For generations, Diffa, the arid southeastern corner of Niger, has benefited from being closer to Nigeria than to commercial centres in Niger: Staple grains, fuel, clothing and other items at attractive prices have made their way across the border.
Diffa’s main outputs – livestock, dairy produce and red peppers – have also found a ready market in Nigeria. Common languages and family ties have strengthened links to such an extent that the Nigerian naira is Diffa’s main currency.
But Nigeria’s latest export, Boko Haram militants, is less welcome: It has forced the authorities to close the border, with tragic consequences for Diffa, just as it is trying to deal with the worst drought in recent years.
About three weeks ago, the authorities arrested 15 people suspected of affiliation to Boko Haram, seized home-made explosives and grenades, and uncovered a plan to bomb several public places in Diffa, said Tinni Djibo, assistant secretary-general of Diffa.
Since then, the price of staple grains like millet has doubled, while livestock prices have plummeted at a time when the region’s villages and pastoral camps are struggling with drought-related food insecurity.
“We realize the negative impact the border closure has had, but we have to put out the fires in our house when our neighbour is trying to put out the fire in its house,” said Djibo.
He said that whenever members of Boko Haram, whose reported base (Maiduguri), is only about 130km south of Diffa, have felt the heat, they have rushed up to Niger. “We have information that they have been trying to set up cells in Diffa.”
Camel traders hit
Diffa residents, meanwhile, are finding it hard to comprehend the official line. Malammamane Nur, the elderly leader of a Tobou community, one of the major pastoral groups in Niger, told IRIN in Medelaram village, some 30km outside Diffa town: “Boko Haram is like distant thunder – we hear about them but don’t see them – where is this Boko Haram?”
Boko Haram is like distant thunder – we hear about them but don’t see them – where is this Boko Haram?For three weeks his people have been unable to sell their camels at N’guel Kolo, one of the biggest livestock markets in the region, as buyers from Nigeria failed to turn up. The earnings would have helped them stock up on food for their families and animals. “We have a long time ahead still without food [another four months before rain; the next harvest is expected in November],” said Nur.
The pastoralists will now have to settle for 1,250,000 CFA francs (US$2,500) for a camel, if they manage to find buyers in Diffa, whereas Nigerian traders would have paid almost double that. “We need that kind of profit now when times are hard,” said Nur.
People will run out of food by April, according to government assessments, said Theodore Mbainaissem, head of World Food Programme (WFP) operations in Diffa.
In Diffa town’s livestock market there is an air of desolation: “Fewer and fewer people are bringing their animals here, because of the border closure. The price of sheep has dropped by 60 percent,” said Yousufa Bukar, a seller, who said he urgently needs cash to buy food. The more optimistic are holding on to their animals hoping that the border might reopen.
The Diffa region is facing a third consecutive year of drought. Many people have lost all their cows and only have a few sheep and goats; some people have a few camels. Agricultural output is the lowest in the past three years. Some farmers who grow peppers on the banks of the River Koumadougou-Yobe, which serves as the border between Niger and Nigeria, have not had a good harvest as their crop was ravaged by insects. For many, food has become unaffordable.
In normal times, money from the sale of a goat could have purchased three 100kg bags of millet. Now you need to sell three goats to get a single bag, said Hadjara Abdou, an officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Diffa.
Humanitarian agencies based in Diffa also say Boko Haram poses a direct threat: “We are considering relocating our offices away from the main road as we think we are obvious targets,” said one agency head.
Help on its way?
The authorities and aid agencies say help is on its way: Djibo said the government will be providing millet and sorghum at half the market price to people in Diffa. Feed for animals is also planned. Whether this assistance will be sufficient for eight months, no one can say. “We will get a real picture in April,” said an aid worker.
One aid official IRIN spoke to called for better roads to connect Diffa to other areas of Niger, but the links with Nigeria are “deeper than that and are social”, said Djibo. “We have to accept it.”
The Niger government’s Vulnerable Populations Support Plan dated February 2012, said a November 2011 survey indicated that in rural areas 32.1 percent of households were food insecure, 25.8 percent moderately food insecure and 6.3 percent severely food insecure.
For the severely food insecure the government is planning various cash transfer, cash-for-work, and food-for-work programmes, as well as the free distribution of food. Overall, Niger has 5,458,871 food insecure people, the report said.