Farmers and fishermen displaced by Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria want to return home, saying it will help ease chronic food shortages for the remote region’s starving millions.
Subsistence agriculture is a lifeline in the northeast but the eight-year Islamist insurgency has devastated activities, causing a desperate lack of food and sky-high prices.
Many farmers and fishermen have either been killed or fled to camps for the displaced, where they are dependent on food aid, or to live with friends and distant relatives.
Aid agencies say a severe funding shortfall is affecting feeding programmes, despite high levels of severe acute malnutrition and repeated warnings that famine is a possibility.
The head of the Lake Chad fishermen’s union, Labbo Tahir, said: “No amount of food aid can adequately feed us.
“The only way out of this unending starvation is for us to return home, grow our own food and rebuild our lives,” he told AFP.
Ibrahim Mammadu used to grow rice and other crops but now works as a labourer on a tomato field near the Borno state capital Maiduguri for $13 (11.6 euros) a month.
The money is hardly enough to feed his family of five for a week.
“If only I can return to my farm my hardship would be over and within a year I can grow enough food for my family,” said the 35-year-old.
“This is the only way I can end my dependency and poverty because farming is all I know.”
The freshwaters of Lake Chad and its fertile shores have made northern Borno the state’s food basket.
Government statistics say three districts on the Nigerian side of the lake — Marte, Kukawa and Ngala — provided a quarter of the country’s annual wheat production of 90,000 tonnes in 2014.
The Fisheries Society of Nigeria says some 300,000 tonnes of fish caught in the region represents about 12 percent of fish consumed nationwide.
But Lake Chad is currently a Boko Haram hotspot and economic activity has ground to a halt. A sales ban has exacerbated losses, as the military fears profits are funding insurgent activities.
In recent weeks, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) donated 30 tonnes of early-maturing, pest-resistant seeds to Borno’s farmers.
But IITA coordinator Kamai Nkike said three consecutive rainy seasons have been missed and the current season, which began two weeks ago, is also likely to pass without crops being planted.
“Farming in northern Borno at the moment is practically impossible,” said Nkike. “The farmers want to be on their own. They are not happy with food aid.”
The United Nations says nearly two million people are on the brink of famine in northeast Nigeria and some 5.2 million could need life-saving food aid between now and August.
But only about a quarter of the $1.05 billion needed to fund programmes this year has been received.
WFP spokeswoman Elizabeth Bryant said the funding crisis was “coming at the very worst time, when the lean season will increase hunger and malnutrition”.
Resources have been over-stretched by the recent return of some 12,000 refugees from Cameroon.
The WFP planned to deliver food and nutritional assistance to about 1.3 million people in May, scaling up to reach 1.8 million this month.
But lack of cash means targets have had to be revised.
“We’ve been forced to pare down those plans to reach the same 1.3 million target for June,” Bryant wrote in an email.
“We’re now targeting the most vulnerable groups — the under twos, instead of the under-fives — for nutritional assistance, and we are distributing half-rations.”
Greater security will ultimately determine whether farmers and fishermen can return home and start helping the local economy to recover.
Nigeria’s government and military maintain that Boko Haram is a spent force but suicide bombings and deadly raids remain a constant threat.
On May 20, jihadists killed six farmers as they worked in Amarwa village near Maiduguri. Five days later, four more were killed and two others abducted, again on the outskirts of the city.
The attacks underlined the threat of violence even in areas supposedly liberated by a sustained counter-insurgency that has pushed out the jihadists from captured territory.
Mba Ali Kyari, who heads an association of herders of the Kuri cattle breed found around Lake Chad, said security was essential “so we can go back and continue our agricultural activities”.
The IITA’s Nkike said that was unlikely because of insurgent activity in northern Borno but other parts of the state should be looked at.
“For now focus on food production should be on southern Borno pending when enduring peace returns to the northern part and especially Lake Chad area,” he said.
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