Divine Samuel grows rice on his farm in Mdiogbuonye Oma Ndi, Aro-Amuro, a rural community in Okigwe Local Government Area of Imo State in Nigeria’s south-east region.
But early this year, he was attacked on his way to the farm by gunmen enforcing the sit-at-home order of a pro-Biafra secession group. He was beaten and abandoned by a roadside.
“Since then, I have stopped going to any of my farms on sit-at-home days,” Mr Samuel told a PREMIUM TIMES reporter who visited the area in July.
The farmer said the gunmen often moved about with AK-47 rifles, sometimes chatting with residents at drinking joints in the community, before turning violent during the sit-at-home days.
Like other farmers, Mr Samuel said his reduced farming activities have affected the yields from his farms.
“Any day you fail to go, weeds may destroy the rice. If the weeds grow very well on the farm, the entire rice may become chaff. But if you are visiting there regularly and weeding it and guiding it, then it will do well,” he said.
“For instance, sometimes, we are unable to harvest our yams at the due time and some of them will decay. It is the same thing for cassava. Fear does not allow anybody to go and harvest their crops in due time,” he stated.
“What I harvest now is far less compared to what I usually harvested before the sit-at-home started.”
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that Imo State, in February 2023, emerged as the second worst-hit state in the country by food inflation on a year-on-year basis.
“When farmers can’t work in their farms, issues of adequate food availability, issues of adequate consumption and nutritional values will all be affected and these are the pillars of food security,” Agwu Ekwe, a professor of agricultural extension at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Insecurity and unrest in Imo
The outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), in August 2021, ordered residents of the South-east to sit at home every Monday towards pressuring the Nigerian government to release its detained leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who is standing trial for treason at the Federal High Court, Abuja.
The separatist group later amended the order to be implemented only on days when Mr Kanu appears in court.
But despite the amendment, residents of the five South-east states, including Imo, always stayed indoors on Mondays, mostly out of fear. The gunmen also, sometimes, randomly announce days for sit-at-homes. To ensure compliance, they randomly attack those who dared step out.
Aside from the toll that the siege has had on businesses and livelihoods, hundreds of people have been killed or injured in the region by enforcers of the order.
Several residents told this newspaper that the situation usually worsens during clashes between suspected agents of the pro-Biafran group and Nigeria’s security agencies, as farmers are sometimes caught in the crossfire.
And the issue appears to have split IPOB as Mr Kanu has declared those still enforcing the order as criminals blackmailing the separatist group.
Mr Kanu, through a letter made public in July by Aloy Ejimakor, his counsel, ordered Simon Ekpa, a Finland-based member of IPOB who calls himself the group’s deputy leader, to stop issuing sit-at-home orders in the region.
But Mr Ekpa described the letter as “fake,” claiming it was written by the State Security Service (SSS). He maintained that the order would continue to be enforced until Mr Kanu speaks to him directly.
Governor Hope Uzodinma, in an effort to check violence linked to the agitation in Imo State, floated the Ebubeagu Security Network, a community vigilante group. But the activities of the outfit appeared to have instead worsened the unrest in the state.
For instance, Amnesty International Nigeria, like many other rights groups, has repeatedly accused Ebubeagu of extra-judicial killings under the pretext of attacking IPOB members in the state and region.
Violence in Imo
Imo State recorded the highest number of deadly attacks in the South-east and South-south regions in the first quarter of 2022, according to a recent report by Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND).
The report said violence related to the separatist agitation caused more than 25 fatalities in the state within the period.
Over 400 deaths as a result of the violence were recorded in the state between January 2019 and December 2021, according to another report by PIND.
Such attacks, especially in rural areas, are scaring people away from their farms.
Charity Otti, who cultivates a variety of crops including cassava and vegetables in Mdiogbuonye Oma Ndi community, said she no longer goes to her farms.
“Our farms are far from here and we usually trek to the place. But when there is a sit-at-home, nobody goes anywhere,” the mother of four said.
Iweka Nwokolo, a farmer and indigene of Ofeinyi Amuro, another community in the council area, spoke in the same vein.
“Nobody goes out on sit-at-home days,” he said.
Ikechukwu Onyiro, a leader in the community, told PREMIUM TIMES that most farmers only go to farms that they have within their compounds on such days.
“Whenever there is a sit-at-home and I need to get to my farmland, I will hide by following bush paths to avoid coming face to face with them (gunmen) along major roads where they move about,” the community leader said.
‘Rain of gunshots, killings scare us’
The story is the same at Umuaguma, a community in Mgbidi, Oru West Local Government Area of the state.
Ugochi Udemadu was clearing her farmland to plant cassava when a PREMIUM TIMES reporter visited her in late July.
“We avoid stepping out during those sit-at-home days. We often hear heavy gunshots here and get really scared,” she said.
The farmer said many people in the community had been attacked on their farms.
“They flogged and chased us out of our farms,” she said, adding that the gunmen would have done worse if they (the farmers) were men.
“This place is their checking point,” Mrs Udemadu said, pointing at a major road near her farm.
“They usually seize motorcycles here and set them ablaze for violating the order. Even on normal days, they still attack people anyway.”
When asked how the situation affected farming activities, the mother of three said it delayed harvest, resulting in the decay of some crops.
“Cassava, for instance, is due for harvest after six months. If you delay the harvest, the cassava will decay. This is often the case when there is a prolonged sit-at-home order, like two weeks.”
Ikechukwu Ezediugwu, a farmer in Umuduru, another community in the council area, told this newspaper that farmers had been killed in the community for disobeying the sit-at-home order.
“Sometimes, if we go to the bush and our farms, we would see many corpses dumped there. But I think, with the military assistance, it is reducing now,” he said.
Since the secessionist struggle intensified in 2021, farmers have been avoiding their distant farmlands during sit-at-home days, according to Lawrence Obianozie, a leader in the community.
Mr Obianozie, a retired navy officer, said the situation is often worse when security operatives engage the secessionist fighters. He said some farmers were beheaded on their farms in the community.
“They (farmers) are now scared to go to their farmlands (because of those who were beheaded by the gunmen),” he said.
Like several other residents of the state who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, the community leader said he believes the crisis can be addressed if the Nigerian government releases the IPOB leader, Mr Kanu.
Food security concerns
Loveth Nwaiwu and two of her children were working on their farm on a Monday in Ihioma when a young man with a gun sneaked in on them.
Ihioma is a community in Orlu, a council area believed to be the worst hit by the insecurity in Imo State.
With knees on the ground and tears dropping down her cheeks, Mrs Nwaiwu begged for her life and those of her children, explaining that they were only out to get food for the family.
“He asked us to harvest whatever we wanted quickly and leave.
“Sometimes when they engage in a shootout (with security agencies), you could be hit by stray bullets in your farm. So, the best thing is don’t go to the farm,” she added.
The crisis has forced many residents to desert Izombe and Agwa, two major agrarian communities in Oguta LGA.
“Everybody has run away. Only Ebubeagu and army people are patrolling there,” Chigozie Ibeh, an indigene of Agwa told this newspaper at neighbouring Oguta town where he fled to.
“Our only occupation is farming but due to what is happening there, we all left,” Mr Ibeh, who now runs a motorcycle taxi, said.
Mr Ekwe, the university don, warned that food insecurity would trigger further unrest.
“It is hunger and lack of food that ultimately drive people to do a lot of things,” he said.
“Government can put institutional frameworks on the ground to help farmers to do better by providing an enabling environment for agricultural activities, including providing security to the farmers to protect them from harm in their farms,” Mr Ekwe said.
“They can also provide insurance so that if they lose their crops in any way, they will be compensated.”
The Commissioner of Agriculture in Imo State, Cosmos Maduba, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, acknowledged that insecurity has affected farming and other activities across the South-east and will have a “direct implication” on food security.
“When people who are involved in agriculture – like farming of all sorts both livestock and cropping- are not allowed to fully engage in the day-to-day activities that will lead to the production of food for everybody, of course, it is a problem,” Mr Maduba said.
“The issues of kidnapping, unknown gunmen, and banditry have actually affected agricultural activities in Imo State just like other areas where agriculture is the main source of livelihood of people. It has affected the availability of food.
“And that directly and indirectly leads to a reduction in productivity and scarcity of food becomes the order of the day. This has created room for hunger,” he said.
The commissioner said the situation is worsened by the fact that farming practices in the state are seasonal.
He, however, said the state government was working hard to address the security situation, such as offering amnesty to the terror groups to drop their guns.
He added that Governor Uzodinma recently rolled out a programme to cushion the impact of insecurity and fuel subsidy removal on farmers to encourage increased food production.
“In this regard, he has already made arrangements for the supply of inputs, such as fertiliser, varieties of crops and seedlings, which are going to be given to the farmers free of charge,” Mr Maduba revealed.
“The governor loves farmers and has made provision of N5 billion in this regard. So, this N5 billion will be used to procure farm inputs, equipment, machinery, agrochemicals, fertilizers and others to support the farmers,” he stated, adding that the government would also empower farmers with soft loans.
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