From Timothy Olanrewaju, Maiduguri
The planting season in Borno State is still two months away but hundreds of locals displaced by the Boko Haram crisis are already returning to their farms, three years after they were forced to flee the attrocities of the terrorist group.
The green expanse of farmlands spanning about 7.5 kilometers in a community on the outskirts of Maiduguri is a beauty to behold. On the farmlands were scores of people either tend vegetables or harvesting produce, including cucumber, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, pepper, okro and garden eggs.
The ares is known as Gongolon farm settlement, a place specifically dedicated for farming by returnees, former internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and others from communities ravaged by the nearly seven years of Boko Haram violence.
Gongolon farmlands are located in Jere Local Government Area, about five kilometres northeast of Maiduguri. As one meanders through the bumpy road leading to the farms, one is greeted by the roars of pumping machines supplying water from several bore holes to the farms.
“It is a daily and continuous exercise. We do this for about five hours daily to give the plants water. It is a kind of irrigation,” one of the farmers, Habib Alhaji, who is also the leader of Madinatu Fadama Association, told Daily Sun.
Habib, 47, fled his farmland around the area early in 2014 when the terrorists heightened attacks in the area.
“Killing of people by Boko Haram around Old Maiduguri and attacks on farmlands and houses were rampant. So I decided to flee for safety. I couldn’t farm for about three years. I returned to farm just last year,” he said, as he attributed his surviving the horrendous Boko Haram era to divine intervention.
“Walahi, it was Allah’s making that I was not killed in my house while preparing to go to farm in 2014,” he entused as he beamed in satisfaction at being back to the land.
But how does he feel returning to farm after about three years?
“I am happy as I don’t need to depend on somebody to give me food anymore. I don’t need any NGO to give me food,” he said, noting that any support to the farmers should be in the form of “farm implements, pumping machines or fertilizer.”
He now makes enough money to feed his family of 10 from the sale of baskets of tomatoes, pepper, garden eggs and other vegetables.
More heart-warming on the farm centre was planting of cucumber and carrots. Borno and most states in the North East depend largely on the northcentral Plateau State for cabbage and carrots. Happily, these two vegetables are now grown on the Gongolon farmlands in commercial quantity.
Salisu Mohammed, a monitoring and evaluation officer with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said about 2,000 people were working daily on the farms. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) provided support through improved seedlings.
“Many people initially thought growing cabbage and carrot was impossible in Borno, but we have changed that perspective now. What you see on the farmlands is the evidence of that change,” he said.
FAO is intervening in the farming activities to restore the agricultural assets of IDPs, returnees, the vulnerable and host communities in Borno through its response strategy for the Lake Chad Basin crisis, the aftermath of Boko Haram insurgency, Director-General of the organisation, Jose Graziano Da-Silva, said.
He also stated that response to the humanitarian challenges in the North East should not be about food assistance alone but food production: “If we don’t produce more food now, we will go hungry in the nearest future.” He made the declaration during a visit to Maiduguri, his first time in Nigeria.
Da-Silva said time had come for the Nigerian government to pay more attention to the condition of people in rural areas, since agriculture remains a potent tool of engagement and wealth, in which case “agriculture must be the first priority or step, not the next one.”
He warned that, “For three years, people have been out of their farmlands because of the insecurity in the North East; if we do not plant now, we might have a bigger problem to contend with soon. We might have (many) out-of-work people and other social crisis.”
He explained that the FAO Response Strategy (2017-2019) was designed to mitigate the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency on the people and strengthen “resilience and food security of conflict-affected communities” in the North East. The organisation had realised $10 million (over N3.5 billion) out of $192 million (over N67 billion) needed for the intended 2.5 million farming people in the North East states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.
Da-Silva urged donors to respond before the commencement of the planting season.
He said the money would be used to support food production through distribution of “fast-maturing, nutrient-rich cereal,” provide seed-multiplication assistance, establish post-harvest storage facilities, provide livestock emergency support, rehabilitate food processing and agricultural infrastructure, including water tanks, and market facilities, among others.
As scores of young men and women were busy working on the land, dozens of traders were also seen in different parts of the farms eager to buy the harvest. Ibrahim Malam, a tomato farmer, said he made between N3,000 and N5, 000 on a basket (about 29kg) of tomato daily. “I have sold three baskets today,” he told Daily Sun.
For 16-year old Fatima Hassan, a returnee, sales from the farm provided her needs and those of her family even as she urged government to support more IDPs to return to farm.