This sad letter is written by an American expat who taught for years in the Nigerian university system and operates a farm near Jos that supplies vegetables and flowers, especially to embassies in Abuja. Her letter underscores the ongoing and underreported tragedy in Jos, Plateau state, in central Nigeria, where government authority appears to be impotent. It illustrates the real human costs of that abstract term, "ethnic and religious conflict,” that we so frequently use. Norma’s letter was originally posted on the Niger Delta Working Group blog.
Thursday, September 8, 2011 6:43 AM
From: Norma at Zamani Farms, Jos
Since last week we have done practically no work at all at the farm due to the terrible situation in the Jos area. Last week’s orders were somewhat incomplete as we had problems assembling all items that you requested. We did not have enough onions in stock, and our onion supplier would not come out (like most people in Jos) so we didn’t have enough onions for you. On Thursday last week when we were at the farm packing up your orders, people were phoning us from Jos town (30km away) every five minutes or so, telling us that there is gunfire all over Jos and we should come back home. It was not easy to concentrate on assembling the orders under these circumstances, so I apologise for any mistakes that might have been made in the packaging.
On Friday and Saturday we could not get to the farm, as there was a lot of tension in the town, with many roads blocked and security all over. On Monday morning as I was preparing to leave for the farm, one of my workers phoned to tell me that there had been an attack in Sunday night at the residence of one of our security guards (located in a part of Kuru along the Abuja road) and that four members of his family had been killed. At the time he was phoning, they were hearing gunshots near the farm, and I shouldn’t come as all the workers were going home. Of course I told them they had better go. (In the absence of any people on the farm on Monday, birds took advantage of the situation to devour most of our sweet corn which was just ready to pick).
Meanwhile, in retaliation for the attack, the people of the area came out on Monday morning and blocked the main round-about on the Abuja-Jos road at Marraraban Jama’a. They attacked the soldiers who tried to disperse them, burned four big trucks and a car that were trying to pass into Jos, and killed any Muslim travelers they could find. Several people were killed there, and many more just escaped with their lives. The road to Jos was closed for most of the day.
In the midst of this, we have managed to put together your orders for today’s delivery and as I write, Audu is on the road to Abuja for deliveries. We hope he will arrive safely. Last week they were delayed for four hours on the Keffi-Abuja road due to checkpoints, and they didn’t managed to get into Abuja until almost 4pm, and had to rush around to make deliveries. Apologies to those who got very late orders, but it was due to circumstances far beyond our control.
The situation here has created really impossible conditions for us on the farm. Our young crops need constant attention and care. They need weeding, manuring and generally looking after. When workers can’t come to the farm, or when they say they don’t sleep at night for fear of attack, and have no peace of mind, of course they cannot concentrate on their work. Our production has suffered seriously, we are running at a loss, and feel really terrible that we are unable to provide our customers with the quantity and quality of vegetables they have come to expect from us.
Since the crisis of January 2010, our farm has been just a shadow of its former self, and I feel very sad when I think of how it used to be. For 10 years before the crisis, we managed to run a relatively successful business. We paid salaries on time, we had a group of skilled and dedicated workers who were eager to learn new things and apply them, and who worked together as a family regardless of ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. We grew a wide range of produce which we believe our customers appreciated. During the crisis, some of these workers were killed, and the rest had to leave and have not been able to come back because of the situation in the area. In the past few months, we had made plans to bring them back, but due to the new flare up of hostilities, this seems completely impossible. We had been encouraged by the recent few months of peaceful conditions and by the progress we had made in renovating the farm. We were happy to see things growing so well on the rejuvenated fields.
But now it is obvious that we have finally come to the end of the road. I will spare you the very gruesome details, but the level of barbarism which we witnessed in Jos over the past few weeks (including even cannibalism) has, I believe, so poisoned the environment here that I truly believe we will not see any normality returning to the area in my lifetime (I am now 68). I don’t feel I should spend my remaining years in a fruitless exercise. We have persevered as long as we have mainly because of the support and encouragement from our customers, who have been wonderful in all of this. But none of us have been able to lead any semblance of a normal life since January last year. People cannot visit us. All of my friends, Christian and Muslim, are afraid to come to Jos. By 6pm everyone is indoors, there are no social activities at all and people don’t go out at night. In the area where I live in Jos, which used to be a mixed area but is now almost entirely Christian, if any person obviously a Muslim comes to see me, all the neighbours come out to see the person and ask me what they are doing there. In the area of the farm, any person who associates with Muslims is considered an enemy who is part of the attacks and is under suspicion. Every time Audu and our delivery team go to the farm early in the morning to load up your orders I just hold my breath and hope that nothing will happen to them before they get onto the road to Abuja. And also hope that nothing will happen to them on the road through some of the villages of the state.
Since the crisis began there has been no statement from any government official, either at the Federal or State level, about the situation, despite daily headlines in all of the newspapers, and gruesome reports in the local and international news media. The Governor has been absent all of this time, and the highest official to make any statement has been the Commissioner for Information. The various security agencies are not on good terms with each other. No efforts are being made for any sort of peaceful settlement of the problems, and a military solution can only be very temporary. Even that has not been successful.
All of this has finally led us to take a decision to close Zamani Farms in its present location and relocate to another state. At this point, we are in the early stages of finding land in Zaria, where I lived for many years as a lecturer at the university, and where I still have many friends and colleagues. Various individuals are offering us land, and since we are looking only for about 2 hectares, this shouldn’t be a problem. Our problem now is finance. All of the resources we have are invested in the present farm site, which we have developed to an appreciable level over the years, including a lovely brick and stone house where I had intended to live which is about 80% completed, an administrative block and cold room, and many outbuildings. Our total land is over 3.5 hectares. At present, no one is buying any property in Plateau State, and we are unlikely to be able to sell the present farm in the near future. We are looking for finance for the infrastructure we will need on the farm, including a cold container, storage and packing facilities, and funds to erect some net houses. We intend to have a small farm mainly under shade netting, which should moderate the hotter climate in Zaria and make it possible for us to grow our complete range of products. It will also offer protection from insects so that we will be able to grow more products organically than we are now doing. The soil in Zaria is much richer than that of Plateau State, and will support our vegetables admirably. The main problem we will face is a sufficient water supply, and we might have to invest in boreholes.
I will not burden you with details now, but we are busy making our plans. Ideally we would like to be able to begin operations in Zaria by early next year, but this depends on how fast we are able to implement our plans. I am appealing to any of our customers who work for any development agencies or governments who are in a position to help fund such a venture to please consider us if at all possible. We have investigated bank financing, but there are many problems with this, as most banks here don’t really appreciate the problems of investment in agriculture. If you are in a position to help us we would very much like to hear from you.
Meanwhile, of course we will not abandon our customers. We will continue working at our present site until we are able to start farming in Zaria and we will do our best to continue to provide you with the best vegetables that we can. But we know we can do better in terms of quality and quantity if we are able to concentrate on the farm without all of the distractions and stress of the Jos environment.
We had intended to go to Mubi next week to finish our landscaping project there, but due to the insecurity in Jos we feel it is not possible to leave at the moment. So we are delivering (hopefully) next week on Thursday 15th. Please place your orders in time so that we can organize things carefully. We will probably go to Mubi the following week, and are not planning to have any delivery on the 22nd, but this depends on whether there is some relative calm here in Jos.
I will not give you a crop report this week, since there is not much new from next week. Please consult the attached order form for details of all items available. We still have nice things for you, but not as much as we would like.
By the way, we have beautiful baby new potatoes (small in size and delicious). If you need them, please specify. Otherwise we will send you the regular or big size ones.
Thank you so much for all the concern you have expressed for all of us here in Jos. As I noted, this is what has been keeping us going on the farm up to this point, but it is clearly time for a change. We honestly think that this will being our customers a vastly improved choice of vegetables, and better quality as well, in addition to causing our staff a lot less stress and anxiety.
I will write again next week. If you have any suggestions for us, please do let us know.