How Boko Haram is killing off farms

Bulama Buba Kadai once owned 20 farms and more than 100 head of cattle near Gwoza in northeastern Nigeria. A year ago, when Boko Haram attacked his village, Kadai’s land and all but two cows were destroyed. He also lost his two sons – the sole heirs of any property he may one day leave behind. “I think most of us are going back to our graves,” Kadai told IRIN.

Ongoing attacks have destroyed land and killed thousands of young men since 2009, and, in some cases, wiped out or displaced entire generations of farmers and herders. The future of many rural communities in northeastern Nigeria is, at best, uncertain, at worst, unsustainable.

Kadai, and some 500 other farmers from his former community have taken refuge in Malkohi, on the outskirts of Yola, the capital city and administrative capital of Adamawa State. Some of them were temporarily allotted a small piece of land by the local government earlier this year, but yields were poor. 

He, and many of the others, say they dream of going back to Gwoza, but fear there is also no future there. 

“In the rural north, the youth are the pillars of agriculture, tending to farms and cattle,” said Yakubu Musa, a farmer from Askira. “Now, six years of Boko Haram violence has left farms idle and animals dead or stolen.”

Like Kadai, Musa lost everything, including his sons, during a Boko Haram raid last year.  

Living in fear

Ahmadu Buba, who escaped a Boko Haram attack earlier this year along with his family, now farms some 20 kilometres away on the outskirts of the border town of Mubi. Though he was “lucky enough” to survive, he saw many of his neighbours slaughtered, and fears a similar fate for himself.

“I was on my way to work on the farm with my four children when I caught sight of five men,” he told IRIN. “Their faces were covered with turbans and they were carrying AK-47 rifles. They killed some of our most prominent farmers.”

Buba said many farmers who stayed restrict their movements to “safe areas” and work limited hours in the fields to minimise the risk. He worries about the impact this would have on food supplies and feared the timing of previous attacks could mean food shortages this year.

Bulama Modu, a rice farmer from Gwoza who has since taken refuge at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Malkohi, told IRIN: “Boko Haram has prevented farmers from tilling their fields. They have been attacking us and many farmers were killed, mostly youth. We had to run without tilling our rice.”

At first, the militants imposed levies and taxes on the farmers in exchange for not burning their crops, he said. In one village in the Chwawa area of Madagali, a community leader, who wished to remain anonymous, said these “fines” ranged from between one and three million naira ($6,000–$18,000), depending on the size of the village. 

“But later, they started slaughtering people and this situation forced us all to flee,” Modu said.

His village has since been recaptured by soldiers, and while he hopes to farm again one day, he is still too scared to start replanting. 

Impact on food security

More than 17,000 farmers have fled from northeastern Nigeria to the south since 2012, according to Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency. 

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) says food production throughout the region will be below average this year, and that areas of western Yobe State, northern Adamawa State and most of Borno State, along with areas in and around Maiduguri, where many IDPs have taken refuge, are expected to remain “in crisis” until at least March 2016. 

Food prices have also been affected. 

Inusa Daudu, who sells onions at the Mile 12 Market in Lagos, said that since Boko Haram began attacking farmers the prices of beans and onions have risen by up to 70 percent. 

“Most of our traders are now afraid to go to the food markets up north,” Daudu told IRIN. “Transporters see it as [a] high risk going to such places as Maiduguri to carry farm produce.” 

He cited the example of an attack on the popular Baga fish market in Borno State, which was attacked one morning by Boko Haram gunmen. 

“Many food stores are locked and whatever is inside is perishing,” Daudu said. “It is not only the farmers that are running away, [but] the food sellers and transporters too.”

Landmine risk

Many farmers who have tried to return home are still unable to replant their fields due to landmines.

They are forced to seek other employment until their land has been cleared.

Others aren’t so lucky.

Yandum Kwageh spent almost a year in an IDP camp after Boko Haram tore her from the land she called home in Michika. A long-time farmer, she said the only thing that helped her survive the hardships of camp life was the dream of returning to her farm.

But in April, when troops finally recaptured her village and she was allowed back, she returned to find destroyed, fallow fields, which, unbeknownst to her, were riddled with landmines. After weeks of digging out weeds and replanting corn, she stepped on a mine left behind by Boko Haram while tending her crops. 

Kwageh came to in a hospital bed.  Now, unable to farm and grow food for her family, she hopes to be able to take out a small loan to start a business. 

The Commander of the 28 Taskforce Brigade headquarters in Mubi, General V.O. Ezeugwu, told IRIN that there have been “many” similar explosions in farm fields in recent months as refugees and IDPs return to their land in greater numbers.

The government says Nigerian troops are working to clear landmines from recaptured areas, but that the work is “both dangerous and very time-consuming.”

“The troops focus mostly on schools, [health] clinics and roads,” Muhammad Bindow Jibrilla, a governor in Adamawa State, told IRIN. “Farms are not considered a high priority.” 

Back in Malkohi, Kadai has given up hope that his farming community near Gwoza will be able to get back on its feet. “What is the use when the youth are all gone?” he asked IRIN. “How can we cope when all we had is gone?”