Trip to Nigeria’s four corners (2)
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ironic: Trucks laden with fish inside Kasuwa Kifi in Doro-Baga, which is in quasi-desert Borno State.

The northern Nigerian states of Borno, Jigawa, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Yobe, which stand on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, are constantly under the threat of desertification.

This is why these political units are sometimes called Desertification Frontline States. Although each of these states is often under the threat of environmental disaster, Borno is ostensibly worse off.

In 1973 and 1983, Borno was devastated by drought; in the early 1990s, Maiduguri, the state capital, was ravaged by flooding, which claimed many lives. From plains stripped bare of trees, drains clogged by refuse to the scary recession of Lake Chad, environmental degradation poses a huge menace to inhabitants of Borno State. Although locals can do virtually nothing to reverse the consequences of climate change, some of the worsening conditions of Borno are ostensibly man-made.

Across Maiduguri, elderly folks could easily recall that flooding in the early 1990s led to the death of many people. A concert of unsatisfactory drainage network and dumping of wastes inside gutters, among others, had left Maiduguri a disaster waiting to happen. A torrential downpour, which pounded the Borno State capital for days, was to prove the trigger of that disaster.

Overwhelmed by the volume of run-off, a dam broke; local steams burst their banks culminating in Armageddon for many. Such was the situation that roads and bridges became submerged and it was difficult to tell a walkway from the gutter. Many panic-stricken residents had fallen into some drains and were promptly swept to their death by powerful currents rendered inescapable by the deluge. Today, the likelihood of a replay of that tragedy could be considered very remote, following the redesign and building of a better drainage system in Maiduguri with funding provided by the state and Federal Governments as well as international agencies. Be that as it may, Borno State still groans under lingering environmental threats.

In the early 1970s, it was drought; in the 1990s, it was improper canalization. Today, it is tree felling, which makes the land more susceptible to erosion and the soil barren or less fertile. Travelling across Borno State, we saw vast lands stripped bare of trees. Heading to Maiduguri from Gombe State to the South or Yobe to the West or descending from Niger Republic in the North, the tourist would see carcasses of animals that possibly died from drought. Another common sight across Borno is a heap of fuel-wood dotting various highways on display for prospective buyers. This rampant felling of trees, which is helping the Sahara Desert’s march on Borno State, poses serious threat of desertification.

"Desertification is a complex phenomenon, adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of over 2 billion people living in dry lands," according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). That research body poignantly puts the menace of desert encroachment thus: "Where desertification occurs, poor people, especially those who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods are hit hardest." CGIAR could well have been referring to the Northeastern Nigerian State of Borno.

In recognition of the enormity of desertification and desert encroachment, the United Nations had declared 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. Although that year has since come and gone, desert encroachment remains with us, facilitating land degradation and consequently decreasing agricultural yield.

During a chat with Sun Travels inside his office, Alhaji Usman Mamman Durkwa, Borno State Commissioner for Environment, admitted that tree felling, which worsens the impact of erosion, is rampant in Borno State. The commissioner, who spoke with us at Borno State Secretariat complex, said those engaging in tree felling trade in firewood, which is the main fuel for cooking in most households across Borno. According to Usman, the state's authorities had devised several strategies over the years to discourage tree felling.

Alhaji Usman again: "To prevent total stripping of Borno plains by wood hunters, Borno State Government distributed 5m tree seedlings last year to inhabitants." The seedlings were planted across the state to re-vegetate the land. In northern Borno, the seedlings were mainly species of drought-resistant trees planted to combat desert encroachment, whereas seedlings for economic crops, such as mango and guava, were planted in the state's southern parts.

Usman revealed that the promising result of last year's reforestation programme encouraged his ministry to earmark 10 million seedlings for planting in 2007. The commissioner added that aside reforestation, his ministry, with support from the Nigerian media and other stakeholders, has enhanced awareness among Borno's inhabitants to the dangers of tree felling. Another medium of further propagating that awareness had been to co-opt traditional rulers, who were appealed to, to spread the message of environmental protection among their subjects. Apart from traditional rulers, Borno State is also investing in its youth to carry through its programmes on environmental sensitization and sanitation.

Nevertheless, locals are still vigorously chopping down the few trees still standing across Borno. When we put this to Usman, the commissioner used the opportunity to remind those engaged in tree felling that they stood the risk of going to jail for three months, going by a 1972 edict, which also prescribed additional penalty of N100, against anyone convicted for tree felling. However, it would seem this penalty has not proved an adequate deterrent to perpetrators of that crime. Consequently, the state government has been working towards an amendment of that decree, Usman revealed.

He, however, pointed out that since this review has to follow due process, it would take some time before coming into effect. Hear him: "You know that the review has to be carried out through the House of Assembly. So, it will take some time because of due process."
Prof Odo says much done
but more still to do
During a chat with Sun Travels in his residence, Professor Peter Odo, a specialist in Cropping Systems Technology at the University of Maiduguri (Uni-Maid), warned that Borno State still faces serious threats of desert encroachment. The don identified deforestation, which is worsened by people felling trees for firewood, among the factors contributing to this prospective hazard. Professor Odo added that over-grazing by livestock and climatic change, which is a global phenomenon, also foster the prevailing environmental threat.

He recalled that Borno State was one of the states worst hit during two droughts that ravaged northern Nigeria in 1973 and 1983, and that the state capital, Maiduguri, suffered severe flooding in 1994. Odo added that this particular northeastern state is made more vulnerable by the locals’ rate of tree felling for fuel-wood. The extent of this aspect of environmental degradation, he added, is succinctly driven home by the result of a 2002 study, which revealed that between 90 percent and 95 percent of Borno’s rural dwellers rely on fuel-wood for cooking. Furthermore, 85 per cent to 90 per cent of inhabitants of the urban areas also depend on firewood, for domestic use, according to the result of that research.

Odo, who was the founding Head of Department (HoD), Crop Production, Faculty of Agriculture, Uni-Maid, stressed that the situation of Borno is made particularly disturbing by forest depletion in seven of the nine forest reserves across the state, due to the residents’ demand for fire-wood. "That seven, out of the nine, forest reserves in this state could be encroached upon, should tell you the level of deforestation," he rued.

When asked his views on governments’ efforts at curbing desert encroachment, vis-à-vis respondents’ recall that Borno Government had in the past distributed gas cookers to inhabitants as part of efforts to discourage fuel-wood consumption; Odo, who returned to Uni-Maid in 1986, after further studies at the University of Nebraska, where he bagged a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D), said he never heard of such distribution of gas cookers at highly subsidized rate. In any case, he reasoned, the non-availability of bottled gas and inability of locals to procure that fuel means that they cannot use gas cookers. To worsen matters, a gallon of kerosene sells for N580 (roughly N120 per litre) in Maiduguri. At that rate, very few inhabitants of that city can afford to buy kerosene. The interpretation of all this, is that the majority of the inhabitants still depend on fuel-wood. This led Prof Odo to wonder, whether tree felling could now be easily curbed.

This pessimistic view is buttressed by the realization that a huge industry has evolved around the fuel-wood trade. Day and night, huge trucks and other antique vehicles over-laden with firewood could be seen travelling across Borno State. Although this sight is common in the neighbouring states of Bauchi, Gombe and Yobe, their frequency along Borno State’s roads is alarming. Aside woodcutters, a chain of haulage/transportation operators, distributors, hawkers and petty traders now make a living off forest depletion.

With regard to the state government’s reforestation efforts, Prof Odo said, while it is commendable, a lot more needs to be done to ensure success of the programme. Hear him: "The whole exercise of tree planting has been turned into some sort of jamboree with much fanfare. But the project does not stop at just planting of trees. After planting the nursery, provisions must be made to ensure that the plant survives. "In too many instances, it was discovered that the trees did not survive: Many died from lack of proper management, and browsing animals ate up some. After planting, the trees must be managed until they are sufficiently grown to stand on their own," Prof Odo advised.

Furthermore, the scholar wondered whether the most beneficial crop of trees had always been chosen for the forestation exercise. Odo named the Neem (Dogoyaro) tree, Eucalyptus, Flame of the Forest, Acacia Sahel and Acacia Senegal among the drought-resistant trees capable of thriving in Borno. Neem, he said, thrives in all the Desert Frontline States. However, he highly recommended Acacia Senegal because "it has several advantages." Acacia Senegal produces the lax called Gum Arabic, which is used in various industries including perfumery, printing, adhesives etc. Prof Odo revealed that a ton of Gum Arabic sells for over N400, 000. Such is the economic importance of this plant.

Odo has another reason for believing that Acacia Senegal should feature prominently in the tree planting exercise. "This plant," he submitted, "belongs to the Legume (same as beans) family and enriches the soil, where it grows." Given its advantages, why isn’t Acacia Senegal the predominant plant grown in Borno? Prof Odo observed that the long period of gestation, five to six years, before the tree begins to produce lax apparently discourages locals, who want return on their investment within a relatively shorter time. As a result, Odo wants governments to take up the challenge and cover the quasi-desert lands of Borno with Acacia Senegal.

More, on Borno frontier areas
Our exploration of Nigeria’s Four Corners, backbreaking as it was, proved a big relief from the nuisance called okada, in certain areas. If the regular four-wheel saloon car cannot survive the desert terrain, where does an okada come in here? To travel across the desert, a camel, ox, donkey or a horse is more valuable than your prized Lexus! In fact, the only type of automobile that is useful here is the so-called Jeep or four-wheel drive.

The bumpy ride in one of these antique Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover trucks that probably rolled off some assembly plant in the 1960s or early 1970s could pass for the classic endurance test. Here, there is no such thing as buses’ schedule. Since no one knows, when the next taxi would come along, every commuter is desperate to scramble onto any truck or camel.

Thus, the vehicle is never full. There’s no limit to the number of passengers the truck can carry. Truly, there’s no comfort in the desert. Since there is no seat outside the driver’s compartment, everyone stands squeezed among other passengers. If it’s a three-day trip, no one enjoys the luxury of a bath. Thus, you need a bottle or can of perfume (Turare) with you.

Welcome to the desert!
But there were more surprises awaiting the visitor: Would you believe that there are still parts of Nigeria, where people turn to GSM services in neighbouring countries before they can make telephone calls to friends and family at home? The alternative is to resort to using Thuraya and cough out N250 per minute for a phone call. Furthermore, there are parts of Nigeria, where the locals do not know what electricity is, let alone pipe-born water. Welcome, once again, to life at the frontier.

The size of Borno State, the largest of Nigeria’s 36 states, calls for several hours’ travel just to get to some of the border areas. We explored what it takes to get to Daba-Masara and Doro-Baga from Maiduguri, for example. Daba-Masara and Doro-Baga lie in Kukawa Local Government Area, one of Borno’s 27 LGAs. While Daba-Masara is closer to Cameroon across the lake, Doro is nearer to the fringes of Chad. In any case, both villages are around the Lake Chad Basin and are important destinations for traders shuttling between Nigeria, and Cameroon and Chad on the foreign side.

Our journey to Borno further enriched our insight into how difficult access to some Nigerian frontier posts could be, and some of the hazards faced by security operatives as well as residents of such areas. It is not only at the southwestern border town of Seme in Lagos State or at the north central frontier of Jibiya in Katsina, that smugglers and their accomplices had barred their fangs, claiming the life of some officer in the process. In late March, this year, Mr. I. A. Umaru, an Assistant Superintendent of Customs, was stabbed to death allegedly by an "okada" operator at the northeastern border post of Gamboru in Borno. The suspected assailant, who had since been transferred to Police custody, was allegedly working as a "crosser" at that border. "Crosser" is a euphemism for "border rat." In the Southwestern parts of Nigeria, such a tout is also called "ekelebe."

From Maiduguri, the journey to Daba-Masara lasted roughly four hours and cost N840, while the trip to Doro-Baga left one’s purse N1, 000 lighter. Since the expedition to Doro was a mere prelude to Fish-dam, where passengers board boats bound for jetties in Republic of Chad, we had to mount an okada to ride to that riparian area. This ride on okada across sand-soaked terrain was very unsettling. The journey lasted about 20 minutes and each second of that time apparently posed the risk of the sandy soil seizing control of the bike and tossing the rider and his passenger into the ocean of sand.

Our anxiety was made worse by the sight of telltale signs of where sand-soaked craters had overwhelmed some okada-riders, resulting in the operator and passenger(s) suffering a big fall. Talk about leaving one’s mark in the sand of time!
But this fear of falling and being bathed in sand paled into insignificance compared with the journey to Daba-Masara. Never mind that the fare and duration for moving from Maiduguri to Daba-Masara are similar to travelling from Calabar to Mfum, the Maiduguri to Daba-Masara route is by far more dangerous.

Apart from the scorching sun that accompanies the wayfarer all the way, two hours after departure from Maiduguri, the vehicle should hit Mile 90. From here, the travellers’ frills are compounded by the fact that after turning off the motorway, to the right, the rest of the drive to Daba-Masara is across uncharted desert plains. The ride does not only become bumpier as the four-wheel vehicle struggles through craters covered by fine particles of sand and mini-dunes, the sojourn is made more hazardous by gangs of armed bandits that frequently pounce on commuters across this desert land.
The opinion of countless respondents was that the invaders originate from Chad.

The belief is also popular that the armed bandits are spin-offs of militia involved in the Chadian crisis, apparently sparked by the fighting between the Sudanese Government-backed Janjaweed militia and rebels in that nation’s southwestern region of Darfur. Whatever their origin, the cross-border marauders move in large numbers, are usually heavily armed and shoot indiscriminately.

When asked about the frequency of these criminal elements’ raids, the chorus of Nigerian security personnel manning Daba-Masara was "Almost daily!" Such is the fear of these murderous gangsters that virtually all the operatives of various security agencies working at Nigerian settlements around Lake Chad avoid wearing uniforms because such persons are usually the primary targets of the invaders, who are notorious for their love of blood-letting.

Like other security agencies, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has a strong presence in Maiduguri. It is from the Borno State capital that the NCS runs its Borno/Yobe Area Command. However, that command has only 14 outposts to protect a borderline of about 1, 000 km. Curiously, this is not far for the national average, but it must be a Herculean task for the men saddled with the responsibility for the security of the Nigerian border in these mostly quasi-desert land, which can be patrolled only with special vehicles. The situation is not helped by the fact that locals and security operatives in these areas live under perpetual fear of suspected smugglers and bands of international bandits. Due to the difficult terrain, which impedes access and the unholy incursions by cross-border bandits, commercial activities have consequently dipped in these climes.

During a chat with Sun Travels in his office, inside Customs House Maiduguri, the Customs Area Controller (CAC) for Borno/Yobe Command, Alhaji Mohammed Aliyu, helped to put the nuisance value of these thieves in perspective. The CAC revealed that many traders now avoid doing business around the Lake Chad area for fear of the robbers, who often invade in very large numbers.

The lull in business activities in the affected parts has resulted in a decline in the amount of revenue that Aliyu’s command collects. Alhaji Aliyu, a Comptroller of Customs, said his command’s revenue profile would have been higher than the current annual average of N50 million without the menace of the frontier area criminals. The CAC, however, stressed that collection of revenue is not the only responsibility of the NCS. The NCS, Aliyu added, also sets great store by enforcement, curbing smuggling and enhancement of national security. The Borno/Yobe NCS chief subsequently enthused that his command was doing its best these areas. To buttress his claim, Aliyu cited 37 cases of interception in 2006 by that command.

These efforts led to the seizure of various contraband with a duty paid value (DPV) of N47m, and seven of the 10 defendants hauled in from those incidents were being prosecuted. According to the CAC, rice, textile materials, vegetable oil, cigarettes, second-hand clothing, soaps and detergents were the major items that the suspected smugglers had allegedly brought into the country.

It was after our encounter with the CAC that we set for Daba-Masara, from Baga Motor Park. That departure point stands some 15 minutes drive along Baga Road on the way out of Maiduguri City. About 30 minutes after departure from Baga Park, the tourist would reach Ambudu. Beyond Ambudu, the wayfarer is not likely to fail to notice Zundur on the way deeper into Nganzai Local Government Area.

That LGA should normally be reached within an hour after departure from Maiduguri, while the round-about at Monguno Town, seat of Monduno LGA stands 90 minutes’ drive from the Borno State capital. From Monguno Town, the traveller heading to Mile 90 would pass through Yoyo to Kekeno, which holds an attractive building identified as a Primary Health Centre. About an hour after a left turn at Monguno round-about, the tourist would find himself at Cross Kauwa and subsequently, a T-junction. A right turn at that pass leads one to Baga. Around Mile 4, Baga. Along the way, the traveller would catch glimpses of various signboards including those of the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries Technology, National Inland Waterway Authority (NIWA), among others, before getting to the local motor park. Unlike the Daba-Masara landscape, the soil of Doro is the bottom of Lake Chad brought to the surface by recession in the volume of water. Despite its recession, Lake Chad remains a gold mine for fishers and trawling outfits. Professor Odo said some 60 per cent of fish consumed in Nigeria originate from this area.

Doro is one of the major outlets, going by what we saw at the local jetty, which is suggestively called Fish-dam. Another pointer is the presence in Doro of a large emporium known as Kasuwa Kifi (Fish Market). Respondents said most of the haulage vehicles come from Lagos and Onitsha. The fishes, especially a species called Mangala, are taken to Onitsha, while the majority of the rest are ferried to markets in Lagos, we gathered.
• To be Continued





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