Dr. Abba Gambo is a senior lecturer at the department of crop production, University of Maiduguri, a member of the Vision 20 2020 committe and has done extensive research on the Lake Chad region. In this interview with SHUAIB SHUAIB, he says unless the government urgently provides humanitarian assistance to the 600,000 refugees who fled Darfur in Sudan and are now camped in Chad, and with aid from Libya’s Muamar Gadhafi drying up, most of the refugees could start crossing the Chadian border to Nigeria for food and shelter which, he says, will be catastrophic.
The crisis in Darfur has lingered on for a while and most Nigerians appear to be unaware of it. What exactly is the Darfur crisis all about?
Darfur is in Western Sudan and has a land mass of 510888 km2 and shares a land boundary with Chad, the Central African Republic and Libya. The Darfur crisis started because of tribal wars between two major tribes in the region, the Zaghawa and the Massalit. The crisis reached a crescendo to the extent that more than 600,000 people were displaced, several villages and about 400,000 homelands were destroyed. T
hen, then it moved to other countries because Sudan shares a border with Chad, Libya, the people now had to move into different territories. That is why the Darfur crisis is kind of humanitarian crisis.
Why do you think it affects Nigeria since it is faraway?
As we are talking, several of the refugees are camped in Chad. We share a border with Chad and if that country cannot, for any reason, contain the refugees, it means Nigeria will have to accept a huge number of the refugees. As we are talking, most of the refugees are in the eastern part of Chad and if all the assistance that is required is not taken to them, there is every likelihood that they will continue to move down and the next point of call will definitely be Nigeria.
So, Nigeria has to be proactive and take some very strigent majors. As the situation is right now, by the time you bring in another set of 300, 000 or 400,000 people as refugees into the country, it is going to be catostrophic.
We are talking about more than half a million people, human beings, being forced to move about like cattle. What are the socio-economic and cultural implications of all this?
The most important thing that one must observe in the whole crisis is that most of the people in the Darfur region are Muslims. The family household unit in Islam is highly respected.
You will find a situation that the mother, father and children are living under the same roof and in most cases, the man may have one, two or three wives. Under such scenario, you have a whole family living in very good humanitarian conditions. And all of a sudden, the family unit is broken. You would not know where the father is, neither would you know where the children are. In most cases, the father would be dead and the mother would have to fend for a number of children.
People who were living in their own homes, under their own roofs are now forced out, under the open sky, and maybe you will now have a total of six, ten or maybe twenty families, living together under a very small unit. The socio-cultural implication is that the family fabric that holds the society together is broken. Some will turn into criminals, some will be prostitutes and whereever you find refugees, automatically the crime rate will increase.
It is a kind of battle for survival. Because the human instinct for survival is there, you must do whatever is in your capacity to make sure that you survive and in most cases, you have to carry guns, you shoot to kill so that you can get money to eat, you engage in prostitution so that you can get money to eat and feed the younger ones. These are all the socio-cultural implications. The main family fabric is completely derided.
These are direct impacts of what is happening in Darfur, what would you say the casualty figures are for a crisis that seems to have spread to neighbouring countries and is threatening to spill over into more?
Nigeria has suffered a lot. There is the peace keeping unit of the African Union in the region. Nigeria contributed a lot and unfortunately, the same Darfur people killed 27 Nigerian soldiers at a go. It is very sad. People who were not of the Darfur origin, left their country to go and make sure that there is peace in someone else’s land, and all of a sudden, they were killed.
It is a very sad thing. But then, as we are talking, Nigeria is still there and the second largest population of police force in Darfur comes from Nigeria. So, Nigeria is a very high partner in the Darfur crisis. Do not forget that Nigeria is always playing this brotherly role. Whereever there are crises within the sub-region and in all parts of African, you find that Nigeria always participates fully and that is why Nigeria is kind of a big brother to all the other nations.
There are big organisations out there that can actually help like the United Nations, even bigger countries like the United States, why is support needed and what can Nigeria really give?
The crises in the whole world are not just localised, the flood in the Philippines has displaced 20 million people. The crisis in Somalia has made more than 10 million people hungry and malnurished. In Ethiopia, there are some crises. Recently, in Ivory Coast, there was crisis. So, Nigeria just has to play a proactive role. Like what they say, if your neighbor’s house is on fire, then definitely you have to be proactive to make sure your own house is protected.
The implications of all this is that if Nigeria does not give all the assistance, if peace did not come to that place, and if the refugees did not get settled easily, Nigeria is going to take the brunt of the whole issues. Already, we have our internal security challenges. So, by the time you bring in some external security challenges, it is going to be disastrous for the nation.
These people are now living in refugee camps in Chad, Libya and some are still in Sudan. Does it make sense to go around digging bore holes and providing educational infrastructure for people living in refugee camps?
Gadhafi of Libya did a lot. In most of the refugee camps, Gadhafi spent huge amounts of money. All the sponsors, the total sponsors of aid to the refugees, more than 80 per cent was coming from Gadhafi and Libya. Now Libya itself is in crisis. So, 80 per cent of the support we are talking about is virtually gone. That is why support is needed and it has to come very fast. Most of them are in Eastern Chad and by the time you do not take care of them, within a week or two or three, they will begin to move downwards. The first point of call is going to be Nigeria.
There are mostly women and children in these refugee camps and the infant mortality rate is reported to be very high. Should saving the lives of these infants be a priority?
Most of them are in what we call the vulnerable group, women and children. All the men who should be the fathers and the guardians have all been killed in battle. So, you now have and huge population of women a children. The mortality rate is very high. Outbreak of diseases like cholera is also very common and even some skin diseases because you have so many people living within a small space. At the same time, there is great competition for resources; competition for food, competition for medicine, competition for water and competition for even space. So, that makes the situation extremely critical. That is why the death rate, even in the refugee camp is high.
You talked about crime too. Do you think it will be of any help if vocational skills were taught to these people? Will it help to reduce the crime rate?
Yes, I think that is exactly what this organisation is talking about, the Worldwide Association for Relief of Darfur Children. They want a situation whereby they will go into the refugee camps, build schools for the children, get some good medical care for the children, train them and then there has to be some kind of guidance and counselling because all that they know is war, guns and bombs. Some of the children must have seen their father killed. There is plenty of work to be done.
You have to reorient the mindset of the people from a violent-oriented mindset to a peaceful and a sustainable oriented, mindset. You have to get schools for them and make sure they have food, water and of course, build clinics for them.
You cannot allow 600,000 people to conitnue living in refugee camps. There are about 12 camps spread all over Chad, some in Kenya, some in Libya. Those in Libya are already under threat because Libya is itself is under a serious security threat. You have them scattered all over and if we do not move in very quickly, to salvage the situation, it will be a big disaster that will affect the whole sub-region.
Are the governments of Nigeria, Chad and maybe Sudan not already talking about these things?
They are talking. Another thing about Nigeria is that it is a big brother and an excllent neighbour. Just recently, there was a crisis in Chad, the Nigerian government through the minister of agriculture, Bukar Tijjani, donated several tonnes of grains to Chad and the same minister was also in Niger Republic to donate several tonnes of grains to people. Nigerian government with the other stakeholders have been talking. But like I told you, there are localized problems. Are they going to talk about the Libyan crisis first or the Somali issue, or even the Ethiopian crisis?
Then there is Darfur issue. I believe that is why WWARDC was formed. While the governments are working at the highest level of diplomacy, we all at the end can also come out. The asistance people are looking for are simple things. If you have some worn out shoes, give it out. If you have some worn out shirts, bring it. There is nothing these people do not need.
So, if you have children whose clothes are worn out and you want to throw them out, just package them and give it to those in need. People out there need them. You will find in the refugee camps, one person wearing the same set of clothes for one month. There is a particular baby with one set of clothes for one month. Whatever anybody brings out. There is going to be of great assistance. Everything cannot be left to the government, that is why there are NGOs here and there. People are ready to help. Nigerians are their brothers keepers but they have to be aware of what is happening.
Nigeria has its own challenges; infrastructure is over stretched. Would you say that the country can afford to feed other people when there are questions whether Nigeria can feed itself?
It is a kind of opportunity cost. It is either you help them solve their problems so that you live in peace, or you decide not to help so that they carry their problems and add to yours. Like you said, Nigeria is over stretched. Look at Abuja, it was planned for 500,000 to one million people. What is the population of Abuja now, the same thing with Maiduguri, Bauchi and others, there are security challenges.
By the time these people come into Nigeria, their first point of call is going to Borno State because they share a border. Then before you know it, they begin to move towards Yobe, Bauchi and before you know it, it will be the Jos, Abuja axis. All these places that I mentioned have their own security challenges; Bauchi, Jos and Maiduguri. It is better that we are proactive to make sure that we solve their problems before they come and add their problems to our own existing problems.
In certain parts of Nigeria, particularly the northern part, how big a threat is desert encroachment to Nigeria’s food security?
you go to the desert prone states, we used to call them desert prone states, but now the desert has already taken over. The northern parts of Borno, Yobe, Sokoto, Jigawa. Kebbi, Katsina and Zamfara, all the trees are gone and the farmlands have been lost. The people have migrated. That is why on the streets of Abuja, you see many people who are nail cutters, shoe shiners, you go to Port Harcourt and you will see a lot of them as security guards in people’s homes. All these are people from the north and their only means of livelihood was agriculture and now that the agricultural land is lost, they have nothing to do and they have to keep moving. This also has some serious challenges. First, the total number of people who should be on the farms is greatly reduced.
That means, the total amount of food received at the end of the harvest is reduced. Secondly, the land that should be put under the real agricultural productivity is also reduced because the desert has taken over. That means also that the yield at the end of the day is reduced. Nigeria must, as a matter of urgency tackle her desertification problem quickly if we really want to attain the Millennium Development Goals and the food security goals by 2015.
Speaking of the MDGs, in these parts of the country that you have mentioned, there is competition between people and cattle for drinking water. How intense is this?
It is intense. That is why we always here of the nomads/pastoralists, farmers clash most of the time. The truth of the matter is that desertification is a big cause of what is happening. The cattle should be based in one place, once they have the pasture, they have the water. But now, the desert has taken over. There is no grass, there is no water. The water table has gone deep down because of desertification.
So, they have to keep moving. The more they move, the more they encroach on farmland. That is why we always have these crises. The government should make grazing reserves, make sure that the grasses are there, make sure there are watering points for the animals, and most if thses crises will go by themselves.
There is also the issue of floods all over the country and the government is always unprepared, what can really be done to prepare for flood and safeguard farmlands?
Honestly, this year, there are some governmental agencies that have done excellently well. First is the Nigerian Metrological Agency, they were able to bring out the warnings. The warnings were so strong in some places, they even mentioned towns. They mentioned 12 states, in some states, they even mentioned towns. They moment the warnings were given, I will give you a case study of Borno State.
The warned of floods and said it was going to be within the Maiduguri area. What the governor immediately did was to gather the stakeholders. All the water channels, when you block them, you give way to floods. It is one of the major causes of flood. If you are not building on the channels of water, it means the water can flow and there will not flood. Borno State was very proactive, they were able to break all the canals, they expanded the tributaries where the water was passing through and all the houses that were built on water ways were demolished.
That is the best way to control it. There is another very important thing in agricultural, we call it the buffer stock. When there is a flood, it is going to affect the farmers, their crops, their families, their cattle and so on. So the government will have to buy food items and store. When the rainy day comes, you bring them out and sell to the farmers at a subsidised rate. That is another way of mitigating the affect of floods. And of course, the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency, they have come up with some excellent statistics and they are very proactive as well.
Flood was expected in 12 states, look at what happened in Ibadan and the Sokoto flood of 2009. The various state governments, I am aware, are doing every thing within their powers to make sure that the effects of floods are highly mitigated.
In Nigeria, there is a poor culture of research and the funding for research is also not available. How can this culture be changed and ensure food security?
Research should be a continuous exercise. That is why they say you search, and you research and continue searching. For more of the crop varieties we have in the country, we are using the same varieties we have been using for the last 50 years. There are no issues of new hybrids, exotic varieties and other things are not very common in Nigeria. This is because, there is a clear negligence of research.
Under normal circumstances, if you are living in Northern Borno for instance, the rainfall regime is very low, maybe three months per annum. The scientists there should research into ways of getting crops that can actually grow and produce within the stipulated time. By the time you come down to the Niger, Lokoja level, you know you have six months of rainfall, you make sure crops ideal for the area.
Then of course, locust and grasshoppers come. We can research and develop crops that are resistant to these kinds of pests and diseases. It is possible. Other countries have done. But research is very expensive and without money, it is not going to be possible. For us to make sure that we gain our Millennium Development Goals and of course, the food security issue, research must be given a very serious attention.
There has to be adequate funding for the research institutes, good man power training, and external collaboration with other research institutes outside the country. That will give knowledge of the best research practices in the world. By the time you expose our researchers to best practices outside, it will make them come back and perform research like it is done in other countries.
Other than the government as a source of funding, how do you think the private sector can be brought in as a source of research in the agricultural sector?
In most other countries, private sectors are directly involved in research. If you are, for instance, producing fruit juice and let us say you use oranges to produce your juice, that particular industry will always give money to scientists to make sure they research for oranges with more moisture content, oranges with more sugar, oranges that can easily be peeled, those that have less seeds and so on.
In Nigeria, it is the reverse. In most developed countries, you find that not only corperate organizations, even individuals give money, please research into that, research into this. And for corperate organization, in fact it is a kind of corperate responsiblity for every organisation to make sure that you at least sponsor a particular research. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case.
There has to be strong awareness that unless and until we reserach into new varieties of crop, better yielding, early maturing, pest and disease resistant, highly nutritious crops, the industry will remain stagnant. Apart from government, the private sector must come in.