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July 2024

Rice Farming Brought Prosperity to Northwestern Nigeria — Then the Bandits Came

Communities are extorted for crippling levels of protection money as they work to keep the country fed

A porter carries a bag of rice in Abuja, Nigeria. (Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images)

On a bright Saturday afternoon in April 2021, Ibrahim Umaru was carrying large sacks out to his fields in Sokoto State in northern Nigeria to lay out the rice he had harvested the day before to dry in the sun. Umaru’s pregnant wife puttered about in the shaded outdoor kitchen nearby. The rice was just one of the crops he grew, alongside onions, maize, beans and peppers, but it was his most lucrative. Great sheathes of rice stalks glittered gold in the early spring sunshine; the cerulean sky opened wide overhead. But their moment of pastoral bliss was shattered when armed men appeared on motorcycles, with one of their neighbors at gunpoint.

The bandits had come to collect what they claimed were taxes the rice farmers owed them for protection. The payments were late, and now they were taking extreme measures — seizing the money by force and kidnapping several farmers in the village for ransom.

“I was robbed, then brought to Ibrahim’s house, trembling in fear,” said Sani Adamu, the neighbor who had been dragged to Umaru’s home and who was later released after being kidnapped alongside other farmers. The bandits wanted to make an impression on the locals and instill fear in them. “One of them warned us not to delay taxes again. I knelt in terror, hands raised, as they continued their raid.”

Adamu recalled how the bandits dragged Umaru, who was 34 at the time, out in front of his home and forced him to the ground. One of them, wearing a black mask, brandished a sharp knife. Tears streamed down Umaru’s face as he pleaded with the men not to harm his wife and their unborn child while they ransacked his home, seizing cash from the recent harvest and other valuable items. Once they had taken what they came for, the bandits held Umaru’s arms and legs down, and in a ruthless, practiced gesture, slit his throat.

“Once they finished him off, his wife’s screams filled the air as she rushed to his side,” Adamu recounted. One of them turned to her and emptied his gun into her body.

In Nigeria, rice is king. The staple grain is on the table in every household almost every day. The national dish, jollof rice, is more than just a delicious dinner, it is a point of deep cultural pride for a country that is the top consumer of rice on the African continent. But up until 2015, it imported the vast majority of its supplies.

That year, the Nigerian Customs Service banned the import of rice. The objective was straightforward: to support local farmers to boost domestic production, which would both stimulate economic development and food sovereignty while decreasing reliance on imports. But the implementation would take years to see through — particularly as insecurity rocked several states in the north of the country home to prime agricultural land — and the initial shock of the ban led to increased food prices nationwide, including on rice.

By 2018, when the ban took full effect, rural farmers in northern Nigeria, with the help of government funding, had moved into rice farming in significant numbers, despite the demanding nature of the crop. Unlike beans, maize and millet, which grow easily in the area, rice takes considerably more resources and expertise to plant and harvest. Nevertheless, data from the Rice Farmers Association shows that some 12 million Nigerians took up rice cultivation in the years following the ban, in the hope of finding stability. In 2018, Nigeria’s rice production increased by 25%, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Rice became big business for small-time farmers in some of the most isolated, economically challenged and food-insecure areas in the country. (UNICEF reports that some 2.9 million people in the country’s northwest are in need of critical food assistance.) In the wake of the Boko Haram insurgency, when hundreds of thousands of people in Nigeria’s north were displaced and instability reigned, rice was a way to find solid ground again. A rice farmer in the northwestern state of Sokoto could earn a handsome wage that enabled them to easily support their families and build for the future.

But the combination of booming business and flimsy law enforcement has created a market for exploitation, and Sokoto’s farmers are paying a hefty price. A monthslong investigation by New Lines reveals that since 2021, rice farmers in Sokoto have been coerced into striking deals, facing severe attacks and paying egregious illegal “taxes” to local bandits in order to plant, harvest and sell their crops. Many have been forced to pay years’ worth of profits, or give over their capital investments to armed groups, unaffiliated with the militant organizations also menacing the area, as a form of “protection.” Failure to do so can result in kidnapping for ransom or death.

Interviews with eyewitnesses and examination of documents and other forms of available data have revealed that the conflict-affected areas where these farmers reside lack sufficient security measures to shield them from bandit attacks, contrary to government claims. The crisis is being made worse as climate change-induced droughts sweep the region, exacerbating the challenges faced by rice farmers, threatening their lives and livelihoods as they strive to meet the demand created by the rice import ban, in a nation where rice holds significant culinary importance.

For more than 13 years, Nigeria has been grappling with banditry, unlinked to any ideology, that originated in the country’s northwest. The bandit groups formed in the early 2010s, largely as part of the ongoing conflicts between ethnic Hausa farmers and Fulani herders over landownership and grazing rights. Such conflicts have escalated across sub-Saharan Africa, accelerated by climate change. Disputes, driven primarily by environmental factors, led to small-scale conflicts and sporadic attacks resulting in crop damage and livestock theft. Primitive weapons like sticks, daggers and locally crafted Dane guns were often used in these skirmishes.

By the end of 2011, young Fulani individuals in Zamfara State formed a group known as “Kungiyar Gayu” (“Youth Group”) to address perceived injustices faced by their pastoral communities. They felt marginalized and exploited by various government agencies, lacking access to education, veterinary services and animal feed. Encroachment on grazing areas often sparked clashes between the herders and farmers. But unlike in past conflicts, these new gangs of bandits were toting small arms and sweeping into villages on motorcycles. They were no longer looking to secure grazing rights; they were looking for money — and blood.

The attacks were brutal. According to data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, over the past 13 years banditry has claimed nearly 13,500 lives, displaced at least 247,000 people and destroyed 120 villages in northern Nigeria.

By 2018, the Hausa-dominated communities in Zamfara State established “peace committees” to negotiate with Fulani bandits. These committees agreed to provide protection payments to the militias in exchange for safety from attacks. The era of illegal taxes thus began.

Okhidievbie Oamien Roy, a former soldier and security expert, highlighted the dilemma faced by citizens who pay taxes to both the government and the bandits, emphasizing the need for government agencies to provide adequate support in areas where people reside. “This situation is alarming for citizens who expect security within their country. They pay taxes for government security, but it’s ineffective where they live. Locals face demands from both the government and armed bandits, paying fees to both. Emerging from rural areas, they encounter fees from government, transportation, and markets, raising product costs. Living amidst armed groups is traumatic.”

In 2016, bandits moved to Sokoto State, perpetrating killings in rural areas with minimal media coverage and little accountability. The local government attempted various measures to curb the attacks, with marginal success. In 2017, they brokered a deal with the bandits, resulting in 67 surrendering their arms in exchange for rewards such as cash, plots of land and farmland worth roughly $85,000. Despite these efforts, the bandits persisted in their illegal activities, driven by the allure of lucrative gains.

The situation in Sokoto State took a grave turn in 2021, when a notorious bandit leader named Bello Turji rolled into the area with his gang on motorcycles. Turji had fled neighboring Zamfara State after the military began pursuing him and his fighters, and sought refuge in Sokoto State’s forests. There, he planned to establish a new base and acquire more ammunition, several inside sources told New Lines. Soon, the attacks would begin.

On the evening of Feb. 17, 2021, bandits on motorbikes emerged suddenly from the forest on the edge of Goronyo, an agricultural region in Sokoto State. Their destination: four rice farming communities. Many of these men hid their identities with turbans as they shot guns into the sky, instilling fear throughout the villages. They parked their bikes in front of Usmanu Umar’s house.

Umar, who was the head of Kojo, one of those communities, stood stock still in his doorway as a bandit produced a letter demanding that he inform other rice farmers in the community about a new tax for peace. The bandits required $51,000 before planting and an additional $38,000 during the harvest period, annually.

“After they handed me the letter, they took my phone and used my number to call me two days later,” Umar recalled. “They demanded the money be paid within two weeks, threatening to attack our farmers and the entire community if we failed.”

Umar knew the levy was steep for his small community, but the threat of attacks was real. The farmers convened and decided to pool their resources to protect themselves and ensure the continuity of their rice business. A week later, the bandits called Umar again. “Despite our pleas for negotiation and reduction, they only agreed to lower the amount a few days before the deadline, ultimately settling for 10 million naira [roughly $25,000 at the time], which we scrambled to gather.”

Since 2021, the farmers of Kojo have been paying extortion taxes annually, delivering the funds in cash to a forest location designated by the bandits. “We’ve complied with their demands ever since,” Umar continued. “Whenever it’s time to pay before planting, they call me from hidden numbers and direct us to a nearby forest to drop off the funds. We don’t know how they retrieve it, and we dare not linger for fear of our lives.”

Not all farmers accept the forced levies, but those who resist often meet brutal ends. The same week the bandits appeared in front of Umar’s home in Kojo, residents of nearby Tsitse found the head of their community, Usmanu Malami, murdered, with a piece of paper left beside his body. “We were all terrified by the sudden loss of our community leader,” Mallam Ibrahim, a local farmer, told New Lines. “It wasn’t until I picked up the letter beside him, written in our dialect, that we realized bandits were responsible.”

In the letter, the bandits decreed that planting was prohibited until taxes for peace were paid. Failure to comply would result in attacks and death. They demanded $100,000 within two weeks.

As Ibrahim shared the letter, many in the community dismissed it, refusing to entertain the bandits’ demand for protection taxes. Despite repeated calls from the bandits using hidden numbers, the community’s acting head chose not to respond.

“Barely three weeks after rejecting their demand for protection taxes before planting rice, the bandits launched a brutal attack on our community one evening in March,” Ibrahim recounted, his voice heavy with sorrow. “They set fire to most of our rice farms, destroying crops that were ready for harvest and devastating our livelihoods. Thirteen people lost their lives, and valuable property was looted.”

Following the initial attack, the bandits issued another warning in the form of a letter, threatening further violence.

“Now, everyone lives in fear, unwilling to experience such sorrow again,” Ibrahim continued. “After five days of negotiation and pleading, the bandits agreed to accept 10 million naira from us. This financial burden, with each farmer contributing 50,000 naira, significantly impacts our businesses.”

Even with taxes paid, communities remain vulnerable to attacks. One morning in May 2022, Abubakar Mukhtar was on his way home to Pare, another rice-farming community in Goronyo, after selling his rice in the state capital, when bandits with assault rifles and truck-mounted guns descended on the village. The community was caught entirely unawares; they had already paid a ransom of $25,000 ahead of the rainy season to plant their crops, and farmers were beginning to do well with their investments. Mukhtar had invested around $4,000 into his business, and nurtured his rice plants over the previous years to bring a good yield that supported himself and his wife and child.

As the bandits swept through the village, dozens of farmers were mowed down in their fields. Families were shot in their homes and more than a dozen residents, including Mukhtar, were dragged into the forest.

“I never fathomed such horror,” Mukhtar, whose wife and child were killed in the attacks, recalled. “I had barely returned from delivering rice when the bandits descended, snatching me away into the darkness.” For over seven agonizing months, he and 15 others endured captivity, their hopes dwindling with each passing day.

When he emerged from captivity, Mukhtar discovered that his once-thriving rice business, built painstakingly over the years, was in ruins. So were the farms and fields of many of his neighbors. What was once a lifeline for the community now lay in tatters. Even two years later, their struggle for survival persists, each day marked by the harsh reality of scarcity and deprivation as they strive to rebuild what remains of their fractured lives.

Abubakar Mukhtar shows his rice farms ravaged by the bandits and extreme weather in Pare community, Sokoto. (Abdulwaheed Sofiullahi)

With no government security presence in the area, many farming communities, left to fend for themselves, took steps to enhance local security measures, including forming vigilante groups to defend against bandit attacks. Bands of local men would patrol the village and fields, looking for signs of impending attack and attempting to ward off any interlopers. Despite their efforts, the assailants’ superior weaponry often resulted in casualties, property damage, arson and abductions.

Umaru Dawa Halidu from Pare lamented the vigilantes’ inability to overcome the bandits, highlighting the overwhelming firepower wielded by the attackers, especially during the previous year’s assault.

Umaru added, “As a vigilante in Pare, we’ve never emerged victorious against them. Their heavy weapons, particularly during last year’s attack, always overpower us. In the absence of government security, we are left to defend ourselves, often narrowly avoiding harm. We rely on divine protection, with both young and old participating in nightly patrols.”

The special adviser to the state governor on security matters, retired Col. Ahmed Usman shared insights into the government’s efforts to combat banditry in the state. He said that in February 2024 “the state government handed over 70 brand-new patrol vehicles to security agencies in the state.” These, including Toyota pickups and Buffalo mine-protected vehicles, are aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the security forces in combating crime.

Usman said, “There were other measures taken which we cannot disclose because we don’t want to preempt our strategies towards addressing insecurity in the state.” He added that the government and security agents recently rescued 66 individuals kidnapped by bandits.

He highlighted the importance of such actions in demonstrating the government’s commitment to security. “The collaboration has begun to bear fruit as the bandits are now being pursued in their hideouts and attacked, while several of their innocent victims are constantly being freed,” Ahmed noted. Additionally, he remarked, “The initiative of enacting a law to establish community guard corps and providing them with adequate transport and armaments is another giant stride to end banditry and enthrone a secure and peaceful Sokoto State within the year 2024.”

As the bandits seek to extort more and more from these small communities, one practice has emerged that has taken on many cruel forms: kidnapping, whether for forced labor, sexual exploitation, or ransom.

In the chaos of an attack on his village by bandits in May 2021, Ibrahim Ladan was carried off by gang members to a farm they had seized, where he would be forced into working the fields, with little food or water and almost no rest. When he arrived he was shocked to discover his 20-year-old daughter among the captives.

“It pains me deeply to recall how they exploited us, subjecting my daughter to sexual abuse while I could do nothing,” Ibrahim lamented. “We were treated like machines, forced to plant and harvest crops without basic necessities. It’s incomprehensible that they still demanded ransom for our release.”

Those ransom payments come at a high cost to individual families and their communities. In 2022, Kojo was again targeted by the bandits, who torched homes, looted property and abducted over 20 residents, demanding a ransom of around $25,000. Among them was 23-year-old Abdullahi Usmanu, whose mother, Aisha, had been widowed by bandit violence the year before.

“I had already lost my husband to bandits in early 2021 during an attack. When my son was kidnapped, I felt like I was losing my mind. His absence was a constant reminder of the void left by his father’s death,” she recounted, tears streaming down her face.

For months, the single mother struggled to scrape together the sum the bandits had set for her son’s release. “I even sold my clothes to contribute to the ransom funds the community leader requested. But even after the others were released, my son was nowhere to be found.”

It wasn’t until one of the other kidnapping victims was returned that she learned of her son’s fate. Nasiru Bala, one of the survivors, revealed that Abdullahi perished in captivity due to hunger after enduring two weeks in the forest without adequate food or water. Bala described to New Lines the relentless physical abuse inflicted by the bandits, who forced them into slave labor without provisions. “We barely had enough garri [cassava flour] to sustain us, and without water, it was practically inedible. One evening, Abdullahi complained of stomach pains and collapsed. He never regained consciousness,” Nasiru recalled with sorrow.

These recurrent brutal attacks have decimated the rice farming businesses, with farmers diverting funds meant for cultivation to pay both imposed taxes and ransoms demanded during kidnappings.

Alhaji Nu’hu, the new head of the Kojo community, revealed the staggering toll of banditry on their community since 2021. In addition to the yearly taxes levied on rice farmers, they have paid over 108 million naira in ransom ($71,000 at current exchange rates) for the release of over 40 kidnapped individuals. “We used to pool our resources within the community, assigning contributions based on marital status, age and occupation,” he explained. “But with many businesses shuttered, we often send representatives to neighboring areas to plead for assistance. If funds remain insufficient, we offer bags of rice, millet, beans and livestock to fulfill the ransom demands.”

He also lamented the escalating frequency and brutality of bandit attacks, which have ramped up to nearly every week. Many in the community have been displaced, and the once-thriving rice farming industry has crumbled under the weight of the crisis.

The banditry crisis is compounded by another threat looming over northern Nigeria: climate change. The Sahel region, the belt of land between Africa’s lush forests and the vast Sahara desert that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and includes northern Nigeria, is one of the world’s most severely affected areas. For the last several years, Nigeria’s northwest has been plagued by erratic weather — long stretches of drought followed by short, intense wet seasons that can damage crops and take out a year’s worth of income for farmers.

Ibrahim Adamu, a seasoned rice farmer in Kojo, had long adapted to rainfall shortages in his farming practices. Before the escalation of banditry attacks in his community, farmers like him relied on a government-dug borehole for irrigation farming, enabling substantial rice yields during harvest periods. However, the onset of banditry severely disrupted his operations as the damaged borehole left him without access to water, significantly reducing his rice farming productivity.

“Before the bandit attacks, I used to channel water from the borehole directly to my rice farm even during the dry season. I would cultivate up to 70 or even 100 bags of rice, yielding profits ranging from 400,000 to 700,000 naira upon selling,” Adamu said. “But now, most of my funds go towards taxes and ransom payments to bandits. I can hardly cultivate 20 bags during the rainy season due to the water shortage. After that, I’m forced to seek alternative sources of income.”

The drought resulting from inadequate rainfall has taken a heavy toll on rice farmers in the Pare community of Goronyo. Mohammed Musa, once a thriving rice farmer, recounted how the inability to access water for irrigation farming compelled them to dig large pits during the rainy season to store water for planting rice. However, bandit attacks thwarted their plans.

“After our boreholes were damaged, we decided to dig pits on our farms to store rainwater. Before the incidents, I used to produce around 400 bags of rice due to my extensive farmland. However, after implementing the pit digging strategy, my yield plummeted to 80 bags, sometimes even as low as 30,” explained Musa. “The bandits dictate when we can work on our farms, hindering our ability to engage in irrigation farming. Water dries up before we can access it, exacerbating hunger in my household. Even providing for my family has become a challenge due to these circumstances,” he added with despair.

Mohammed Musa’s dried rice farm at Pare community, Sokoto. (Abdulwaheed Sofiullahi)

It is not just the bandits whose levies are putting financial strain on Sokoto State’s rice farmers. A few months after the rice import ban in 2015, Nigeria’s former President Muhammadu Buhari and the Central Bank of Nigeria launched a financial support scheme called the anchor-borrower program to boost rice farming in Northern Nigeria. The 629 billion naira program (worth $84.5 million in 2015) injected much-needed cash into 10 northern states in the form of small loans to help would-be farmers get their businesses up and running. Many rice farmers in Sokoto State were among the beneficiaries.

Initially the loans were a boost. Ibrahim Muhammad, a rice farmer in the Pare community, confirmed that when he received the rice farming loan funds along with six bags of fertilizers and irrigation pumps worth roughly $2,000 in 2018, without any insecurity issues or illegal taxes, he harvested over 950 bags of rice for a profit of more than $7,200.

But then two things happened nearly simultaneously: The term of the loan came up and repayment was due, and the banditry started. Many farmers, including Muhammad, used some of their loan money to pay protection taxes, or ransoms.

“The loan was swept away by the bandits because when they started kidnapping, killing and collecting illegal taxes from us, I used more than half of my remaining income to pay the ransom as well as taxes,” Muhammad said. A year after the banditry started, his income had dwindled to less than $1,200. Repaying the loan was almost impossible. “This is how all the funds went down, and my business crashed in 2022, and now I am doing any job that I find so that my family can eat.”

Bandits extorted 78 million naira from Muhammad’s community and six other rice farming communities in Goronyo from July 2020 to December 2023, as reported by locals. While this is roughly $50,000 today, recent declines in the value of the naira mean that this figure fails to represent the true cost, which is nearly three times more than the sum total of the 32 loans granted to the farmers in the area.

Yila Yusuf, the head of the bank’s Development Finance Department, oversees the distribution of loans to farmers in northern states through the anchor-borrower program. However, despite numerous attempts to reach him for comments regarding the federal government’s stance on assisting farmers affected by bandit attacks, he has not responded to calls or messages.

Rice farming was supposed to be a boon to those struggling in the northwest of Nigeria. But in an attempt to fill the nation’s hungry belly, many have been swallowed whole by the banditry crisis.

When Ibrahim Umaru, his wife and unborn child were murdered in 2021, it wasn’t only their lives that were cut short. Umaru had supported an extended family, including his mother, who is now 67, with his farm. After the bandits killed him, they slashed and burned his property. No one dares touch it. Now, each day, his mother turns to gathering firewood on the edge of the forest to sell for survival.

“I help her with food sometimes,” said Sani Adamu, who witnessed her son’s murder, “but not always, because I also struggle to provide for my family. Farming has become so difficult, and we don’t have other means to make a living.” QR Code

Published Date: June 20, 2024

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