Boko Haram Insurgency Gnawing at Nigeria’s Food-Supply

Nigeria’s militant group Boko Haram hasn’t only killed thousands of people in its campaign to impose Islamic law, or Shariah: it’s wrecking agriculture in some of the country’s main food-growing areas.

With farmers afraid to go to their fields in Nigeria’s northeast, rains that exceeded expectations failed to translate into a better harvest.

“No one can move a kilometer due to fear,” Abba Gambo, an agricultural-science lecturer at the University of Maiduguri, in the Borno state capital, said in a Dec. 29 interview. “Most of them have fled their homes.”

More than 1.5 million people, mostly farmers, have been forced to flee their homes as Boko Haram intensified its insurgency in the past year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The worst-hit states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa produce staple foods such as cowpeas, rice, millet, sorghum, corn and yams as well as tomatoes, onions, fish and livestock.

Boko Haram, which translates as “western education is a sin” from the local Hausa language, is entering the sixth year of a campaign to impose Shariah, or Islamic rule, in Africa’s biggest oil producer and most populous country of more than 170 million people. At least 13,000 people have died in gun and bomb attacks carried out by the group across northern Nigeria and the capital, Abuja, according to the government.

Inflationary Threats

Increases in the cost of food, which has the biggest weighting in Nigeria’s consumer price index, have outpaced the CPI every month since 2013. Disruptions to food distribution because of the insurgency are among the largest inflationary risks faced by the economy, the central bank said when making its last two rate announcements. Agriculture contributes about 24 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Abuja-based National Bureau of Statistics.

“Near-term risks” to price stability include “possible food-supply bottlenecks linked to insurgency and insecurity in some major agricultural zones of the country,” Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Godwin Emefiele said when announcing the decision to keep interest rate at a record 13 percent on Jan. 20.

Other inflationary threats identified by the central bank are increased government spending in an election year, in which President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking re-election on Feb. 14, and declining prices of crude oil, the country’s main export. These may increase pressure on the value of the naira, it said.

Nigeria may also be forced by shortages to increase imports of food, putting additional stress on the naira exchange rate and undermining moves to reduce food-import spending now worth about $5 billion a year, according to the agriculture ministry.

Worst Attack

Some of the worst attacks have occurred around Lake Chad, which supports fisheries and has alluvial soils that yield bumper harvests.

The town of Baga, which in January was razed in an attack that Amnesty International said claimed hundreds of lives, was built on the trade in fish and crops produced in the area.

Lake Chad borders four countries, including Cameroon and Niger. Out of more than 200 villages on the Nigerian side of the water body, about 140 have been ransacked by the Islamist militants, Mala Duguri, a farmer in the area said, in a Jan. 10 phone interview. Most of them grew onions, water melons, wheat, rice and cowpeas.

“The soil is very fertile but unfortunately we are in a state of fear,” Duguri said.

Where farmers are still able to produce, they face difficulties moving their harvest to the towns and cities where they’re in demand because key bridges on important link routes have been sabotaged by militants, and vehicles traveling on remote roads risk being ambushed.

Disrupting Transportation

A bridge linking Nigeria and border communities near Cameroon and another connecting Maiduguri in Borno state to Damaturu in Yobe state were both blown up by Boko Haram last year, disrupting transportation in the region.

“Before this Boko Haram insurgency, we used to load 40 trucks with fish to the south every week on market days,” Mohammed Sani, a fish seller in Maiduguri, said in a Dec. 17 interview. “But now it has reduced to five trucks; maximum seven a week.”

Exports to Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Sudan and Central African Republic have declined steeply, with importers staying away because of the insecurity, Abubakar Gamandi, leader of the fish traders, said by phone from Maiduguri.

Production of corn, cowpeas, rice, sorghum and millet in the northeast fell an average of 76 percent since the insurgency began when compared with output levels in the four years prior to 2009, a study on the impact of conflict on agriculture in Nigeria and Mali published in July by the Brookings Institution in Washington shows.

Rising Costs

Fishermen reported increased transportation costs and an 80 percent drop in supplies, while livestock dealers faced higher feed and transportation expenses as well as uncertainty about when they can safely take their animals to markets that may be attacked, according to the report.

There is an urgent need for the government to reassert its authority in the areas now threatened by the Islamist insurgency to make them safe for farmers to return to the fields in order to secure food supplies, said Gambo of the University of Maiduguri

“There is looming food insecurity, and definitely prices will go up because supply will fall short,” Gambo said.

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