Boko Haram is losing, but so is food production

By Mbom Sixtus

Freelance journalist based in Cameroon, and regular IRIN contributor

Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram is finally swinging in the government’s favour, but it’s going to take much longer for food production to recover in the country’s northeast. The same is true in neighbouring Cameroon, which has also felt the impact of the violence.

According to the Famine Early Warning Network, FEWS NET, the conflict has scared farmers off their land, closed roads and markets – which means higher food prices – and squeezed income-earning opportunities.

Though the army’s gains may slowly begin to revitalise rural areas, enabling some who fled to return to their homes, “this will not completely offset the negative impacts that conflict has already had on household food and income sources,” FEWS NET said.

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The USAID-funded agency is predicting a food “crisis” for poor households in the worst-affected areas of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states between February and September this year, with much of the rest of the three states food “stressed” – meaning people have the barest minimum.

A malnutrition survey of children in December found a rate of 15 percent – the internationally recognised emergency threshold.

A regional problem

Across the border, in Cameroon’s Far North Region, some 1.4 million people are estimated to be food insecure – one third of the population, according to Felix Gomez, World Food Programme country director.

That’s a doubling of the figure since June 2015, he told IRIN. Some 200,000 people are “most at risk”, facing “severe food insecurity”, with over 150,000 children under five and more than 30,000 mothers in need of emergency nutrition assistance.

Cameroon’s remote north has traditionally struggled to feed itself. But the Boko Haram conflict – expanding out of Nigeria – has exacerbated the problem.

Cross-border attacks, beginning in 2013, have so far claimed more than 1,200 lives, according to government spokesperson, Issa Tchiroma Bakary. Boko Haram regards the governments in both Nigeria and Cameroon as secular and illegitimate.

In the growing insecurity, farmers have cut their risk by reducing the size of the plots they cultivate. The crucial commodity trade with Nigeria has also dried up as the authorities seek to limit cross-border movement, and food prices are rising.

The strain felt by poor households is reflected in the growing number of admissions into nutrition programmes “in districts affected by the Boko Haram crisis”, said Gomez. At the same time, health facilities are being forced to close as a result of the unrest.

“This situation could continue to deteriorate, if an adequate response is not provided, due to insecurity, poor harvests and increased pressures caused by population displacement,” Gomez warned.

It’s not just Boko Haram violence that’s causing hardship. Cattle rustling and kidnapping by armed groups from across the border in unstable Central African Republic is also disrupting farming and the agro-business in Cameroon’s Adamawa region (not to be confused with Nigeria’s), a major beef producer.

A report by the local association of cattle breeders, known by the French acronym APESS, said cattle owners paid $170,000 in ransoms to kidnappers in 2015, and lost thousands of cattle.

“We have noticed a deteriorating food security situation in the Adamawa region in 2015,” said Gomez. “Ongoing criminal activities such as kidnappings, stealing of cattle and crops have exacerbated the situation and impacted the farmers as well as cattle headers in the region.”

Key to future food security is whether Cameroon’s farmers will feel safe enough to plant in the next few months.

Cameroon’s meteorological services are predicting delayed rains, but are acknowledging incomplete data as Boko Haram has scared its officers from the field.

Meteorologist Gervais Didier Yontchang told IRIN that if any weather measuring equipment breaks down now, “things get more complicated, because no one will be ready to risk his life going to repair it.”