Rice farmer Donald Amokaha spends his days weeding a temporary plot outside the city of Makurdi, on the fringes of the Benue river in Nigeria’s agricultural heartland.
Two hours drive away into the countryside, Amokaha has a swathe of prime farmland, but it lies abandoned. Fear of attacks forced him to leave earlier this year.
“I usually cultivate rice, millet and sesame seeds on 100 hectares (250 acres) of land in Guma… but this year, I ran,” Amokaha told AFP. “I ploughed 40 hectares but was unable to plant.”
Amokaha is only one of a growing number of farmers who are fleeing violence in Nigeria’s crop-growing Middle Belt.
The agricultural heartland, like Nigeria’s northwestern states, is in the grip of years-long tit-for-tat violence between nomadic herders and farmers — a feud that has sharpened as climate change intensifies competition for water and land.
While insecurity is rooted in that herder-farmer conflict, the crisis in northwest Nigeria has spiralled into broader criminality with mass abductions for ransom, cattle theft and banditry.
The rural exodus is a key factor in driving up the cost of food in Africa’s most populous country, hitting its tens of millions of poor.
The government’s statistics bureau says inflation in June was around 17 percent compared with a year earlier.
The rise has been fuelled by the fallout from the global pandemic, which has triggered a slump in petroleum demand, badly hitting revenues in oil-producing Nigeria.
But within the index lies even worse news: food inflation of 22 percent.
In Nasawara state, on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, vegetable seller Badamasi Bello is anxious.
He said he loses customers daily because of the spiralling price of commodities. The high cost of transportation is also contributing to rising prices.
“I used to sell tomatoes and peppers, but things are now costly. I sold 10 bags of these items daily, but customers are no longer coming like before. I now sell only two bags in a day.”
Last month, the local State Emergency Management Agency chief warned about food scarcity, saying that many farmers living in camps for the internally displaced would struggle to return to the land.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in May that Benue had more than 200,000 displaced people, although local government estimates put that figure much higher.
Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom, a fierce government critic from the opposition PDP party, said he fears the repercussions of rural flight on food output and the overall economy.
“This crisis portends a great danger to the growth and development of Nigeria,” Ortom told AFP.
“Without adequate security, there can’t be farming to produce food for our people.”
In May, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned at least 9.2 million Nigerians face a crisis or worse levels of food insecurity this year because of the country’s conflicts.
Benue produces food staples such as yam, rice, beans, and maize. It supplies 70 percent of Nigeria’s soybean, according to the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission.
Nigeria’s central bank said it recently released 791 billion naira ($1.92 billion / 1.7 million euros) to farmers and reduced interest rates on loans in a bid to stimulate food production.
Chijioke Ekechukwu, chief executive at Dignity Finance & Investment, said farmers were producing far less than was needed to meet Nigeria’s food demand.
“The current situation is affecting prices. Government needs to open borders for import of food shortfalls. When this is done, there will be enough for the local market and prices will be forced to go down,” Chijioke told AFP.
“In the long run, government should tackle insecurity.”
Nigeria closed parts of its borders in August 2019 in an attempt to battle smuggling of rice and other goods as the government tried to improve food self-sufficiency.
The frontiers were also closed in March last year to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, although four borders were reopened in December.
Amokaha, a former agriculture commissioner and now farmer, said food prices would rise inexorably until growers were able to return to their land.
“Rather than importing food, the government should fight insecurity in order to encourage farmers go into more production,” he said.