Conflict, Environmental Degradation, and Food Security in Northeast Nigeria

Political and ecological instabilities in the country’s Borno and Yobe states present integrated, existential challenges for millions of Nigerian farmers, fishers, and pastoralists. These threats are not new. Their cumulative cost in economic terms alone is staggering. Stabilizing and rebuilding livelihoods in the region must be a central focus for public and private sector actors.

Q1: How is the drying of the Lake Chad Basin exacerbating food insecurity and livelihood vulnerabilities in northeast Nigeria?

A1: More than 30 million people across Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria live in the Lake Chad Basin. Over the past six decades, overgrazing, erosive agricultural practices, the increased use of water resources, desertification, and decreasing rainfall amounts have all helped cause the lake itself to shrink by some 90 percent. (Climate change is an unlikely contributor, in this case.) Because the basis of almost all household livelihoods in the region is a blend of agriculture, livestock, and fisheries, the toll of the lake’s shrinking—paired with the protracted conflict arising from the Boko Haram insurgency—on food security has been profound. The most recent analysis from the Famine Early Warning System Network indicates that, across the part of the Basin encompassing northeast Nigeria, acute food insecurity is at either a “Crisis” or—worse—an “Emergency” stage. (If conditions deteriorate further, there is only one phase that is worse still: “Famine.”)

This is nothing new for the country’s northeast. In 2017, hunger gave rise to the so-called “Four Famines” across parts of South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. Then, as now, conflict in Borno and Yobe states exacerbated vulnerabilities stemming from underlying environmental degradation in the Lake Chad Basin, leaving millions acutely food insecure.

Q2: How is Boko Haram constraining rural economic activity in northeast Nigeria?

A2: In at least three ways.

First, the Boko Haram insurgency has contributed to a precipitous decline in agricultural production, as smallholder farmers have experienced the destruction of productive assets, lost access to farm inputs, and even faced displacement. A report by the CSIS Global Food Security Program notes, between 2010 and 2015, the production of sorghum, rice, and millet in Borno State declined by 82 percent, 67 percent, and 55 percent, respectively. An assessment conducted by the government of Nigeria in 2014-2015 concluded the total losses in the country’s agricultural sector due to conflict amounted to $3.7 billion, with the majority (64 percent) having occurred in Borno state.

Second, with respect to general economic activity, attacks by the terrorist group have been shown to be strongly correlated with declines in “normal” market operations in northeast Nigeria. Attack frequency is even more strongly correlated with market activity. “Importantly,” notes the Oregon State University geographer Jamon Van Den Hoek, “the vast majority of markets that have seen a decline in activities were not directly attacked but may have been affected due to an implicit or perceived threat of violence.”

Third, Boko Haram’s sustained attacks on roads and bridges, electrical lines, and other forms of infrastructure have contributed to an overall loss of $9 billion in northeast Nigeria, according to the United Nations.

Q3: Given the constraints, what opportunities exist for the private and public sectors right now to strengthen food security and agricultural livelihoods in northeast Nigeria?

A3: Recent research by Julie Howard and Emmy Simmons of the CSIS Global Food Security Program identified several key opportunities for northeast Nigeria’s private and public sectors related to food security, selections of which are below. (View the full report here and the adjoining policy brief here.)

  • Improve public sector leadership and effectiveness by providing tools to strengthen policies and planning, implement public works programs, and increase transparency and communication. Specific opportunities for the public sector include prioritizing investment needs; coordinating investments among multilateral institutions, foreign country donors, and foundations; rebuilding infrastructure; and facilitating access to land for displaced farmers.

  • Expand private sector engagement in agriculture in the northeast by reducing the risks of investment. Specific opportunities for the private sector include defraying the costs of enhanced security; accelerating private sector investment in quality seed and other agricultural inputs; providing credit guarantees for agri-food investors; and enabling start-up businesses.

Christian Man was a research fellow in the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.

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