More Voices: Listening to the Fishermen of North East Nigeria

Rural Colombia is far from the only context with a “Void” of engagement and understanding. Another contested area of note is the North East region of Nigeria, where complex issues are often simplified to fit outside narratives. For instance, conventional development wisdom holds that Lake Chad is drying up, displacing fishermen — and catalyzing the Boko Haram insurgency since 2009. Such a generalized explanation to ongoing violence is supported by countless development stakeholders endorsing a $50 billion scheme to pump water from the Congo River Basin to refill Lake Chad. More water for fishermen, and less frustration driving conflict.

One problem with this lauded plan, however, is that few bothered to check with the displaced fishermen who, when queried, have little concern with either the water levels of Lake Chad, as well as their supposed inability to find fish there.

Fishermen processing their catch just south of Lake Chad in Baga, Borno, Nigeria.

In speaking with several dozen Nigerian fishermen from varying generations raised and living in Baga along the shores of Lake Chad many claimed that they had “heard these stories” about the lake receding, but none could recognize it within their own experiences.  At worst several spoke about Lake Chad receding 18 to 20 years ago — potentially the drought of 1984-6 — but all consistently said the water had robustly returned to a routine cycle of varying no more than a meter or two along with seasonal rains.  “Twenty years ago it cost 400N for the three hour drive to the water [from Doro Baga], but now that area is swamped with water,” noted a veteran fisherman. “Once it starts raining then the water really comes… So much water now you need to sandbag Doro Baga,” he continued. “More water, more water, more water.”  This too was echoed by farmers and traditional leaders in Baga who looked bemused when asked about the disappearance of water from Lake Chad.  “We keep hearing stories about the water drying up, but the water is here now,” shared a Baga farmer.  “Twenty years ago the water dried up but it came back.”  “Once the rains come you can step in a boat and sail for three days” before hitting land, argued another.   Such views were echoed by a local Balama elder, arguing “Water keeps going up and up.  It was dry 20 years ago, [but not anymore].  Water is not a concern.”  To reinforce this feedback, a casual review of area wells at the height of the dry season in northern Nigeria highlighted that the water table was at most six meters below even the highest urban points. 

Talking with farmers along the shores of Lake Chad.

This is not to say, however, that all is well with the fishermen of Baga.  The ongoing conflict has led to many dramatic shifts in both their livelihoods and security. 

The first issue of note is the conflict itself, which has led to the deaths of over 3,000 locals (3% of the Local Government Area (LGA), and the displacement of between 10-50,000 people (9-45% of the total population of the LGA) from Kukawa LGA alone.[1]  Such losses were highlighted by an April 2013 attack by Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) when 200 civilians were killed in Baga town, a November 2014 attack on rural fishermen by AOGs when 43 people were killed, and a January 2015 attack by AOGs when 2,000 people died in Baga and its surrounding settlements.

Yet in convening diverse focus group discussions from residents of Kukawa LGA in early 2018, the conflict was far from the main concern residents shared.[2]  Of all of the challenges discussed, the conflict was only mentioned in 12% of the complaints – largely uniform across boys and girls, men and women, host communities and IDPs.  Instead 45% of the concerns focused on the disappearance of economic opportunities and the relevant restrictions in movement, which were driving a further 16% of the comments lamenting food insecurity.  In no measurable significance was the lack of water nor an absence of fish mentioned within any of the six general focus groups bordering Lake Chad.  This too was consistent when interviewing adult males – those most likely to be fishermen – who similarly voiced concerns about the dangers of the conflict 7% of the time, while lamenting the limitations on movement and livelihoods 41% of the time.  When queried why there was such overwhelming concern about the restrictions on livelihoods as opposed to the conflict or climate change, the chairman of a local union clarified “Whatever upends your livelihood creates uncertainty for your future.”

Exploring this overwhelmingly vocalized threat further, it quickly became apparent that both Baga town and Doro Baga – and its residents’ livelihoods – have been decimated over recent years not because of a drying Lake Chad and the conflict it fuels, but instead because of the conflict encroaching from the south and the destabilizing opportunity it created for outside actors to disrupt the fish industry.

Fish being dried in Baga prior to shipment throughout Nigeria.

Consider prior to the conflict, up through 2012, 60 commercial trucks loaded with smoked fish departed Baga weekly.  At 9500N per small crate, with 2500 small crates per truck, this works out to selling approximately $9 million in fish (wholesale) each week.[3]  This means that the 10,000+ fishermen of Baga not only drove a $475 million industry, but reinforced a community identity built around “It is us that feed the nation.”[4]  Yet because of the ongoing conflict, this half billion dollar industry was by 2018 reduced to shipping at most eight trucks a month, contracting the fishing industry in Baga to $98,000 per week, or just over $5 million annually.[5]

It would be easy to dismiss this ongoing loss as yet another casualty of the conflict, or once again a generalizable consequence of climate changes.  Yet in speaking with the fishermen and other local stakeholders it is conventional corruption that appears to be the bigger concern.  Consider how before the crisis, a 2012 shipping fee of 3.7% (between 300-400N – $1.92-$2.56) was applied to each (smaller) carton to transfer it from Baga to the rest of the Nigerian market, a system that apparently left no lingering local concerns.  Yet now a new policy has been in place post-crisis whereby a 11.4% (2,000N – $5.60) charge is levied on each larger carton, in combination with a severe restriction on the number of trucks allowed to carry smoked fish from Baga.  The official reason behind the latter restricts on movements is because AOGs are 1) concealing weapons with fish shipments, as well as 2) AOGs selling fish to finance purchasing weapons – a claim that has led to the obtaining of shipping permits and the transfer of fish to be quite heavy handed.  “Trade activities are now monopolized by the soldiers. Wherever you see cartons of fish that number up to 10, it belongs to the soldiers,” noted the fisherman.  “Whenever they see a civilian with two cartons of fish they will start interrogating him. He will be lucky to escape from them,” added another. “The common man has no commercial activities to partake in now that the soldiers have taken over.”  When inquiring further about this with fishermen and their trade groups, a consistent opinion was that such reasons were invented to cover ulterior motives.  “When people tell you they want to secure you, be careful as it means you’re not actually safer – you soon won’t have any food.”  As many locals in Baga pointed out, the lack of fish reaching markets had little evident connection to security – or climate change – and instead was rooted in the intentional disruption of traditional fishing practice by opportunistic actors within the security services. 

Dried fish in Baga waiting for permission to be shipped.

Such narrow agendas are best highlighted by the increasingly expensive “shipping fees,” which even at the most modest trucking schedules, nonetheless generates $45,000 per month and $538,000 annually. When inquiring where such funds go beyond the base truck fee, the Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Fishermen and Seafood Dealers argued that such revenue goes to fund those marginalized by the handicapped fishing industry. However, a local boat builder challenged this justification, clarifying “There is nothing like that.”  A fish trader in Baga further added “It’s a lie.  They only share the money amongst themselves.”  When following up for clarification with the Nigerian Union of Fishermen and Seafood Dealers an Auditor confessed “It is obviously the invention of some powerful people to embezzle money.  There aren’t even any accounts, or records, or ledgers to keep account of the funds.”  When union members were asked to clarify that the Nigerian Union of Fishermen and Seafood Dealers had no accounting system to record where such fees go, they merely started laughing at the absurdity of it all.  When further queried about the frustration of losing control of a $475 industry, local leaders pointed out that they went to court to remove the obviously corrupt leader, yet the complaint was swept aside and he started a new association to administer the tariff scheme, the Lake Chad Basic Fisheries Association of Nigeria, which no local fishermen are familiar with nor have membership rights within. When queried about further recourses to save their livelihoods, a local union leader clarified the pointlessness of resisting the change. “These people have the power to write you up [as an AOG member] and that’s the end of the story.  That’s why people are standing down for now,” before adding “They will definitely not let go easily.”

At the end of such discussions on the challenges facing fishermen and their colleagues in Baga, the conversation would routinely circle back to the larger proposal to spend $50b on pumping water to refill a parched Lake Chad.  Some raised questions about the future of those living on low lying islands, as well as those farming in the flood plains – as with more water “fishing would be the only option.”  Mostly, however, many simply said they’re “happy with the water” status quo.  Their union leader contemplated that perhaps “it could be a worthwhile investment – provided the corruption doesn’t eat it up.”  For the fishermen of Baga, it is such concerns that are the real threat.

[1] VTS 2017 lists the sdjusted population at 110,854. IOM estimate IDPs originating from Kukawa at 10-50,000.  CFR 2011-7 tracked deaths in Kukawa at 3,098.

[2] Six FGDs and supporting KIIS were organized January 28-31, 2018, which were further supported by FGDs and KIIs on May 9, 2018. 

[3] Dec 31, 2012 exchange rate $1 = 156N.

[4] Male FGD Adamti (Fish Stakeholders) P9. P3.

[5] Carrying 1,000 of the now larger crates at 17,500N. May 10, 2018 exchange rate $1 = 356N.