Conflict gives rise to food crisis in northeast Nigeria

The Nigerian government has stepped up its emergency food aid in response to severe food insecurity and child malnutrition in the northeast, where the military has been running a sweeping offensive against Boko Haram (BH) Islamists since June.

Some 492,000 children in northern Nigeria are severely malnourished, according to European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). Global acute malnutrition rates are highest in Sokoto State, at 16.2 percent, while Kano State, at 9.2 percent, has the lowest, according to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The international emergency threshold is 15 percent.

“The difficulty is that many children cannot be reached. The response to the food crisis is low compared to the level of the crisis,” Cyprien Fabre, ECHO’s West Africa head, told IRIN.

Meanwhile, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) has declared food crisis conditions in neighbouring Yobe and Borno states.

Grain distributions

The Nigerian federal government has responded by upping its grain distribution from the strategic food reserve. Junior finance minister Bukar Tijjani Ngama said the relief will be fairly distributed across Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. The distribution has sparked accusations of political favouritism.

As of mid-July, 19,500 tons of maize, sorghum and millet were to be distributed in the three states.

“The federal government should not allow this humanitarian effort to be politicized and the assistance should not be distributed along (political) party loyalty as has been done with the first consignment by the same officials it entrusted with the delivery of the food supplies,” Mai Mala Buni, political affairs adviser to Yobe state governor, told IRIN.

Buni alleged that the food distribution, which is supervised by Ngama, was only being given to supporters of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).

“People in Borno and Yobe states, regardless of political, cultural and religious leanings have suffered in one way or the other and need assistance without any consideration to political or religious sentiments,” Ngama told reporters.

Nigerian central government is ruled by the PDP while Yobe and Borno states are ruled by the opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) which in August merged with three other parties into a mega opposition party ahead of 2015 elections.

Only a handful of aid agencies are working in northern Nigeria. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Nigeria Red Cross (NRC) and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) are the only agencies carrying out humanitarian work in Borno, BH’s home state.

“The only hitches we face are limited resources and logistics. Borno State is vast, and the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance is huge, far beyond our capacity to handle. Some remote areas in the state are difficult to access due to the nature of the terrain, which puts strain on our vehicles," NRC spokesman Nwankpa O. Nwankpa told IRIN.

Borno State is under emergency rule as a result of BH violence, which has included bombings and shootings aimed at government targets and individuals.

Farmers flee violence

The January BH takeover of areas in northern Borno State, on the border with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, forced thousands of residents, most of them subsistence farmers, out of their homes.

This disrupted farming in the area, which produces the bulk of the staple food - maize, millet, wheat, rice and cowpeas - grown in the region.

"We have lost this farming season, and we are not sure we are going to have the opportunity of planting next season due to the insecurity… We have turned from food growers to food beggars."

"This year we have [a] food shortage because a large number of our farmers could not cultivate their farms due the BH insurgency,” Usman Zannah, Borno state agriculture commissioner, told IRIN. Some 19,000 farmers have abandoned their farms in the fertile New Marte District in northern Borno, along the Lake Chad Basin, since the BH occupation of the area began in January, he said.

Farmer Bukar Ngamdu abandoned 50 hectares of wheat in New Marte in February, moving to Gamboru Ngala town on the border with Cameroon. “I so much want to go back and cultivate, but I’m concerned for my safety,” he told IRIN. “Even if I go back, the major problem I will encounter is lack of planting seeds and fertilizer, which I don’t have money to buy.”

“One key challenge is that the population missed the planting season, so we expect that to have an impact on the harvests,” said Choice Okoro, head of the humanitarian advisory team at the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Nigeria.

The Borno State government and the Lake Chad Basin Development Authority (LCBDA) started a 10,000 hectare rice and wheat irrigation project in the New Marte area in 2012, through which the state government provides fertilizers, tools and cash incentives to farmers while the LCBDA provides the land and expertise. Under the agreement, the harvest is split equally between the farmers and the LCBDA. But crops on 3,500 of the first 5,000 hectares to be farmed this year ended up rotten or eaten by animals as farmers fled.

“We have lost this farming season, and we are not sure we are going to have the opportunity of planting next season due to the insecurity… We have turned from food growers to food beggars,” Ahmad Bura, who fled to Gamboru Ngala, abandoning 35 hectares of rice fields in New Marte, told IRIN.

A fresh wave of displacements was triggered by the 11 August BH attack on a mosque in Konduga town, 40km from Maiduguri. The attack killed 44 worshippers. Many of those who fled were farmers whose crops were about to mature, said a Borno State official.

Impact of lockdown

In response to the BH insurgency, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in May, cutting telephone signals and deploying hundreds of troops along with fighter jets particularly in northern Borno, which was put under military siege while troops bombarded BH camps.

The lockdown made it difficult for farmers in relatively safer communities in the area to access government agricultural assistance in the form of seeds, fertilizers and tools.

Farmers who do have grain to sell are having difficulty transporting it to local markets for fear of attacks. The telephone shutdown has also halted much of the government’s Growth Empowerment Scheme, which electronically allocates fertilizer vouchers to farmers via SMS.

Borno relies both on locally produced food and on imports of rice, maize, sorghum, millet, potato, wheat, yam and sugar cane from Taraba, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina and Benue states. But these supplies have dwindled as some traders are too frightened to bring goods into the region and others say they face bribes of between US$12.50 and $152 at the many military checkpoints that have been set up across the state.

“We are forced to pay… at each military checkpoint we pass, which is why many truck owners and traders have stopped bringing in goods,” truck driver Alto Adamu told IRIN.

The military denied the allegations. “We have told people who have any complaint against our men to report to the JTF [Joint Task Force] headquarters, and as far as we are concerned no one has ever brought any such complaint of extortion against any of our men,” Lt Col Sagir Musa, spokesman for the military unit battling BH in Borno State, told IRIN.