Straddling a caravan route to the Sahara, the city of Sokoto has since ancient times been a major trading hub in Nigeria’s extreme northwest savannah.
But a surge in attacks and mass school kidnappings by criminal gangs, known locally as bandits, has dealt the region a terrible blow, making farming and trading impossible for many.
Seeking to stop the violence, authorities in the northwest including in Sokoto state have imposed restrictions on travel and commerce that residents say are adding to the economic hardship.
Earlier this month, 13 districts across the state were put under a lockdown that included a ban on the transport of cattle and firewood, a suspension of some animal markets and caps on fuel sales.
Phone lines were also shut down in those areas last week, further complicating commerce.
The Ramin Kura Market in the district of Sokoto North, on the outskirts of the city, is normally crammed with vendors selling oranges, lemons, sugar cane, bananas, pineapples, coconuts, sweet potatoes, onions and yams.
Now the supply of fruit and vegetables has dwindled and prices have gone up.
“Two weeks ago, it was 700 naira ($1.7) for 10 sticks, but now it’s 1,000,” said Ibrahim Abubakar Sahabi, inspecting a bundle of sugar cane stalks taller than a man.
“It could go up to 1,500 or even 2,000 if this continues.”
– Starving bandits –
“People cannot farm because of the insecurity so we have less,” said Sahabi, a spokesman for the market’s fruit sellers’ association representing 600 workers.
In normal times, lorries head to Ghana, Cameroon and Niger, but just last week, Sahabi said, “a truck with food heading to Niger was stopped by the military and asked to return.”
Sokoto’s security commissioner Garba Moyi told AFP that access to food was being restricted in parts of the state.
“It’s just to make sure the bandits are starved,” the retired colonel said.
He said civilians were allowed to purchase only enough food for their families.
“Nobody is completely, totally, without food,” Moyi said.
But “if you buy 10 bags of rice, where are you going, where are you taking it? It’s questionable, it means you are supplying the bandits.”
Many people are also feeling the pinch from restrictions on fuel sales — with some stations closed and others banned from selling more than 5,000 naira worth of fuel per person.
“We used to make 1 million (naira, or about $2,500), sometimes 2 million per week,” said Musa Abdullahi, 45, assistant manager at Umaratu Nigeria Limited, a petrol station in Sokoto North.
But because villagers no longer come into town, Abdullahi said they now make about 500,000 naira per week.
At the popular Kara market in the Kwanni area of Sokoto, a cattle trader said they had only half the number of cows they had before.
“We are really suffering,” said Bashir Abakar Marina, 45.
– Military operations –
“We normally send (cows) to Lagos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, but now we just sell here,” Marina said.
Prices have gone up, he added, from 120,000 (naira) to about 160,000 for a small cow.
Even charcoal, which many people use for cooking, has become more difficult to find.
On Mai Tuta road, hawker Imanu Jegawa, 20, sat idle on a pile of 15-kilo (33-pound) sacks.
“Charcoal is scarce… it was 1,500 (naira) for a bag before, now it’s 3,000 (naira),” Jegawa said.
Before they could get supplies from the “bush”, he said, but not anymore. “It really affects us.”
While the government has said the measures were temporary, Moyi insisted they were essential.
“Anywhere there is no supply of food, fuel, communications, movement, then they (the bandits) will be forced to surrender”.
“There are so many (bandits) camps in Sokoto… 40 to 50,” he added. And with ongoing military operations in neighbouring Zamfara state, he fears that more gunmen will flee to the state.
“It’s happening already. Sokoto now has become a safe haven for them.”
Local media reported that Moyi’s house in Isa district was burnt down last week by residents who were angry at worsening insecurity in the area.
Restrictions on movement and trade have also been imposed across Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna states — an area larger than Portugal.
In Zamfara, phone lines have been shut down for over three weeks.
Abdullahi from the petrol station is anxious, as the government has not said when it will lift the lockdown and when activities can resume.
“I have 16 children and six staff to pay,” he said. “We need assistance.”
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