- As fish merchants accused leaders, military of extortion
- Prices soar
TIMOTHY OLANREWAJU, Maiduguri
A motley crowd pushing and shoving its way through a narrow path to access a trailer parked at the edge of a popular market in Maiduguri, Borno State capital. Five lanky men were seen offloading some carefully arranged cartons marked with various signs, from the back of the trailer. Shout and noise pervaded the atmosphere as each person was in hurry to get his consignment. The objects of struggle in these consignments are roasted or smoked fishes from the Lake Chad region.
Welcome to Baga Fish market in Maiduguri, the economic hub of Borno State. Most homes in Nigeria get their supplies of roasted or smoked fishes from this market situated at the northern end of the city. The market is named after Baga, a fishing community located at the Lake Chad Basin area on the Nigeria-Chad border, Kukawa Local Government, some 190 kilometres to Maiduguri.
Baga fishing market, once a thriving trade
Borno prides itself as one of the biggest producers of fishes in Nigeria. The Lake Chad Rivers in Baga provide job opportunities for over one million fishermen, labourers, artisan, food vendors, fish merchants from different parts of Nigeria and neighbouring African countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Sadly, the fish economy has been ruined by the eight years of Boko Haram insurgency, some fishermen and traders said.
“In the past, at least five trailers loaded with fishes usually arrive the market from Baga every week. We don’t have to struggle to get our consignment but the situation is no longer the same. We now get four or five trailers in two months. This is why people are pushing themselves because these can’t go round to all the traders and Nigerians either in the east, west or north,” Musa Kaga, a loader disclosed.
The dark years
Fishing business contributed significantly to the economy of Borno State, the northeast and communities at the Nigerian border until Boko Haram struck in 2013, Sunday Sun learnt. At least 52 fishermen were killed during an attack by Boko Haram at Doron Baga, the fishing spot late November 2014. The insurgents attacked the men on a Friday morning as they were returning from a fishing expedition. Reports indicated that the insurgents forced the fishermen off their boats, collected their catches and thereafter slit their throats.
Boko Haram had earlier on May 1, 2013 beheaded some fishermen in same area. It later launched into attacks on military troops and seizure of trucks conveying fishes from Baga to Maiduguri. Military said its investigation shown the insurgents were using fishes seized from merchants to fund their terror operations in the area. Thousands of fishermen and traders were forced to flee the area for safety. For these reasons, military authority closed down the Baga-Maiduguri road late 2014, forcing the fish business to a halt. Improvement in security situation however encouraged the authority to reopen the road to allow the fish business starts in full swing, Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai declared on 26th December, 2016. It was gathered that fish business in the area did not pick up until October 2017 due to uncertainty in the security situation.
A ray of hope
The reopening of the Maiduguri-Baga road by military authority brought hope to the people of the area, business men and women and many homes that depend on smoked fishes, Mohammed Garba, a fish trader at Doron Baga told Sunday Sun in Maiduguri. “The news was heralded with joy nationwide because Baga fishes provide many homes in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger with protein,” he said. He noted that many of them that were out of job for two years received the news with joy as they envisaged a turn-around of their economy. But then, their joy appeared short-lived, he claimed. Reason: a group of people that constituted the leadership of the fishing community is allegedly milking others from the ruins that remain of the trade.
Accusations of extortion
Some fish traders claimed the group under the auspices of fishermen and fisheries association “unilaterally took over the transportation of fishes from Baga to Maiduguri” and ensured traders pay N2,500 per carton of fish before it could be cleared and brought to Maiduguri, where merchants get their supplies to other parts of the country.
“Before insurgency, we were paying N2,500 per truck but it has now become N2,500 per carton,” Garba alleged. He said each truck could contain up to 1000 cartons of fishes. Each carton also contain between 25 and 30 fishes depending on the size, he explained.
Sani Umar, also a fish trader said the Doron Baga Fish Markets operates twice in a month (bimonthly). He said about 10 trucks load cartons of smoked fishes to Maiduguri after each market day and pay N2, 500 to the fishery association officials led by one Abubakar Gamandi. It was alleged that about N2.5 million is received from each of the trip by the leadership who is also accused of collaborating with some military officers in the area. This he said, was responsible for the high cost of fish in the country now.
Sunday Sun learnt a carton of fish which was between N15, 000 and N20, 000 now sold for N25, 000 to N35, 000. Retail traders sell five pieces of fish at N1500 or N2, 000, about 50 percent higher than the years before insurgency.
But the man at the centre of the allegation, Abubakar Gamandi who is the chairman Nigerian Fishermen and Fisheries, Borno State chapter, said the accusations were “baseless and political.” He maintained that he was not involved in any revenue collection, adding that the N2,500 charge was on each truck and not per carton of fish.
“We have a committee that is handling this issue. There are fishermen, labourers, loaders, fish traders and other stakeholders in the committee. It is not true that we charge per carton. Each truck pay N2,500 and not each carton. The local government is in charge,” he explained. He also claimed the allegation against him was “politically motivated.” This is politics and nothing more, I am not collecting any money and not collaborating with any military officer or soldier,” he maintained.
Gamandi who is also the Acting Chairman, Lake Chad Basin Fisheries Association of Nigeria appealed to government to assist its members who have been forced out of work to return. “The fishing business is in ruins and many people are out of job. A support from government now will help sanitize the situation,” he said.