Returnee farmers suffer as drought turns farms to dust in Borno

By Beloved JOHN

By the start of the 2023 rain season, Zara Bulam, a 50-year-old returnee IDP, had saved enough money to buy seeds for her new farm. She could only afford five ‘mudu’ of bean seeds, but it was a good start.

Zara Bulam sitting outside her tent
Zara Bulam sitting outside her tent

It took a while to get a farm nearby in Alajiri, a hamlet under Kaga local government area. And getting seedlings at a point when she could barely afford food was hard.

Next year, she will buy more with her proceeds.


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In mid-April, Bulam cultivated her farm and began to envisage an easier life. Five ‘mudus’ of bean seeds would give her three bags of beans in 65 days. She’d keep some for food and sell the rest at the main market in Maiduguri, the state capital. With her profits, Bulam will buy more seeds to recultivate before this season is over. And by the last quarter of the year, she would have more food, a stable source of income, and the prospect of a bigger farm. But her hopes were dashed.

For reasons Bulam cannot identify, it stopped raining in May and stayed that way till August. At first, she considered it a short delay, but by June, she knew it was a drought that would destroy her farm. And it did.

It rained a few times in Borno between April and May, and stopped. Farmlands turned to dust. The dry spell lasted over 21 days, just as the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) for

Drought in Borno

The dry spell affected the productivity of farmers, especially IDP returnees who sought to rebuild their lives through farming. This is not the first dry spell. Changing precipitation has threatened rain-fed agriculture in Borno in the last decade.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA), Borno has experienced multiple severe droughts caused by climate change, negatively impacting the state’s agricultural productive capacity.

The IDP returnees are unprepared and ill-equipped for this after being displaced by insurgency for years and abruptly being relocated by the state government two years ago.

The Borno government began implementing its resettlement Scheme in 2021. According to a report by the UN Migration Agency, IOM, as of November 2022, it had relocated over 900,000 people out of the 1.8 million people displaced by the insurgency in Borno.

Some settled in new communities, and others settled in their ancestral homes. Most returnee IDP farmers who spoke to The ICIR said they began farming in 2023, as they could not afford to in the previous year, and the dry spell impeded their effort to recover.

In Bulam’s words, “the lack of rain means no farm, and no food for us,” referring to herself and her five children.

“I saved up for months to buy the groundnut seeds, and everything dried up. Everything,” she said.

The changing rain pattern is a problem that affects farmers’ productivity. In areas where returnees are rebuilding their lives, it affects resilience and adaptation, says Murtala Abdullahi, a Climate researcher.

Farmers experienced flooding the previous year, and a dry spell lasted two months this year.

“This shows the complexity of the issue in a region that has always had few rainfall and an arid type of vegetation,” Murtala Abdullahi, a Researcher with Humangle Media, said.

“In hinterland areas where returnees are rebuilding their lives, accessing livelihood support is difficult, and security restrictions’ impact is usually higher. This affects resilience and adaptation.”

Food crisis, poverty among returnees

When it began to rain again in August, farms owned by returnee farmers had dried up, and most could not afford to recultivate. They turned back to wage labour. They had spent the previous year saving for seeds and land rent, with some working as labourers for landowners who leased farmlands.

Returnees who spoke to The ICIR said this was a chance to become self-sufficient and have more food. The drought meant continued hunger.

Hafsat Goni, another returnee in Alajiri, earns between N300 – N1000 from selling firewood or working as a labourer on farms outside her community. Her daily income is below the international poverty line of $1.90 daily.

Hafsat Goni
Hafsat Goni

With this amount, Goni has to feed herself and her three children.  “We never have enough money for food. How much can one do with that amount?”

Often, Goni’s children go to neighbouring communities, like many other IDP children, to beg for food, money or anything that could provide a meal.

There are days when they are fully dependent on alms, and sometimes, the kids, after roaming under the scorching sun for hours, return with nothing.

“Sometimes I look at my children and feel heartbroken by my inability to provide for them,” she said.

Goni had considered farming to be a way out.

“We are supposed to be preparing for harvest. By now, I should get some food at home. But nothing. We eat what we see when we see it, the 33-year-old returnee IDP said.

The ICIR found that the resettlement scheme did not address food insecurity among the returnees. Also, while it encouraged farming among the IDPs, it did not consider climate and other farming challenges that could set the people backwards.

Food insecurity is high among displaced persons and returnees as a result of the violence that ravaged the northeast. Borno is one of the states with the highest food insecurity, which, according to the United Nations, affects around 4.3 million people in the state, Adamawa and Yobe combined.

A World Food Programme (WFP) report showed that returnees have a high level of poor and borderline food consumption. Also, Households dependent on daily wage show elevated levels of inadequate food consumption.

Returnees are unsure of how to feed themselves and their children. With their farms destroyed by drought, they must wait till the next rainy day before they can try farming again, as dry-season farming is expensive and requires tools and unavailable land spaces.

A returnee farmland after recultivating on a smaller scale
A returnee farmland after recultivating on a smaller scale

To survive, the returnees have to remain heavily dependent on wages.

“Before the Boko Haram insurgency, I used a pumping machine and generator for dry season farming. Now, they are all gone. And I can’t afford it anymore.

I have to wait till the next rainy season. And while I remain, my struggle for food continues,” Bintu Tobolo, another returnee, said.

Pest and land infertility worsen the crisis.

Compared to most returnees, Hassan Umara (68), in Abduri village, farmed on a relatively large scale. Before the drought, he planted groundnuts, beans, millet, and watermelon. He was among the few returnees in Abduri village with the finances to reinvest in his farm when the dry spell ended.

Abduri is a small community in Konduga LGA, about 134km away from Kaga.

Konduga residents had been forced to abandon their homes in 2013 after a Boko Haram attack. Between 2013 and 2021, most villagers, including Umara, lived in Matari IDP camp in Maiduguri.

At that time, Umara kept his wages, hoping to return home someday. Umara said his savings reached over a N100,000 in 8 years.

He combined this with the N100,000 cash gift from the Borno government and parts of his post-relocation wages to cultivate at the beginning of the season. But like the others, a significant part of the farm died.

Hassan Umara on his farm with a dead groundnut plant
Hassan Umara on his farm with a dead groundnut plant

In August, when it started to rain, Umara farmed again. This time on a small scale. But there was another challenge. Pests. The land was infertile.

When The ICIR inquired why he did not get fertilisers and pesticides, a substance used for destroying harmful organisms on farmlands, Wakil responded, “After the first one collapsed, I only had small change left, that can only be recultivated. I didn’t have money for fertiliser or any chemical.”

We have not seen food to eat; you are talking about fertilisers,” Wakil Garba, an older returnee farmer, interrupted. Garba, who had been watching from a distance, walked closer and began to narrate his ordeal.

Garba, Whose second attempt at farming wasn’t going the way he hoped, said, “The land is weak, and there are insects everywhere. We don’t have money for food, not to talk about buying chemicals or fertilisers.”

Fighting the Climate Crisis

According to the National Policy on Climate Change, Borno is highly exposed to the impact of climate change. It recommended using drought-resistant crops, crop diversification, and irrigation farming.

It also highlighted the creation of awareness of adaptation measures and financial assistance among farmers.

However, The ICIR found the IDPs have no knowledge of climate change and are unable to finance climate-sensitive farming.

On October 6 2023,  The ICIR visited the Borno Ministry of Agriculture to get information about the state effort to promote climate-smart agriculture among Returnees. The commissioner, Bawa Musami, asked to be contacted through a WhatsApp text.

The entrance to Borno Ministry of Agriculture
The entrance to Borno Ministry of Agriculture

But Bawa did not respond to the message after it was sent. He also did not pick up his phone calls or respond to text messages sent afterwards.

However, the information officer for the state Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement (RRR), Saleh Habib, spoke to The ICIR over the phone on November 7 2023. He contradicted himself by claiming the state-supported drought-resistant agriculture for IDP returnees while admitting they were unprepared for the drought.

Habib stated that “the Borno supported the IDPs to carry irrigation farming in Kaga and Konduga,” and then followed up with, “the rain pattern affected farms across the state, and many IDP farmers suffered. They will need government support to carry out farming activities in the following year.”

Irrigation farming is capital-intensive. According to this report, irrigation farming on an acre of land costs between one hundred thousand and N3 million.

This means that each has at least N100,000, aside from other farming-related expenses, to carry out irrigation farming as an adaptation measure against climate change.

The returnees told The ICIR that they struggle to accumulate the money for seedlings and, as a result, cultivate crops that they believe will serve their immediate needs.

“Irrigation farming costs too much money,” Garba said to The ICIR. “Is it not those who have eaten that can consider these things?”

Independent findings by The ICIR show that returnee farmers in both Kaga and Konduga did not get support for climate-smart agriculture. They are also heavily dependent on rainfed farming.

Also, there’s no financial intervention programme exclusively for returnees to adopt climate-smart farming or boost farming.

There is funding from international donors to support farmers in the state, but these projects do not target returnees, and as a result, they are easily excluded.

In Konduga LGA, The ICIR found that some residents were beneficiaries of the European Union Dry Season Farming Intervention project in 2022.

The residents received farming tool kits to aid dry season farming. But the returnees in this local government received nothing.

Also, the Head of Fadama Ngcare in Borno, Maina Mustapha Arjinoma, told The ICIR that none of the agency’s previous or ongoing intervention programs is targeted at supporting returnee farmers.

    “We provide farming support to vulnerable farmers in the state. We have people in each local government who identify these farmers. They don’t have to be IDPs or returnees.”

    However, Konduga and Kaga LGA residents told The ICIR that the beneficiaries of such interventions are often residents with close ties to local government officials.

    “The vulnerable farmers they choose are people with access to local government officials. They picked only the people they know.” Musa Umar, a resident, said.

    This report was sponsored by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, with funding support from the Public Diplomacy Section of the U.S. Embassy, Abuja.

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