructing a new school and that sealed the deal. Dominion partnered with TY.
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.
We have totally experienced Nigeria. I have been extorted, arrested, detained, lied to, and about anything else one can imagine. We have held to our convictions, not paid bribes, obeyed the law, and kept our dignity, with our frustration levels continuing to rise on every occasion. Nonetheless, we have plodded on through years of delays, because we will not compromise our standards. It has cost us dearly in both interest and in valuable time. We have battled to import around 120 loads of equipment. Virtually everything is finally there for the making of a fantastic farm but it is years late in getting there. Every shipment was a struggle and a shakedown.
We began construction on the site including flood protection dikes, 12 small homes, a maintenance building and the beginnings of a rice mill. We started clearing lands and our relations with the community were good. Upper Benue still occupied the buildings but they had left the land. We were finally about ready to plant crops at the end of 2013 with the State of Taraba promising to pay compensation as was their contracted duty to do when things suddenly changed.
Shortly after we arrived in Taraba, the then Governor Danbaba Suntai made a serious mistake when he ordered the pilots off his plane and decided he would fly it himself. Of course he crashed and nearly killed himself and others on board. First they said he was dead but somehow revived him again but the time with no oxygen left him with serious mental problems. We now had an acting governor, Umar that was trying to fulfil his role but TY did not respect his position. The fight ensued and our road building stopped, the compensation from the state did not get paid and we sat still again. A cabal was formed to try and place the ailing governor back into his office. This was supported by my partner TY so here Dominion sat in the middle of a political war. Then the bomb dropped! An old consultant to Governor Suntai and some of his aids decided they needed to be back in control so they came to TY and fabricated a story of how Upper Benue and Dominion were having extreme difficulties and that the Federal Government had to pay the compensation. They took this to TY who evidently summoned the President to his house and passed on the fabricated story. Mr. President called the Minister of Water on the carpet. The Minister then called Upper Benue, and Upper Benue got mad. They felt Dominion had double crossed them, and now our good spirit of co-operation was gone and they decided to occupy the land. The State got involved along with the Minister of Agriculture and State legal counsel. In effect we have no land to occupy so no farming has been done and none will be. Two sections of Government lay claim to the land we were allocated and the battle goes on. The President gave a directive through the Minister of Water that Upper Benue vacate the premises completely and let Dominion operate unhindered. It is yet to be complied with ten (10) months after the order was issued! This was our main condition for opting to resume work rather than walk away from the project.
Boko Haram is a subject of its own. This group wants an Islamic State with no education for women, and only Islamic studies for men. They kill thousands and the government can seemingly do little or nothing to intervene. They kidnap hundreds of young girls at one time and the army can't find them. Kidnapping of foreign nationals is part of how they finance their operations, and many expats just end up dead. Boko Haram has formed a caliphate like ISIS in Iraq and is already capturing multiple cities in Northern Nigeria. In Taraba State the Muslim Fulani tribe of nomadic people has taken up a war with the TIV and Jukun tribes of Christian and Animist people. These groups kill each other weekly and between them all, thousands have been killed or driven from their homes. Their domain is moving closer to us. It used to be three hundred kilometers away from us, then two hundred, and now it is just next door.
Meanwhile, Dominion has six policemen protecting the equipment on what is supposedly our land which is occupied by everyone but us. Around 1,000 hectares were cleared in March of 2014, by Dominion in readiness for planting by Dominion. Instead Upper Benue, in conjunction with the local community, moved in and planted their crops! There seems be no let up as everyone is ready to go back to the same land in the next cropping season!
Dominion is caught with no way forward. I now must have heavily armed police protection with me for safety at all times and this is no way to run an operation. Our operations manager and his family have been moved away from the location for their own protection.
The final blow came with an article by the Times of London. It is obvious they put a lot of work into this story in order to make Dominion a villain of some sort. Dominion has been accused of taking land, displacing people, and using dangerous chemicals, when in fact not one of the accusations is remotely true. Dominion was not aware of the presence of the reporters even though the journalist had to pass right in front of our offices and operational area at the farm site with Upper Benue and the locals the day they visited the site. No one deemed it fit to hear or ask side of the story, nor were we given adequate time to respond to the many allegations outlined in the article. The images in the article are a true representation of the lack of current farming activity with not a single home on the ground. This appropriately describes how we have not occupied anything or displaced anyone. As for journalism this is nothing more than a smear campaign on the Nigerian Government and upon Dominion Rice and Integrated Farms.
Nigeria is in a crisis. In reality it is much easier for an investor to leave Nigeria than to come and invest in such a stressful climate. Environmental Rights Action (ERA) / Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FOEN) and Center of Environment Education and Development (CEED) all boast of your decision to support the communities affected by Dominion. It is now your obligation to do so. The people of Nigeria need massive support and huge investments. These precious people lack desperately for every need of life. What will you do for them when their children are hungry, and there is nobody to turn to? Please take up the challenge and invest the billions of Naira necessary to change these lives. Dominion will no longer be in your way.
Calvin Burgess, Chairman
Dominion Rice and Integrated Farms, Ltd.