Dwindling fishes Doron Baga

June 1, 2019

HUNGER sprouts where the river recedes in Doron Baga. The village bemoans the decline of its fish market.

For most of the natives, things started to fall apart in the twilight of 2014, when Boko Haram (BH) insurgents invaded their town, leaving behind a trail of blood and devastation.

Audu Maitaru, a fisherman, lost “everything” in the chaos. “They killed my father, my pregnant wife and two daughters,” he said, adding that the insurgents took away the little savings he made from his fish business.

“I am only alive today because I was lucky to have left home to collect a debt owed me by a friend and business partner,” he said.

Today, the 37-year-old is struggling through grief to rehabilitate himself and resuscitate his moribund fish business.

Last year, he returned to Doron Baga, hoping to rebuild his home and start afresh. But moving on proved far more difficult than he imagined. Memories of his home in time of peace haunt the widower; his daughters’ hearty laughter, his wife’s playful tantrum and winsome smile, when heavy with child, and the careful racket of his father’s silence as fine rain fell, haunted him day and night.

Grief-stricken, Maitaru gathered what’s left of his belongings and relocated to  Maiduguri, where hardship on the streets and the Dalori IDP camp, forces him to reconsider his stay in Borno even as you read.

“I am relocating to Kano. I will go and live with my cousin in the city. He sells bread, egg and tea. He promised to help set me up in the fruits market,” he said.

Like Maitaru, Abu Momodu lost his livelihood and home when BH insurgents sacked his community in Baga. The 42-year-old cried helplessly as the terrorists abducted his wife, whisking her away to their enclave in Sambisa forest. In 2016, however, she was rescued in the wake of a military onslaught on the base of the terrorist sect.

Momodu’s wife was rescued along with thousands of fellow captives but to his chagrin, she returned with child. It broke his heart to find out that besides the two-year-old with her, Hadejia (his wife) was four months pregnant for her Boko Haram husband.

Three weeks after she returned home, the 17-year-old fled to live with her BH husband. “Shaytan has taken over her heart,” said Ibrahim.

The shock was too much for him to bear. Severely shaken and humiliated, Momodu fled from Baga to Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, where he does menial work and seeks alms to survive. He said it’s more dignifying than staying back to live where he lost his wife and once profitable fish business.

“My wife made me a laughing stock. While I struggled to make peace with my agony and take her back, she was dying to return to the insurgent who kept her as a sex captive and impregnated her.

“One day, while I was on a fishing expedition, she stole the N57, 000 I saved from my petty fish trade. It was everything I had. And she absconded from home. She left a note with a neighbour’s wife, promising that her Boko Haram husband would refund the money and the dowry I paid on her. She said she could no longer survive on my meagre earnings from fish,” said Momodu.

Unlike Maitaru and Momodu, Abubakar Ibrahim witnessed no hideous massacre of his family, but he lost his livelihood after Boko Haram militants drove him from his village more than a year ago. He is now finding his feet again in Chad with the help of a UNHCR-backed project.

A father with 16 children and two wives, he was among the hundred refugees or thereabouts, who were recently given the chance to fish at a camp near Tagal, a small community on one of the many inlets of Lake Chad in Western Chad.

There is no gainsaying that fishing is important to Doron Baga as well as the northeast regional economy. From the local market in Borno, fish is transported across the country and into neighbouring markets in Cameroon, Niger and Chad, whose borders converge at the lake.

The prolonged insurgency has, however, led to a dramatic decline in the abundance of artisanal fishermen in the region. Fishing communities along the Lake Chad basin have suffered an exodus of fishermen and fish traders to presumably safer havens within and outside the country.

Consequently, there has been a general decline in fish abundance and artisanal fishing in the region, following an overall decline with a yearly pattern prevalent in 2015, 2016 and 2017, according to fish merchants in the area.

More than 2.9 million people in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe will face crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity and require urgent food assistance between June and August 2019, the most recent Cadre Harmonisé (CH) analysis indicates.

This figure represents a slight decrease from the estimated 3.0 million people who were in need during the same period last year.

Due to the stringent conditions in the region, about 10 to 20 people per group are forced to share one canoe for fishing activity in a new humanitarian scheme. The groups are given boats by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Development Society of Lake Chad (SODELAC). With only one boat per group, the fishermen have to share everything, including their catch. Some have borrowed nets from the locals and they share their fish with them.

From December, 2014 through January 2015, over 2, 000 people were killed within and around Doron Baga by BH insurgents, fueling a mass exodus across the lake to the Chadian shores.

While many Nigerian locals suffered internal displacement, seeking refuge in less volatile communities nearby or the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, more locals have been forced to seek refuge across the lake in neighbouring countries.

For instance, over 7,000 Nigerian refugees have landed on the Chadian side of the lake, where they are living in the Dar es Salam camp, just outside the town of Bagasola.

An ecological catastrophe bordered by four African countries: Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad, is not only an ecological catastrophe but it is fast becoming a very human disaster as well.

Lake Chad has shrunk to less than 10 percent of its original size, according to figures from the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC).

“The lake has receded from (a surface area of) 25,000 square kilometres to less than 2,000 sq km in the past 30 years. It keeps drying up due to climatic conditions and human activities at the up-stream,” stated Dr Ibrahim Goni, a geologist at the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID), in Borno State.

“We have seen drastic reduction in rainfall in 40 years. Rainfall has reduced by half, from 800 millimetres (per year) in the 1960s to around 400 millimetres at the moment,” Goni said, adding that this has resulted in incessant drought.

Worse still, rivers and the tributaries that feed the lake have shrunk due to poor rainfall, which seriously reduces the volume of water they empty into the lake.

Upstream of the lake in Nigeria, catches are dwindling as a result of low volumes of water in the Hadejia river, one of the tributaries of the Komadugu-Yobe river that eventually empties into Lake Chad.

The spread of a species of cattail reed (Typha australis – known locally as kachalla) is also creating problems for fishers and farmers alike. The tall, deep-rooting and fast-spreading reed has been rapidly spreading along the river since the Tiga dam was completed in the 1970s. The altered flow of water through the river system allowed shallow water to stand for longer periods, perfect conditions for the spread of kachalla, particularly on the fertile flood plains adjoining the river.

Fishing is made more difficult where the reeds choke waterways. Kachalla also provides an ideal habitat for the destructive quelea bird, huge flocks of which frequently destroy crops just before harvest.

The drying-up of the lake water and deterioration of the production capacity of its basin have affected all the socio-economic activities, leading to increased pressure on the natural resources and conflicts between the populations.

In addition to the approximately 60 per cent decline in fish production, there has been degradation of pasturelands, leading to shortage of dry matter estimated at 46.5 per cent in certain places as far back as 2006, reduction in the livestock population, and threat to biodiversity, according to experts.

In the beginning…

Before Boko Haram struck in 2013, Doron Baga’s fish industry constituted a significant portion of the economy of Borno State. Dwindling fortunes, however, beset the sector as the insurgency got bloodier.

For instance, about 58 fishermen were killed when Boko Haram struck Doron Baga in November, 2014. They reportedly ambushed the victims on a Friday morning as they returned from a fishing expedition. They forced them off their boats, dispossessed them of their haul and slit their throats.

Earlier on May 1, 2013, a BH terror squad beheaded some fishermen in the same area. Thereafter, the sect launched attacks on military units and seized trucks conveying fishes from Doron Baga to Maiduguri.

Investigations by the Nigerian Army revealed that the terrorist sect used proceeds from its robbery operations to fund its terror campaign in the area. As the situation aggravated, thousands of fishermen and traders fled to safety in Maiduguri, while some crossed the border into neighbouring countries, Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic.

In response to the worsening situation, the military authorities shut down the Baga-Maiduguri route in late 2014 thus grounding commercial activities in the area, the fish business in particular.

Following mop up operations and displacement of BH insurgents in the area, military authorities reopened the Baga-Maiduguri business route, and activities commenced in full swing.

The supply of fish from Baga to various places within and outside Borno State officially commenced on Tuesday, August 1, 2016 at the Doron Baga Fish Market.

However, the fish industry remained dormant until October, 2017.

The reopening of the Maiduguri-Baga road by the military reignited hope for fish dealers and consumers in the region, no doubt. Prior to its closure, the route served a crucial role as the main channel by which fish dealers and traders conveyed fish to the suburban markets, where many households that depend on fish diet for business and consumption, made their purchases.

Sekiya Abdullahi, a smoked fish retailer, stated that although the reopening of the trade route was greeted with a wave of joy by fish traders and consumers in the Maiduguri and environ, the industry is yet to attain the vibrancy of its past.

The Doron Baga fish market

The Doron Baga fish market is located about six kilometres from Baga town, which is about one 196 kilometres from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. This landing site, on the shores of Lake Chad, used to be the biggest fish market in the whole of northeast of Nigeria.

In the market, the marketing channel of dried fish is divided into two parts comprising wholesalers and retailers of fresh and already processed fish. The wholesalers and retailers of fresh fish are located on the upper part of the channel followed by raw fish processors who also sell the processed fish. The raw fish processors buy from the wholesalers and sell through commission agents or directly to wholesalers of already dried fish, who then sell to the retailers and consumers. There are also retailers of raw fish who buy raw fish from producers and wholesalers, processed it through fish processors, before selling to the consumers.

On the lower part of the channel are wholesalers of dried fish who use the services of commission agents to buy from fish processors, who are wholesalers of processed dried fish or buy directly from the processors and sell to retailers and consumers.

The flow of goods and services from their origin (producer-fishermen) to the final destination (consumer) involves along the channel, agents who perform physical functions in order to obtain economic benefit. The market channel for dried fish in Maiduguri metropolis, for instance, is as long as there are many intermediaries in the marketing system, resulting in high price.

difference in prices between producers and urban consumers.

In his analysis of the economics of the fish business, Dr. Waziri Ahmed Gazali of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID), affirmed that the transportation of fish from Doron-Baga to Maiduguri and to the rest of Nigeria is a profitable business.

The volume of traffic from Doron Baga to Maiduguri and other parts of Nigeria is largely determined by the season of fishing as well as by the market days of settlements along the Nigerian shores of Lake Chad.

For instance, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are usually brisk days for Doron Baga. These days, being the market days for the settlement, witness the greatest business transactions during which hundreds of cartons and sacks, worth of millions of Naira, are loaded on to the waiting trucks for transportation to Maiduguri and from there to cities such as Lagos, Enugu, Ibadan, Onitsha and Ilorin.

Expert analysis estimates the Borno fish industry at N1.4 billion monthly. Published by YENews, the analysis shows that in spite of the constraints, a total of 10,000 boxes can leave the market weekly to different parts of the country.

In the market’s ‘hidden economies, 10,000 boxes of fish sold at N35,000 each amounts to N350million weekly.Thus in a month, N1.4 billion worth of fish will leave the market. On full-scale production, the quantity is likely to be two to three folds more, according to the analysis.

Allegations of extortion

The Doron Baga fish market operates twice in a month during which seven to 10 truckloads of smoked fish leave for Maiduguri.

Traders, however, lamented unfair levies, claiming that they are forced to pay N2, 500 to fishery association officials, who unilaterally hijack the transportation of fishes from Baga to Maiduguri, in collusion with military officers. They claimed that before the conflict, traders paid N2,500 per truck but the levy was radically amended to N2,500 per carton. Each truck contains about 1,500 cartons of fishes, that amounts to N3.75 million per truck.

This, according to Idrissu Abubakar, a fish dealer, has led to an increase in the price of fishes. At a point, a carton of fish, which cost between N15, 000 and N20, 000, sold at N35, 000.

In response to the claims, Abubakar Gamandi, chairman of the Nigerian Fishermen and Fisheries, Borno State chapter, dismissed the accusations as unfounded and political. He stressed that the N2,500 charge was on each truck and not per carton of fish.

Gamandi, who is also the Acting Chairman, Lake Chad Basin Fisheries Association of Nigeria, maintained that he was not receiving any such levy or conniving with the military to extort fish traders as alleged.

A stitch in time

To mitigate the impact of the protracted conflict on the natives, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN-FAO) and European Union (EU) created a lifeline for fishermen forced out of the Lake Chad due to the insurgency.

For households affected by the insurgency, the FAO, on April 2, 2019,  launched the first in a series of fish farming clusters across Borno; an initial five fish cluster, which includes 50 individuals, received fish farming kits in Monguno and Jere Local Government Areas in Borno State under a European Union Trust Fund-financed project to restore agriculture-based livelihoods in the state.

Clusters received fish farming starter kits, including fish rearing tanks, fish feed, juveniles, water pumps and other accessories, to enable immediate fish production in a scheme geared to engage about 200 male-headed households in fish farming and train as well as equip a further 100 female-headed households in fish processing and marketing in the state.

At the backdrop of these noble efforts, the Nigerian government has increased its drive to end the insurgency and secure the livelihoods of the region’s farmers and fishing communities.

Simultaneously, Boko Haram is making more frantic forays into the region. Yunusa Ya`u, executive director, Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), a northeast-based non-profit, disclosed that the group has been able to effectively neutralise the fish supply from Lake Chad, established new markets in Chad and Niger republic, and use revenue flow from the business to fund its operations.

“ISWAP has effectively neutralised the biggest fish market in West Africa, the Baga Fish Market situated in Maiduguri, Borno State, instead they have created two major fish markets outside Nigeria, one is in Kusiri in Chad, while Nigerian traders mostly from South Eastern Nigeria now access through Mubi in Adamawa state.

“The second fish market created by the group is situated in Kinchhandi in Niger Republic where traders from Hadeija in Jigawa and Kano states access for their market stocks,” Ya`u said.

Before the insurgency disrupted business activities in the northeast, fishermen in Doron Baga embarked on random fishing expeditions without hindrance, to fulfill market demand. Today, they must sail in secret, to evade rampaging insurgents and military blockades.

It’s all part of a desperate strut that has strangled livelihoods and caused scarcity of a once-staple food.

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