A Reporter’s Diary in the Middle Belt – Day 5
The Middle Belt is a central agrarian region in the Benue-Niger Valley that prides itself as the food basket of Nigeria. Benue State’s official tagline is “the food basket of the nation”. It is an important hub for the growing of food that millions of Nigerians eat. Much of the fertile land in the region is fed by the Rivers Niger and Benue, which meet in Lokoja, capital of Kogi State, just more than 460km from Plateau State.
Grazing routes once followed the courses of these rivers, which best explains why the most horrendous of the herdsmen-farmer clashes have happened in communities along the length of these two rivers and their important tributaries. With Nigeria’s population rapidly increasing and successive governments focusing on agriculture as the surest way for the country to diversify its petroleum-dependent economy, millions have taken to small- and medium-scale farming. Some of these farms sit on old grazing routes, and this has helped to trigger battles between the farmer owners and itinerant herders keen to continue grazing their cattle.
The months of June to August, the rainy season in Nigeria, coincide with harvesting season. When farming settlements are attacked, the attackers often cart away yet-to-be-harvested crops, while those stored in the residential areas are either burnt or looted. Abel Deme, 38, was harvesting potatoes at his farm in the Ganaropp district of Barkin Ladi with his teenage son when they heard chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) followed closely by sporadic gunshots. The younger Deme – who narrated this to me – took to his heels and watched from behind a secure hiding place in the woods as a herder separated his father’s head from the rest of his lanky self with a sharp machete. The intruders then picked up the half-filled bag of potatoes, cleaned their machetes and trudged back into the forest.
Other survivors also confirm this stealing of harvests, leading to speculation that the attackers might also be suffering from a food crisis themselves. 49-year-old Amina Waksum lost her husband in one such attack on the village of Kwangjo. She had to risk death to go harvest potatoes from their abandoned farm so that she and her children could eat.
These two incidents and hundreds of other similar ones across Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Taraba and Nasarawa could cause a shortage of food by the end of the rainy season. An official at the Plateau State agriculture ministry who refused to speak on the record told The Africa Report that the government was at its wits’ end trying to find a lasting strategy to the situation and the almost inevitable food price inflation.
The official’s pessimism was hard to contain. “The problem with a conflict like this is that it will increase both insecurity and hunger at the same time. Even those whose communities are safe are afraid to go into the farms because they don’t know what is lurking in the bushes, and they only have sticks and dane guns to fight the sophisticated weapons. It’s a nightmare. A shortage of supply will result in increased prices.”
At the National Institute of Mining and Geosciences campus in the city of Jos, which is home to at least 3,000 displaced people, Rachael Isah, 34, broke into tears as she reminisced about her lost crops. While escaping from her village in Bokkos, she watched as her money, food and house were burnt by the men who also killed her husband of twelve years. But even as others prepare to go back to their home towns now that peace is slowly returning, Isah said she has a lingering fear about her own house and farm. As the Isah household and others like them turn to other livelihoods, the depleting numbers returning to tend the fields could spell trouble for the stomachs of Nigeria’s many millions, long after the mourning stops.
Photo by Eromo Egbejule:
An official from the Christian Women for Excellence and Empowerment in Nigerian Society gives relief items to the head of the village of Bet