Just before the start of crop planting in May, Abdullahi Hassan Wagini visited a neighbor’s farm in northern Nigeria to discuss how to prepare the fields. What happened next led him to abandon his livelihood of 25 years.
As the two men were chatting, bandits on motorcycles opened fire on them. Wagini, 62, managed to flee, while his friend stayed behind to protect his cattle. He was found dead in a pool of blood, his cows gone.
Such merciless killings have become more prevalent in a country where working the land can be a dangerous occupation because of longstanding religious and ethnic tensions and, more recently, organized crime. That’s as farmers already were having to contend with flooding or drought. It’s all now hitting agriculture just when Nigeria needs it most.
The concept of food security—access to a reliable source of sustenance for a population—resonates across the world in the era of coronavirus and disrupted supply chains. In Africa’s biggest economy, it has many dimensions.
The pandemic has triggered a surge in food prices in a nation that imports more than a tenth of its food supply. Two-thirds of the population is engaged in some form of agriculture. Yet most farmers lack the means to invest in quality seeds and fertilizer, irrigation, and machinery, all of which has constrained crop production. For many, climate change has made their situation even more dire.
While farmers in the once fertile northern regions have sought new work in droves, those who remain are increasingly having to contend with gangs seeking to extort money by holding people, land and livestock for ransom. Wagini has stopped growing crops and plans to leave for a nearby city to open a grocery store, he said by phone from his village in Katsina. The state is part of Nigeria’s bread basket, a hub for rice, wheat and sorghum, a cereal used for food and animal fodder.
“The security situation is not favorable,” said Wagini, a retired government employee who relied on farming to boost his income and feed him, his two wives and 17 children. “It has been a great setback to farming in the area.”
The challenges come as the world is forecast for a sharp rise in food insecurity because of Covid-19’s fallout. As many as 132 million more people globally may fall into the grip of hunger this year.
Across the globe, fears of a full-blown food crisis mounted as some major grain exporters limited shipments because of the pandemic, exposing the vulnerability of countries dependent on international trade for their staples. Nations from Singapore to the Gulf states are now aiming to boost their domestic food production.
With 200 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in the world’s most food-insecure continent. Producing food at home matters more as importers struggle to access dollars to pay for shipments from overseas after an oil price crash sapped foreign-currency reserves. “We are heading toward famine and starvation,” Niger state Governor Abubakar Sani Bello warned in April.
“The country is not self-sufficient in food production in any sense,” said Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria adviser at the International Crisis Group in Abuja, the capital. “So when the international food import chain is disrupted and then agriculture is also disrupted locally, that’s really a very worrisome combination for the country.”
In the 1960s, Nigeria grew enough of its own food and was the world’s top producer of crops such as groundnuts and palm oil. Subsequent governments prioritized the oil industry at the expense of investment in farming.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who was born and grew up in Katsina state, has been trying to orchestrate a revival since his election in 2015 by curbing imports of rice and other foodstuffs while boosting mechanized farming. The aim is to create 5 million jobs in agriculture and bring as much as 100,000 hectares of new farmland to each of Nigeria’s 36 states. The president’s mantra is “produce what we eat and eat what we produce.”
Improvements in rice and cassava output have already been made and the impact of Covid-19 provided fresh impetus. But while Buhari urged farmers to produce more, years of under-investment have left them ill-equipped. Yields are 30% of what they could be if farmers had better seeds, fertilizer and planting practices, said Kenton Dashiell, deputy director general of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in the Nigerian city of Ibadan.
Meanwhile, Buhari has ordered the central bank to stop providing foreign exchange for food and fertilizer imports as part of ongoing efforts to boost local farming production and conserve scarce dollars.
Warming temperatures have also turned some once green northern fields into a desert amid a shortage of water supply. Lake Chad, the biggest irrigation source in the north of Nigeria, shrunk by 90% since the 1960s, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. In the northeast state of Borno, the Sahara desert is encroaching at the rate of a kilometer a year, the Nigerian government estimated in 2018.
“One of the key problems with Nigeria is already the low irrigation capacity and that will only be exacerbated by climate change,” said Kwaw Andam, Nigeria country program leader at the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, in Abuja.
Even though restrictions on movement to tackle Covid-19 infections exempted agriculture, the measures still hit food services, transportation and processing. As a result, Nigeria’s agricultural output fell by about 13%, and the real food supply crunch will come at the end of this year into next, IFPRI estimates.
Some 85% of Nigerians have experienced a rise in prices since the Covid-19 outbreak, with the effect of shortages compounded by a decline in the value of the local currency, the naira. The cost of imported foods has soared by 28% from a year ago, forcing many Nigerians to alter their diets. The number of food insecure people may soar this year to some 23 million people, a spokesperson for the UN’s World Food Programme said.
But even if prices start to fall as the pandemic eases and supply chains are restored, the threat of violence involving sectarian groups and criminal gangs remains.
The federal government has deployed troops to tackle security, though it hasn’t stemmed the tide of farmers deserting the area in recent years. The number leaving their land in the northern states of Katsina, Kaduna, Jigawa, and Zamfara has more than doubled in 2020, according to the All Farmers Association of Nigeria.
Indeed, agricultural regions across the north and central belt are home to myriad conflicts ranging from long-running rivalries over land and water resources to fighting with Islamist militants.
In the northeast, the government has been battling Boko Haram for more than a decade and more recently a splinter group aligned to Islamic State. Other jihadist groups may be making inroads in the northwest, where there are also groups of armed youths that carry out raids to pillage villages, steal cattle and kidnap people for ransom.
Overall, tens of thousands of hectares or arable land has been destroyed or rendered inaccessible, hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep rustled, and markets disturbed.
Wagini, the farmer in Katsina state, said local production of the root vegetable cassava has plummeted as a result of bandit attacks as machete-wielding men would invade from neighboring forests and destroy all the planted crop just to bar people from farming in the area. Prices of the staple have more than quadrupled due to the scarcity. More people are staying home, locking up their animals for fear of attack.
The banditry is also cutting production of rice, Nigeria’s most-consumed grain. In Kebbi state, the country’s rice-growing hub, many farmers have stopped going to their fields for fear of attacks, said farmer Rikotu Isha. Local floods have further hurt the crop, submerging thousands of hectares of land and houses, and leaving at least six people dead in late August.
“My family and I have been living on produce from last year, but that’s coming close to finishing, which means we will all go hungry soon enough,” Isha said by phone. “Armed banditry is wiping out our incomes. Farming is where we get our livelihoods from. If we can’t farm, we go hungry.”
Since the murder of his neighbor, Wagini has visited his farm only once. He feels that the gunmen that have killed, maimed, kidnapped and raped in the area have gone unpunished. The government hasn’t offered relief aid to farmers to cushion the effects of the attacks, he said.
In July, some other farmers in the village took the risk to go back to their holdings. For Wagini, it was time to move on, he said. “I can’t risk my life to go to the farm.” —With assistance by Jeremy Diamond