Red pepper farming and trading used to be a major source of income in regions of Lake Chad Basin – Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad – but the insurgency put an end to that and people who once made millions are now living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) with little or no cash in hand.
RNI reporter Aisha Jamal spoke to Mustapha Yerima, the chairman of the Pepper Sellers’ Association at Baga Market in Maiduguri.
As a representative of both red pepper farmers and traders, he said: “Years ago, after the farmers had harvested their peppers in the Damasak and Abadam local government areas of Borno State, we marketers would buy it in bulk and bring it to the popular Baga Market in Maiduguri to sell. But, ever since the insurgency started, the farmers have not been able to cultivate their lands and marketers can no longer rely on them to produce pepper. These days, pepper farming is being carried in Niger and in places such as Nigeria’s Kano State.
“Because farmers cannot work their land, we have to buy pepper from Niger. It is transported into Nigeria through Mainé-Soroa, a department of the Diffa region in Niger, then into the Geidam Local Government Area of Yobe State and finally into Borno State. This costs a fortune and many marketers simply cannot afford it. We have no capital to continue. These days only two or three trucks arrive a day. And the trouble is that, because it is so expensive to get it here, our prices have skyrocketed and our customers simply cannot afford to buy it.’’
Yerima said the authorities had empowered some other businesses so that they could continue to be productive but the pepper market had not received any help from anyone.
“We contacted the government asking for help but we have received no support and no authorities have intervened to help us to revive the pepper market, which used to be a huge revenue source for the state and the other countries in the Lake Chad region. We used to make millions of naira before.
“We are unhappy with the situation now. We have no capital, so very little pepper is coming into the state. Two or three trucks carrying pepper is nowhere near enough to suffice hundreds of marketers that depend on the business. That is one of the reasons you see so many shops closed down and the market is empty.
“We used to open the market on Saturdays. People from Kano, Sokoto, Taraba, Adamawa, Kaduna, Lagos, Nasarawa and many other states across Nigeria came with more than a hundred trucks to buy pepper. Now that market has shifted from our land to other places, which is devastating for us. Nothing is flowing; it’s almost as if we have ceased to exist.’’
Yerima said the expense was not the only problem. Security was also an issue in getting pepper to Borno State. “We have been told numerous times that the people who drive the trucks from Niger have encountered insurgents along the route. Now they no longer use the direct route but instead they take back roads to avoid coming into contact with insurgents. But mostly insurgents are not interested in the pepper industry because they cannot make money out of it. So our major hindrance is that we lack the capital to sustain our business.
“At the start of the insurgency, we remained patient even when our market started collapsing. We thought and hoped things would get better, little knowing that the situation would get worse and worse. We used to make millions of naira but now the business has made us poor. We used to buy one bag of peppers for ₦5,000 but now it is sold at ₦25,000. Most of us cannot continue our businesses at that cost without incoming capital and that is why many of us sit around idle,” he said, adding that from millionaires they had become paupers.
“The changes have devastated us. We do not have security, we cannot cultivate our farmlands, we have no capital, we have to run for our lives when insurgents storm our lands and towns. We have lost everything, including the wealth we used to possess. From having everything we have become IDPs who have nothing and have to depend on the authorities to feed us. It’s frustrating, especially after having had some status and lots of money. The insurgency has changed our lives for the worse. Pepper farmers and traders in the whole of the Lake Chad Basin region have been affected. There is probably not one person who has not been affected in some way or other by the insurgency. Even the people who used to buy our pepper can no longer afford it.”
Yerima said both farmers and traders wanted the government to help them to revive the pepper industry.
“It is a huge source of income and used to bring in much revenue for the whole of the Lake Chad Basin region. We want our farms back, we need equipment, we want permission to continue our businesses in Damasak and Abadam. We do not want to remain the way we are. We want our businesses to become successful again. Relative peace has returned to many areas in Borno State. Already many IDPs have returned to their ancestral lands. They have resettled in Malam Fatori in Abadam and in other communities.
“We just want our lives back. We want independence. We don’t want to be forced to rely on the government and aid agencies to support us,’’ Yerima said.
AISHA SD JAMAL