July 5, 2019

How Boko Haram’s activities destroyed Nigeria’s multi-billion naira fish market

IN time past, walking through the expansive Baga Fish Market in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, was like the proverbial camel passing through the eye of a needle. Hordes of traders and buyers thronged the well-laid roads within the market. From time to time, the market cut the picture akin to a scene of stampede at a political rally. The trans-Sahara fish spot attracted merchants and retailers in their thousands, not only from different parts of Nigeria, but also from neighbouring African nations.

The location of the market in Borno, the Northeast state that shares borders with other African countries like Niger, Chad and Cameroon, made the fish market a huge centre of commerce. Dozens of fish merchants from Sudan and Central Africa Republic often made their way to Baga, a sprawling market situated on the major road that leads to Baga, a fishing town around the Lake Chad area.

But the market is today a shadow of its old self. Its fortune has deteriorated and its glory has waned remarkably, no thanks to 10 years of the bloody activities of the terror group called Boko Haram.

Market’s woes, traders’ agonies

Lamenting the ugly change in the market’s fortune, the Chairman, Fish Producers/Market Association in Borno State, Alhaji Abatcha Madalama, told our correspondent, who visited the market, that it (market) had become a far cry from what it once was.

He said: “This market is no longer what it used to be. It has suffered. Just look at how few the traders now are. It is unlike before when it was difficult to even enter or walk in the market.

“It is close to 10 years now that we have been suffering because of the Boko Haram crisis. This market has died because the military has stopped the bringing in of fish from Baga town, which is the major source of the fish sold in the market.”

Investigation, however, revealed that besides the Boko Haram insurgents, some of the foes of the multi-billion naira market are not far from itself. There are also indications that some of the security agents who have placed an embargo on the operation of the market have turned round to take over the fish business and have become fish merchants themselves. Madalama, who lamented the pains, which the prolonged Boko Haram crisis had brought to the people, queried the activities of some soldiers in the market he noted that thousands of people depend on for their livelihood. According to him, the leaderships of the various associations in the market had come up with a decision to support the military against any Boko Haram element that was found among them. Consequently, 16 of the market leaders were invited to Maimalari Baracks in Maiduguri where they swore by the Quran to fish out anyone in fish business associated with the terror group and hand them over to security agents, as a condition for the ban on fish business to be lifted. Four months after, however, the disposition of the military in the matter has not changed.

He said: “About 16 of us were called to meet with the leadership of the military at Maimalari Baracks about our problems in this market. We went there and all of us swore by the Quran to become part of the network that would help soldiers identify any Boko Haram member that would trade with us. We took the oath and promised to do our best so that the market would be opened. But look at us today. After four months, nothing positive has come from the military.

“Many of our members have lost their families. Their wives have either left them or their children scattered because they can no longer feed them. Some have even died of hypertension and stroke.”

Confronting the sight as one approached the market centre in time past were disused car tyres on which were hung big fishes, some of which were almost the size of an adult. Now, they all lie fallow with sand dunes. And even more worrisome is the manner that idle traders sit behind their empty tables without a single fish on display.

A trader in the market, Mohammed Modu, said: “We now are all the same in the market. There is no big or small man, and there is no difference between the wealthy traders and their boys. Everyone you see under that shade is waiting for the day the military will allow us to begin to bring fish from Baga town into the market.”

Modu’s claims were soon confirmed as the reporter walked to a shed in the heart of the market where different traders relayed their tales of agony, frustration, depression and hopelessness. While a handful of them have been struck by terrible ailments that rendered them incapacitated, others are left worrying about how to feed their families from the only trade they have known all their lives. They are haunted by the thought of feeding their polygamous families; a situation that often culminates in ailments like hypertension and stroke. Others have even been sent into early graves, according to some of the traders.

The rich in agony

By halting trading activities in the market, the military and other security agents believe that they are simply doing their jobs. But not so with the traders who see the security agents as an insensitive lot who are out to aggravate their sufferings. Others even believe that there is a deliberate ploy by soldiers to take over their fish business.

Some of the traders alleged that their wares amounting to millions of naira were seized and confiscated by the military. The Nation checks revealed that many of the fish traders previously regarded as wealthy can now barely feed their families and have to rely on charity from families and friends.

One of them, Mudi Ali, who has been in fish business all his life, wondered why security agents would continue to impound their fish without intervention from the Borno State Government, which he said they overwhelmingly voted into power.

“Our trailer of fish was impounded just a few days ago by the military police (MP) on Gamboru Road to Maimalari Baracks. This is the only thing we eat from. How can the Borno State Government keep quiet over this problem? This is a government that we all voted into power. This is becoming too much on us,” he lamented.

Cecilia Ariyo has traded in Baga Market, selling soft drinks in the last 20 years. But her daily sales have now dropped to less than 10 bottles from her daily sales of about 10 crates.

Popularly called Mama in the market, the hilarious 67-year-old energetically pursues her young customers to secure her empty bottles, throwing jocular Yoruba jibes at them. The reporter caught her panting after chasing one of the boys she said was running away with her money and bottle.

Ariyo has become a household name around the market, after she previously ran out of Maiduguri in the heat of Boko Haram offensives but decided to return to the trade she loves. However, her story is now mixed with the woes of the market. She recalled how she was able to finance her children’s education up to university level from the sales of soft drinks after her husband retired from the civil service.

Fish as contraband

According to Alhaji Abatcha Madalama, “bringing fish into Maiduguri today is like smuggling hard drugs like cocaine or Indian hemp.” Ironically, over 80 per cent of the fish consumed in Maiduguri in the last few years is smuggled into the town either by illegal routes or traders have to pay through their noses to follow long distances instead of the short Baga route to bring fish into Maiduguri.

Some of the traders revealed that Adamawa and Hadeja in Jigawa State have taken over their business as many of the boys from the Baga Fish market have either migrated to Yola or Hadeja to fend for themselves and take care of their families back home in Maiduguri. The spokesman of the Road Transport Union at Baga Fish Market, Buba Ibrahim, explained that transporters have to travel from Gamboru Ngala, Difa in Niger Republic through Fotokol in Cameroon to Yola before coming back to Maiduguri, which is more than 1,600kilometres as against 133kilometres from Gamaboru to Maiduguri.

Buba also informed that sometimes, the drivers have to take the risk of following Gamboru road to bribe their way through security checks to Maiduguri.

He said: “At some checkpoints, soldiers collect N10,000. Some collect N5,000. Others don’t event collect at all, and they will arrest you. So, all the money you have spent at other checkpoints will become useless if you are not lucky.

“Because of that kind of uncertainties, we mostly prefer to follow through Fotokol in Cameroon, pass through some villages and go to Yola before coming to Maiduguri. That distance is more than 1,600kilometres compared to Gamboru, which is just 133kilometres to Maidugur.”

Another route through which fish is brought into Maiduguri is Difa in Niger Republic through Geidam, Gasahua and Damaturu.

One of the fish dealers, who still manages to supply fish to the Maiduguri metropolis, said: “What we normally do is to follow the road to Baga and buy the fish in Niger Republic. We then send it through Maine Sorowa, Geidam, Gashua and Damaturu, while we come back through the same route back to Maiduguri to wait for the fish to arrive.

“It takes up to a week or even more for the fish to arrive. Sometimes you may get unlucky at Geidam and soldiers seize your fish. But the soldiers at Giedam are not as strict with the fish as the ones in Maiduguri.”

A commercial driver, who identified himself simply as Abdullahi, said: “In Maiduguri, especially on Gamboru and Baga roads, soldiers sniff vehicles for the smell of fish like dogs. Allah have mercy on you if there is any smell of fish from your car.”

While the story of soldiers’ take-over of the fish business in Maiduguri remains unsubstantiated, many of the traders are pointing accusing fingers at the some soldiers for disengaging them from their only source of livelihood and getting themselves involved in smuggling fish into Maiduguri and even outside the shores of Borno to other states.

“The soldiers pushed us away to take over our business in the name of closing our road to fish from Baga and Gamboru. But we now buy from them who closed the road. This is an irony. We must tell the truth. There are soldiers who are bringing in fish into Maidugrui to sell to some of our members in this market,” a furious trader said, preferring anonymity.

Another fish retailer in the market collaborated Ali’s position on the involvement of some soldiers in the sale of fish. He, however, added that while the involvement of soldiers was high in the past, it has drastically reduced in the last few years.

He said: “Before now, soldiers used to even come to this market to supply fish to us. Most of them were selling fish to our big ogas in the market here. But that has reduced now. I think their ogas are looking out to catch them.”

Soldiers deny allegation

Rising in defence of his soldiers, however, the General Officer Commanding 7 Divison of the Nigeria Army, Major Gen. Abdulmalik Biu, said those accusing his soldiers of involvement in fish business are the major detractors of the Nigerian Army in the prosecution of the war against Boko Haram.

The GOC explained that his men cannot whimsically cut off the livelihood of a people without any cognate evidence of illegality and criminality associated with such an activity, adding that Boko Haram are trading in the fish business to get funds and procure weapons to bring down the country, and the military cannot fold their hands and watch them achieve that.

He said: “One of the unfortunate things in this crisis is the activities of our detractors; those who are sitting on the fence and don’t mean well for the country.

“How can someone come out and say they are stopping us from this as  if it is not characterised with clear illegalities and criminality? These are the issues. We must separate the seed from the chaff. It is very important that we do that.

“We should even give kudos to our troops who have eyes for that. It has paid off a lot.”

He added: “We have said that the prosecution of this war is multi-dimensional. It can be kinetic or non-kinetic. The kinetic one is where you see soldiers carry guns and firing bullets where they need to fire.

“The non-kinetic are more civic in nature, and it includes economic, social and political blockade, and many others. You apply that so as to whip your adversary into line without necessarily firing a shot.

“In as much as these two means of prosecuting this war remain the architecture of solving the crisis, we will continue to do that.

“For now, we have found a situation where some of these illegal fish traders are using it to boost the capacity of the Boko Haram. Before now, some of the fish areas were completely in the hold of Boko Haram.

“We are also aware of so many people who go there, trade with them and do other kinds of business. Boko Haram is not a government, so they don’t have a structural way of funding. They don’t have budget allocation. These are some of the activities they engage in to fund themselves.

“You know that they don’t get their weapons free of charge. Even if it is free of charge from their collaborators far across because of their international connection, they still leverage on resources.

“Part of what they resource themselves is to deal in these kinds of illegal business, like take away people’s cows. They take these cows to sell and procure arms and ammunition; not to roast and eat them.

“If we put a blockade to cut them from getting cows to go and sell, then we have done a lot. The same with blocking them from getting fish to go and sell and step up their operations against our troops.

“The military does other things that improve civil-military relations, like renovation of schools, building boreholes in communities and provision of free medical outreach, providing instructors to schools to win the heart of the people.”

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