The north of Nigeria appears as a vast flat plain. For eight months of the year no rain falls and the hot Sahara winds sweep across the arid land, sucking up dust and consuming every drop of moisture from the parched earth. Towards the end of the long thirst period even the rivers dry up and yawn empty waiting for the rains to come.
When the heavens eventually open it is to deluge the countryside. In most years the northern rivers burst their banks to flood the surrounding plains - fadama - overwhelming the dry land and swamping surviving vegetation.
In such an environment, agriculture is a risky business. There is little that people can do in the dry season to support themselves and many pour into the cities in search of temporary work. As the rains begin they return home and try once again to coaxe a living from the unreliable land. Those with farms on the flood plains try to grow rice, others just pray that enough rain falls on their fields at the right time to bring a good crop. It all depends on chance. Good rains for the farmer on higher ground can mean disaster for the rice grower who watches helplessly as wild floods destroy his tender young plants.
An obvious solution would seem to be dams to hold back the surging water during the four months of rain. Trapped water could then be released slowly to irrigate the surrounding land, rather than saturate it. In the dry season people could remain active constructing and maintaining the irrigation ditches: in the summer there would be a better chance of a good harvest. Everyone would benefit.
This ecological imperative - urging planners to harness the apparently huge quantities of water that flow so haphazardly over the country - has long seemed irresistable. Back in 1908, only five years after the annexation of the north, everyone was convinced that irrigation was the answer. Even today, after so many trials and as many errors, the same imperative inspires planners in Nigeria.
The colonial government began by calling in the expert. In 1925 it was decided that the farmers of Kwarre should try the new irrigation methods. A nine hundred acre scheme was designed to protect rice from floods and irrigate other crops during the dry season. It seemed a foolproof idea.
But it didn't catch on with the farmers. Few chose to take advantage of the land neatly criss-crossed by canals for irrigation of wheat. The paddy fields, too, lay stagnant and empty in the sun.
Experts and government ministers surveyed the scene and came to their own conclusions: according to a report on the Kwarre project in 1929 `lazy farmers are just lazy there is no other reason for bad cultivation. The general badness of the situation is due to an uncomprehending lethargy'.
What can you do with a lazy, stupid farmer? The answer was soon forthcoming: a settlement scheme was proposed, where `the settlers ... should be made to understand quite clearly ... that if they have not made good at the end of two years they will forfeit their holding. . .'. In other words a lazy farmer would be punished by having his land taken away.
The alternative view - that the experts had created an unworkable scheme - didn't occur to anyone at the time. Anyone except the farmers, that is. They had spotted drawbacks that the experts had overlooked: floods continued to destroy crops in the rainy season, reducing rice yields to uneconomic levels; and no-one wanted to buy the irrigated crops for a good price just after the harvest when the bills were due. The scheme had made farming even less profitable than before - so the people were reluctant to take part in it.
Later it was admitted that the Kwarre scheme had `defects in design', but the relevant report only gathered dust in the government archives. And 30 years later the same mistakes were made at Edozhigi and Badeggi in the Niger valley. Then again at Wulgo, at Yo, and at Gamburo near Lake Chad. And again at Wurno and several other sites near Sokoto in the North. By 1977 all of these schemes - with the possible exception of Badeggi - were either choked with silt and abandoned, or producing small harvests for just a handful of people. In every case, in every place, the farmers were blamed.
The latest attempts to convert the peasant into a sensible, hard-working agriculturalist by helping him to irrigate his land is taking place at Kadawa, near Kano. As before, things are not going well, and it seems that the scheme, part of plans to develop 300,000 hectares by 1990 at a cost of S4.3 billion will also choke itself to death.
By 1977 only two thirds of the area developed for irrigation - at a cost of about $10,000 per acre - was being used. And the farming methods were so in-appropriate that many farmers could only break even because their seeds and fertilizers were subsidised. And even with these subsidies it would have been cheaper to buy imported wheat than to grow it.
Conflict between farmer and expert centred on paying for ploughing. The experts insisted on payment in advance to allow the tractors to begin early enough for planting at the right time. Why, they asked, were the farmers being so uncooperative?
The farmers, for their part, saw the tractor service as unreliable. They remembered waiting in vain for tractors which arrived late whether they had paid in advance or not. And they distrusted the irrigation scheme: the pumps were continually breaking down, leaving crops to wilt in the sun. When pumps were working poor drainage caused water-logging, and the fluctuating prices offered for their produce meant that even if the machinery had been working all the time it was very unlikely that they would be able to cover their costs. So they resisted in the only way they could - by spending as little as possible.
When the farmers' logic was explained to the irrigation experts and foreign consultants, they responded with their own logic: farmers would have to co-operate - or be excluded from the scheme. Their solution was the same as the colonial government's fifty years earlier. Farmers would have to forfeit their customary rights and become tenants on their own land. As tenants they would have to `cooperate; or have their land taken away.
Who was being irrational - the expert for continuing to believe that the schemes failed because farmers were lazy? Or the farmer for continuing to devote most of his time to well-tried traditional methods?
Perhaps both were being logical. The farmer wants to minimise his risks. That makes sense. But the experts advocating the schemes, the officials involved in managing and funding them, the politicians supporting them, had their reasons too.
For the politicians, the slogans `water for all' and `we will make the deserts bloom' were potential vote-catchers. A man supporting irrigation must have the peoples' well-being at heart.
As for the officials: the only people who appeared to have benefited from Kwarre were those who had either had the work on their farms done free by the government or who had received oxen, seeds and ploughs on credit that seems never to have been repaid - the Sultan of Sokoto and prominent members of the Sokoto Native Authority for example. Similarly, regular scandals surfaced throughout the 50s and 60s about the allocation of ready-irrigated land at Wurno, Yo, Gamboru, Edozhigi, and other places, to politicians, tribal chiefs and government officials.
And so to the experts: the irrigation engineers, agriculturalists, advisers, consultants, contractors, designers and planners - many now employed on especially accelerated pay scales in the River Basin Development Authorities. The myth of the lazy peasant - passed from one generation of experts to another-is a pervasive and convenient one. It shields a paternalism that is only recently being challenged - as well as preserving reputations and pay-cheques. And in Nigeria it has ensured that there will always be an irrigation scheme requiring that expert touch.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7