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Kwara: Inside Nigeria’s forgotten border communities

There is a special tree in Tembonu. The village is part of Okuta district in Baruten local government of Kwara state, and sits smack on the border with Benin republic. Network connectivity is very poor in the area and the locals have to climb the small tree whenever they wish to phone Nigeria, making use of a SIM card obtained from Benin republic. On a good day they stand in front of the tree, and make a call. A small bench has been placed at the base of the tree, for those who may wish to sit while using their phones.

The special tree at Tembonu, which villagers climb when they wish to phone Nigeria. On the right: A young man makes a call by the tree

On other days they must climb the tree if the connection is poor. When they reach the right height and there is a signal, then they can make a call and get the latest news from friends and associates alike.  Tembonu is one of Nigeria’s neglected border communities. The villagers mention that as soon as a Beninois Telecoms company moved a telecoms mast closer to the border with Nigeria, then it became easy to call Nigeria. This is everyday life at the very edge of Nigeria, where there is just one bank serving the agrarian population of the huge local government which spans 9,749 km2. One source puts the population of the local government at 500,000 persons. 

Widespread logging

Trucks such convey wood out of the hinterland. seriously depleting the forest cover

Something else is happening to trees in Baruten: widespread logging is taking place. Trees are being felled and conveyed out by old sturdy lorries. There is a vibrant wood economy in the local government which will have implications for man in the near future. With an inadequate electricity supply and with the cost of gas quite high, the people must turn to the trees as a source of energy. 

Almost every house in Baruten has a place where wood is stocked, and the wood gathered is used for cooking and other domestic needs. Wood is also used by the locals to build bridges across flooded rivers during the rainy season or ahead of the rainy season. Deep in the hinterland and other parts of the local government, one comes across entire fields devoid of trees. The vital role provided by trees in the ecosystem is slowly weakened and compromised.

‘Men and women climb’

Idris Sina says his village lacks so many amenities

Idris Sina, the Village Head of Tembonu comments on the special tree “When you get to the front of the tree, if you discover that there is no service you have to climb. Both men and women climb the tree. If you want to call Nigeria, you have to buy a Benin SIM card.” Climbing the tree or looking for a spot with a signal, is now as regular as breathing in this agrarian community. 

Sina opens up on other challenges facing his people “We don’t have pipe borne water and we don’t have a hospital. There are no roads and there is no electricity supply.” Later we are taken to the well from where the locals fetch brown water, which they drink without purifying. 

Hassanat Mohammed, a house wife with five children, whom we meet at the well, says that she has been drinking the water all her life. She was born in Tembonu. The water has a light brown colour. Recent statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicate that two billion people on the globe lack access to safe drinking water. The same report states that 1.4 million people, many of them children, die from preventable cases linked to unsafe water.

Dr. Umaru Sariki, Emir of Yashikira

Harsh conditions

Dr. Umaru Sariki, the Emir of Yashikira, who had some of his early education in Benin republic, sheds light on the quality of life in his district “The people of Yashikira are a neglected population of Kwara state, due to the distance to the state capital and the harsh conditions of the road. Any official visitor arrives here late at night, and hurries back the next morning. We have never had electricity from the national grid in the emirate, where the headquarters of the local government is located.”

Wooden bridges

There are many wooden bridges across the local govt, a great help in the area when the rains intensify, and feeder roads are flooded

Yakiburaru village is ten kilometres from Ilesa Baruba. Feeder roads lead to the community, and we make a quiet evening trip on a motorcycle taxi. We pass many Baruba villages and cross dried rivers which will be filled with water once the rainy season intensifies, making life difficult for the locals. At some of the rivers the locals have built small wooden or concrete bridges to assist with crossings. Throughout the local government and even at remote border crossings, these wooden bridges can be found. There is no primary school in the village and children have to trek ten kilometres to Ilesa every day, come rain or sunshine.

‘We just drink’

Children of Yakiburaru village trek 10kms every day to go to school at Ilesa

A member of the community says “Every morning all the children trek to Ilesa to go to school. It is a journey of more than ten kilometers.” The community has neither primary nor secondary schools. It lacks pipe borne water, just like Tembonu. 

According to Hauwa Adamu, farmer and house wife “We don’t treat the well water. We just drink. This is the only type of water we have here. There is no community in this area which has pipe borne water. When we get to the well sometimes, we have to wait for up to two hours for water to rise from the ground.”

A young girl is deep within the shallow well fetching water. Very soon she raises a small bucket to those waiting above her. Children play a vital role in these neglected communities. The people here have to be patient for a government which they hardly see, and for water which issues slowly from the ground. In Yakiburaru the children have returned from school, having made the 10 kilometre trek, and they gather in a corner peeling the yam crop. This is a community from where farmers recently migrated to Benin republic, a fall out of Naira scarcity which saw many of them unable to feed.

Children have to go down into shallow wells to draw water

‘The waters rise’

In Gobo village Gwanara district, some 53 kilometers away, we are at a bridge outside the community. It is large and quite imposing. We descend into the river bed and walk around a bit, looking up at the bridge which is just as imposing when viewed from beneath. Our guide says that during the rainy season the waters rise and completely cover the bridge which is several meters high, completely cutting off Gobo, an agrarian community, from Kwara state. The bridge lies at a point on the road to Shaki. This is a short cut to neighbouring Oyo state. 

Ahmed Idris, Village Head of Gobo

Ahmed Idris, a retired soldier, is the village head of Gobo. According to him “The bridge was constructed in 1971 and was built by the community, and it opened up the entire area when it was constructed. In those days people coming from Shaki used to go to Ilesa and then travelled up to Gwanara. That was a roundabout route.” 

Bad roads

Idris speaks on challenges facing the community, especially during the rainy season “If you want to go from here to Okuta, you find it difficult. Even nearby Ilesa, sometimes the road there is a no-go area. The road will be blocked. In that aspect businesses will not function well. Farmers with produce will find it hard to go out to sell. Those coming to Gobo will find it difficult to get here.” The story of frustrated communities cut off during the rainy season is common throughout the local government.

Bridge along the Gobo Shaki road which is always flooded during the rainy season

‘Political promises’

The Emir of Yashikira who has a huge farm of 58 hectares where he grows an assortment of crops, uses solar powered boreholes,  and rears cattle, comments on roads in the area “The road from Ilesa to Chikanda is hardly motorable now. That from Ilesa to Shaki is even worse, and it’s a trunk A road, that could ease trade between the north and southern part of the country.” On electricity supply, he adds “The national grid never came to this area. We have political promises that have never seen the light of day.”

Okuta dam

At a point a few kilometres to Okuta stands a sideboard announcing the Okuta dam project. In a local government where water is scarce, a dam is highly significant. A lone farmer is seen at his farm when we enter the dam proper. 

View of the Okuta dam along the Ilesa Okuta road

Dr. Idris Abubakar is the Emir of Okuta. He comments on the Okuta dam project “The only federal government project in Baruten is the Okuta dam project. It’s just a year old. Dry season farming takes place there. Okuta is a stony place. Pipes have not yet been extended from the dam to the town. We are requesting the federal government to extend water from the dam to the town.”

A resident of Okuta states “Okuta is the largest district in the sense that some of the villages are as big as Gwanara, and are as big as Yashikira and even Ilesa. Yashikira shares border with Kaiama. Between these two communities there is a particular spot where solid minerals, such as gold, abound.”

The price of Yam flour has dropped significantly since the casn swap policy began

Okuta has a large market where yam flour is sold. In the distance looms the Senru Kperu rock after which the community is named. Bags and basins of yam flour or elibo can be seen extending in every direction. It is a woman led economy which is seriously affected by bad roads, inadequate water scarcity, as well as Nigeria’s recent cash swap policy.

‘Village is rocky’

Gunu Idris Village Head of Boriya.

Gunu Abdullahi Idris is the Village Head of Boriya. According to him “We have a lot of challenges facing us. The problem we are facing depends on locations. In Boriya here, our major concern is water. We don’t have an earth dam that will contain a lot of water for us, because the village is rocky. The number of boreholes is not commensurate with the population. If we had earth dams, or if we had a stream where water does not cease, our lives would be pleasant. The border is just a stone’s throw from here. We are at the edge of Nigeria.”

He continues “People dig private boreholes but these are costly to drill. People have private boreholes and hand dug wells, but there are periods when the water in hand dug wells will finish. If your well does not have water, you now go to fetch water from another well. If four wells dry up, the population now converges on the other wells yielding water.”

Lack of water has produced an army of young men selling water in jerry cans

It will be very difficult to achieve SDG 6 which relates to the availability and management of water, in Baruten local government. There is a road to Ilorin from Boriya, but it is an undulating feeder road characterized by many dried up streams and dusty portions. 

“I know parts of Baruten where people leave their houses very early in the morning. Women go to the streams and sit there scooping water. We have rivers. They are not perennial rivers as such, but they serve the purpose, “explains Professor Halidu Abubakar, Emir of Ilesa Baruba who lectured at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, for many years.

Water is scarce in the local govt


“Water scarcity has been a historical issue in the region particularly in the southern parts of British Borgu. This was compounded by colonial rule and the institution of borders. Lack of water undermined administration and also contributed substantially to the depopulation of the region. In the entire region, water during dry season was a huge problem. Within a few days of the last rains, rivers and wells went dry. The rocky nature of the ground did not allow for deep wells that could last through the dry season. In 1934, it was reported that many people left Yashikira because of insufficient water,”(p.276) writes Dr. Hussaini Abdu in Partitioned Borgu. (2019)

‘Forgotten people’

“On your way coming, you saw the bad road network. As for light and water, all is zero. It seems we are a forgotten people. We are fortunate to be linked to the republic of Benin. We share a border with them,” says Yusuf Jimoh Ige, Oba Yoruba of Yashikira. He adds “If we are connected to the national grid, it will eradicate unemployment and people will be self-employed. If you go the republic of Benin, they are connected to their national grid all day long. There is a befitting road into their country. Many of our children will not know tarred roads. Chikanda is the number three border in Nigeria, but we are just like forgotten citizens.”

An unguarded crossing into Benin.

‘A single route’

Dr. Abubakar comments on roads around his community “In some parts of this country, there are areas where you can see various links when trying to get to a community. But we have only a single route that leads into Baruten local government area, which is supposed to be a trunk A road. There should be a viable international route linking Benin republic to this place. It’s only this one linking Shaki to this place, linking the whole of Baruten local government. We must have linkages all over from the four corners. We only have one route.” 

No feeder roads

A lone woman walks along a feeder road

He adds “If you go to other areas here where people are doing the full production of cash crops, do you know that people use motorcycles to carry one a one hundred kilogramme sack of grains, because vehicles cannot go into the hinterland? They bring out their harvest from villages and convey same to Okuta on motorcycles. I am not talking about Okuta alone, that’s how foodstuff is conveyed from the hinterland to Gwanara, Yashikira, and Ilesa. We don’t have roads in our rural areas, and when the rains come you will be surprised. Communities will be cut off from the local government. That’s how our people will not have rest of mind and they will not sleep.”

A vehicle meanders along the winding road near Okuta

‘Vehicles will sink’

On feeder roads, the Village Head of Boriya reveals “Here we evacuate crops with smaller vehicles, because the bigger ones will sink. Where the smaller ones cannot go, we go on motorcycles. They bring produce and other vehicles will load the items. That’s how we transport our goods from the farm. Some use bicycles. If you want to evacuate 1000 bags, it will not take you three hours.”

‘Roads unattended to’

On roads in Ilesa Baruba, Professor Abubakar, who is also a Public Finance specialist, says “The roads have largely been unattended to. There are reasons why some of these roads have been like this all through. The road to Yashikira, up to 2003 was one of the most terrible roads in Nigeria. It was under Bukola Saraki that they tarred the section from Ilesa to Yashikira, that’s why you find it manageable now.

The road to Gwanara is the only state road in the local govt.

“But that’s the only intervention. If you tar roads like that, and there is no maintenance, no matter how good it is, it goes bad. The feeder roads are still very bad. The road to Gwanara since time immemorial has been terrible. It’s not really the same now. The road is being attended to, but it’s not been completed. The road has been there since I was born. In the rainy season the road to Bode in this area, is cut off. A lot of the places here don’t have roads.”

‘Verbal intervention’

On grading of roads, he explains “The problem with all this grading is that once the rains come, it will wash it off, and as they are grading, they are really not filling up, just digging holes. When the rains come, there’s always a problem.” Professor Halidu comments further on roads “I feel sad that government intervention across the years is just verbal. It has not had any impact on our agricultural production and output.”

Roof of an abandoned school near Chikanda

Abandoned projects

Abdullahi Idris, a title holder in the palace of the Emir of Okuta, comments on projects in the area “Government wants to do something in the rural areas, but because of a lack of proper monitoring you will see a lot of abandoned projects all over the place. This is because people from the centre are not prepared to come and monitor any projects in the rural areas. This explains why rural areas are neglected.”

Gunu Idris sheds light on the electricity situation in Boriya “We have never enjoyed light here since I came back. When I was growing up there was no light. What we had in 1977 in Okuta was the REB, the rural electrification board, that supplied Okuta town. Apart from that there was nothing. If you want to set up industries here, you need to have generators that will provide power. “There are so many infrastructural gaps in the whole local government.”

Supply is poor

In Chikanda, there are electricity poles but no power

The village Head of Gobo speaks on electricity “When there’s electricity business will progress. People will sell cold drinks and they will be able to charge their phones. Now, we are approaching the heat period, and it’s very difficult for us to live like this. Sometimes, we have electricity supply, but its brief. We are connected to the national grid, but supply is poor. There will be three months of light in the rainy season. When there’s light trade will blossom, and people will come here to invest.”

‘Heart of food’

Idris speaks on Boriya as a major crop producing area “Baruten is the heart of food in this part of Nigeria. Here we grow all crops. We grow yams, maize, guinea corn, groundnuts, millet, rice, soya beans. Baruten is one of the biggest local governments in Nigeria. Four districts making one local government, whereas in other places one district makes up a whole local government. Where four districts are sharing the facilities of one district, how can we manage it? This means the provision of infrastructure has to be limited, because it is money that boosts development.” 

A family on the way to farm

‘Health? we go to Benin republic’

“The hospitals we have take care of what they can take care of. Formerly, we will take a sick person to Okuta. If Okuta cannot handle the case, they will go to Shaki. If Kosubosu cannot handle it, then they will go to Benin republic,” says the Emir of Okuta. 

Dr. Idris Abubakar, Emir of Okuta

“We have dispensaries and mobile clinics. Here there is need for us to have at least four general hospitals in the local government, but its only in Okuta where we have a general hospital serving the whole of Baruten local government, though there are some mobile clinics. We are the most populous part of the local government, so the general hospital is not sufficient for us. We don’t have nurses. The government has tried to give us two doctors here. If the only hospital serving the whole local government has only two doctors, you know what it means,” he reasons.

‘No viable hospital’

The Village Head of Gobo opens up on the health situation facing his people “We have medical challenges. There are inadequate medical facilities. We have dispensaries here and there. The bigger one at Gwanara, we are trying to get the government to convert it to a cottage hospital, because Gwanara has a large land mass, and most of our people, once they fall sick they go to Shaki in Oyo state, or they travel down to Benin republic. That is not good enough.”  

“There is no viable hospital in the area. Consequently, the population goes to Benin republic for serious health issues and care,” says the Emir of Yashikira, commenting on health challenges in his district.

‘We take or wives to Benin’

Idris Sabiu, Youth leader Chikanda community reveals “There is no development in our community. No good roads, no electricity and no hospitals. If we have headache, we cross the border to Benin republic. That’s where we go now. When our wives are about to deliver, we take them to Benin republic. Most of the children here were born in Benin republic. We don’t have light, and there are no good roads. If you go to the republic of Benin, there is light 24/7. Right now, we are preparing to buy land there.”

Yakubu Salihu-Danladi, Speaker KSHA

‘Have somebody in govt’

“If you were here three years ago, you won’t believe that this is Nigeria. Within the last three years we have witnessed tremendous progress on our roads. This is on account of the efforts of Yakubu Salihu- Danladi, the speaker of the Kwara state house of assembly, who hails from here. Formerly, the road from Ilesa to Gwanara was a hell. You will spend nothing less than two hours travelling along it. Today, we thank the Lord that there is some progress along the road. If you do not have somebody in government who will speak for you, and represent you, you will not enjoy the good things, says Sabi Idris, the Emir of Gwanara.

‘The only state road’

He continues “Ilesa to Yashikira is a federal road, a Trunk A road, constructed when Bukola Saraki was governor of the state in 2007. Ilesa to Gwanara is a state road, the only state road in the local government. Nobody deemed it fit to do the road until now.”

“We are connected to the national grid, but light is not stable. Its more than a year since we last saw light. It is one problem or the other along the lines. The line passes from here to Ilesa, Ilesa to Igboho, Igboho to Igbeti, Igbeti to Kisi. That’s our line. Sometimes, a pole will fall along the way,” he adds. 

Inside one of the many disadvantaged communities

Personal intervention

Wuroyo Musa, Secretary to the Emir of Gwanara, opens up on the improved feeder roads in the community “The state of the feeder roads improved last year through the personal intervention of the speaker. He opened up some of the feeder roads. This includes the road from here to Bukoro, the road from here to Gbabe which is 33 kilometres, the Gbabe to Budoaiki road, as well as the road from here to Biogberu and many others.”

Alh Sabi Idris, Emir of Gwanara

An aide close to Yakubu Salihu-Danladi, indicates that the Speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly has “established numerous boreholes, constructed new primary health care centres, and initiated the renovation of a few others, within the local government.”

Borgu state

“The whole of Borgu is stateless, so to say. Part of Borgu is in Niger, part is in Kwara, and part in Kebbi state. These are the problems surrounding us. The population is small. People are saying we should have a Borgu state. The land is there, but the population is small. Why I say stateless is we have no state of our own, and yet by the size of the land we are qualified to have one,” argues the Emir of Gwanara.

A well constructed by late Sardauna Ahmadu Bello at Ningurume

Sardauna’s well

Not far from the palace of the Emir of Gwanara is the Ningurume community. It lacks basic amenities such as pipe borne water and electricity, and it has a number of bad feeder roads. A collapsed bridge is seen within the community which may speak of better times. Another road proceeds from Ningurume leading to the hinterland. A well built by Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto, is still in use in the community, as our guide, indicates. Nearby women are busy fetching water from a borehole. 

Yam in decline

Professor Abubakar comments on problems affecting agricultural production “We are known very much for yams, yam flour, maize, guinea corn. These are the traditional foods we are known for. The tragedy is that over the years something happened to yam production in Baruten, and it declined drastically. I am not aware of anybody in Ilesa that produced up to ten sacks of Elibo lately. The decline has been occurring over a period of ten years. I noticed during the normal yam season, we would hear the sound of mortar and pestle as the yam was being pounded. At a point I sat down with some of my friends and we noticed only one house where yam was being pounded. “

Yams on sale at Baruten during the last rainy season

Golden era

The royal father speaks of the 70s, 80s and 90s as the golden era of yam cultivation in Baruten “Before now if you came to Baruten and you are leaving, the amount of yams you will be given will intimidate you. You will pack and leave some.” He continues “Yams generally have been infected by a kind of disease, and it is increasing. When you plant the yam and you uproot it, and find that it is dead, what people do is to throw it away, not too far from the farm, and get another and plant. All those ones being thrown away are infecting the growing yams in the farm. They should have a way of gathering these things and burning them. I think it is a fungal disease affecting the yams. Also, the yam heaps used to be bigger than they are now. The sun affects the yams. It’s a combination of all these things affecting the yam crop.”

He drew the attention of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to the disease affecting the yam crop.

A farmer attends to crops at the Okuta dam

Deposits of gold

“We have deposits of gold and other minerals in Yashikira land. We believe the people in the forest are mining some of the precious stones. The presence of a group of military men in Karonji does not guarantee our safety because of recent killings, and kidnappings took place at Gure, Ninti, SereSiki, and Moshi villages,” reveals the Emir of Yashikira commenting on rising insecurity in the area.”

Pre-colonial cattle route

He comments on the cattle breeding prospects of the local government “All the cows that we see crossing the main road are imported from Niger republic. We are close to Sokoto as well as to Niger republic, and we are closer to Burkina Faso than even to Niger republic. This area is very strategic. The precolonial trade route went through our area. It’s through this area that cattle were traded from the far north to Abeokuta. The pre-colonial cattle route is still here. It’s the area that herders from the north used to come to the southern part of the country. This area is a short cut to Jega in Kebbi state as well as Kamba. It is an alternative route to transport livestock.”

Trade has contracted at the Kara International Cattle market

Dr. Sariki also sheds light on the proposed international market in Yashikira, the fact that it is an ambitious project that will turn around the local economy, and that it will sell processed meat.

Kara market

Meanwhile, cattle from Mali, Niger republic, Benin republic are sold each market day at the Kara international cattle market at Ilesa Baruba. Huge staves are driven into the earth, and cattle are tied to each stave. This helps to give the market a certain order and character, and makes the cattle market very unique, when compared to other cattle markets across the country. Yusuf Sale, the Ardo of Baruten, mentions additional cattle markets in the local government include the cattle markets at Kuburufu, Gwasolo, Mushigofa. Trade at the cattle market has however witnessed a slump on account of the scarcity of Naira in recent weeks.

Fish harvest just outside Kosubosu

Difference is clear

Idris Mohmmed, Turaki of Yashikira and Chikanda Community President, comments on the stark difference between the two countries. “If you cross the border after passing the security post, you will immediately see the change. If you see the junior officers, you will notice good conditions around him. His office has air conditioning systems. They have standard hospitals, good drinking water, electricity, good roads and there are rules and regulations.”

Way forward

Dr. Abubakar posits “The way forward is for both the federal and state governments to create ways of poverty reduction. That will help us. We are appealing to government to consider us so that we feel that we are part of Nigeria.”

“I think the way forward is to take a particular interest in the development of this area, and look at development from all dimensions. I think there should be a very sincere effort by government, as well as the realization that this place needs to be developed. They need to understand what exactly development is all about, not to say we sank a borehole there, and whether there’s water or not, nobody cares. Development is far more than that. It’s an integrated thing,” posits the Emir of Ilesa Baruba.

Women gather around the numerous streams every day, to wash clothes and other household items

‘Badly underdeveloped’

“Development has to be consciously done. People have to be involved, to look at their livelihoods, and try to intervene positively in these areas. We talk of agriculture. If you have factories that process whatever it is here, you can empower, government cannot bring about development entirely, but they can prepare the environment for development. Development is about catching up, linking up with whatever is happening. Government has to consciously realise that we are very badly underdeveloped, and that we need government intervention,” adds Professor Abubakar.

Prof Halidu Abubakar, Emir of Ilesa Baruba

‘Development, Urban based’

“Development is urban based in Nigeria. For the border communities I really cannot say I have an answer to the development gaps, and deficit in development in those areas. Many of these places are in rural areas. It appears our governments are not even concerned about rural areas,” he emphasizes.

Professor Abubakar speaks on governance “Everybody wants to have a governor or a president from his place, because if you have a person from your place it means easy access to development. I think we should have a governance system that takes care of everyone, irrespective of whether someone comes from that place or not.”

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