Photographer: Sasa Djordjevic/AFP via Getty Images

Niger Pepper Farmers Return to Crop as Terror Threat Fades

Updated on
  • Government lifts ban on red pepper farming, key crop for Niger
  • Niger lawmaker says ending prohibition ‘question of survival’

After two years of living on family handouts, Issa Kaloumbou has returned to his red pepper farm in southeastern Niger because of a decline in attacks by Islamist militants based in neighboring Nigeria.

Kaloumbou is one of an estimated 30,000 farmers who’re resuming growing red peppers, the main crop in Niger’s Lake Chad area, following the government’s lifting of a two-year-old ban imposed amid a surge in jihadist attacks. The red pepper harvest used to generate more than 7 billion CFA francs ($14 million) annually. Fishing on the lake remains prohibited.

“We’ve suffered terribly,” Kaloumbou, 41, said by phone from the village of Yebi, about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from the capital, Niamey. “I used to make good money with peppers. When they banned production, I was forced to ask family for a bit of cash just to survive.”

The lifting of the ban signals the declining fortunes of the militants in southeastern Niger. Still, jihadists have triggered a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the region, worsened by an influx of refugees who fled the violence in Nigeria. More than 400,000 people in the southeast urgently need food, according to the United Nations humanitarian office, OCHA, which runs shelters and helps to distribute food.

If farmers can return to growing red peppers and other crops “they will be less vulnerable and as a consequence, less dependent on humanitarian aid,” Katy Thiam, an OCHA spokeswoman, said from Niamey. “This could be good news.”

State of Emergency

After the militants, known as Boko Haram, fled a military offensive in Nigeria and crossed into southeastern Niger in early 2015 with a series of deadly raids on border villages, authorities imposed a state of emergency, closed markets and banned motorcycle taxis. At least 500 people were killed by jihadists and more than 100 others kidnapped. Farming and fishing were halted amid concern that the fighters were extorting taxes from local producers and smuggling goods including peppers to Nigeria.

While Niger doesn’t have known jihadist groups on its territory, it’s increasingly affected by the spread of Islamist militancy in West Africa. On the other side of the country in the southwest, at least a two-day car journey away, suspected Islamic State-affiliated fighters who are believed to be based in Mali have struck twice this month. Four U.S. and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush that has brought the U.S. military presence in Africa under increased public scrutiny. An attack on Saturday left another 13 members of Niger’s paramilitary police dead.

The U.S. has as many as 800 troops and is building a drone and airbase in the northern city of Agadez, while Niger also hosts a French anti-militant operation. Niger is about twice the size of Texas, and two-thirds of the country is desert.

In the southeast, red peppers, which are dried in the sun and used as a spice, are a lifeblood for families, and there were growing fears that the ban on farming could push young people toward extremism, said Harouna Lamido, a lawmaker for the region.

“We had no choice,” Lamido said by phone. “It was a question of survival.”

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