Nigeria's farmers trapped in crosshairs of rising bandit attacks

A woman walks past the palace of the Emir of Anka in Zamfara, Nigeria February 28, 2021

A woman walks past the palace of the Emir of Anka in Zamfara, Nigeria February 28, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

What’s the context?

Farming can be a life-threatening occupation in north Nigeria, as armed gangs demand protection cash and kidnap residents for ransom

  • Farmers' livelihoods hollowed out by gunmen
  • Bandits demand protection money, kidnap ransoms
  • Rising food prices fuel cost-of-living crisis

BIRNIN TUDU, Nigeria, Dec 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nigerian farmer Bashir Sanni and his neighbours hoped they could buy their safety from groups of gunmen who terrorise the country's north west with kidnappings for ransom and extortion.

Residents of his village Birnin Tudu clubbed together to pay 10 million naira ($22,550) in protection money to a local armed group - as well as buying them two motorcycles and a cellphone.

It only stopped the attacks for a matter of weeks.

"They stormed the village and kidnapped people one night. A few days later, they came again. When they came for the third time, that was when we realised we had to flee for safety," said Sanni, 35, who now lives in a camp for displaced people.

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Nigeria's decade-long war with Islamist insurgencies in the north has spawned a humanitarian crisis and killed about 30,000 people.

Groups of gunmen, known locally as bandits, have stepped up robberies and kidnapping for ransom. They have also killed thousands of people.

The bandits, who hide out in thick forests, are expected to be a major issue in elections next February to choose a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari.

They are also increasingly wreaking havoc on one of Buhari's key policies – weaning Nigeria from its dependence on oil exports by encouraging a return to farming, which currently accounts for 22% of the country's gross national product (GDP).

Rural Zamfara state - whose slogan is "farming is our pride" and where the vast majority of residents work in agriculture - is among the hardest hit by the attacks.

The state is part of Nigeria's bread basket, contributing significantly to national food production.

As the security crisis grows, small-scale farmers say they are being forced to flee their lands, seeing their profits hollowed out by extortion, and cannot bring their goods to market as bandits have made many roads impassable.

The attack on smallholder farmers, along with widespread flooding and the war in Ukraine, have pushed annual food price inflation to 24%.

"What we need is adequate security to enable us to farm and live peacefully," said Sanni, whose family now relies on food aid to survive.

"It's only when we are safe that we can farm and take our produce to the market. Without that, our hands are literally tied."

Mothers arrive at JSS Jangebe to collect their daughters following their release after they were kidnapped, in Jangebe, Zamfara, Nigeria March 3, 2021

Mothers arrive at JSS Jangebe to collect their daughters following their release after they were kidnapped, in Jangebe, Zamfara, Nigeria March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Mothers arrive at JSS Jangebe to collect their daughters following their release after they were kidnapped, in Jangebe, Zamfara, Nigeria March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Living costs impacts

Bandit attacks are increasing but Nigeria's security forces are thinly stretched fighting the Islamist insurgency in the northeast.

Last week, more than 100 people – including women and children – were kidnapped in Zamfara, according to residents and local officials, who said the bandits may be using them as human shields in the face of Nigerian army air raids.

"Banditry is often understood as a primarily rural phenomenon," said James Barnett, a Lagos-based researcher covering African politics and security at the U.S. think-tank the Hudson Institute.

"However, by ravaging some of Nigeria's biggest agricultural centres, banditry has impacted Nigerian lives and livelihoods across the board, contributing, in part, to the cost-of-living crisis Nigeria currently faces."

A jump in food prices helped to drive inflation to 21% in October.

Security forces have continued to clamp down on the bandits, including air raids and a telecoms shutdown in parts of the northwest in an attempt to flush them from their hideouts.

States like Zamfara, at the epicentre of the conflict, have also attempted to engage bandits in dialogue and offer amnesty.

But the measures have so far failed to have a significant impact.

Bandits killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021 – a jump of more than 250% from 2020 – according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a conflict data aggregator.

Men work on the Thrive Agric's farm in Jere, Kaduna, Nigeria October 10, 2018

Men work on the Thrive Agric's farm in Jere, Kaduna, Nigeria October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Men work on the Thrive Agric's farm in Jere, Kaduna, Nigeria October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Deadly raids

In the village of Gidan Ilo, farmer Umar Usman has seen the bandits take his livelihood - and his granddaughter's life.

He and his neighbours had hoped to escape attacks after paying off the bandits with 2 million Naira.

"We were living in peace with them," he told Context.

"They usually come to our village to buy things and go. This was because we gave them anything they demanded from us."

Their fragile sense of security was shattered when the bandits staged an armed raid in April, killing Usman's granddaughter and kidnapping many of his neighbours.

Usman and his family fled, and now live in a camp for displaced people.

His two hectares of millet and other grains have withered and died, and the fields have overgrown with grass.

The father-of-six said that he used to harvest 40 bags of groundnut from his crop and sell some at the market.

Now, he manages a small piece of land near the camp, and said it would be hard to get one third of that crop size.

"It is difficult to even get food to eat, not to talk of taking to the market to sell," he said.

($1 = 443.4400 naira)

(Reporting by Abiodun Jamiu, Editing by Sonia Elks)


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