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Military’s shutdown of NE Nigeria telecoms disrupts trade

A car meanders through military checkpoint in Maiduguri following the JTF offensive against Boko Haram camps in the northeast
 Aminu Abubakar/IRIN
With mobile phone signals shut down since 15 May in large parts of three northeastern states following a military offensive against Boko Haram (BH) Islamists, anxious residents say the sick are cut off from medical help, commercial supplies are dwindling and food prices rising.

The states affected are Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The Nigerian government sent thousands of extra troops to the northeast in late May, hitting BH camps with air strikes and leaving an unknown number dead, following a surge in BH violence in the area.

In Borno State capital Maiduguri, which has been hardest hit by BH’s three-year insurgency, commercial activities, which were already disrupted by prolonged insecurity, have collapsed, say residents, as merchants are unable to order from their suppliers in Kano and Lagos. As a result, the price of rice, maize and millet has jumped 25-150 percent.

A 50kg bag of rice which sold for the equivalent of US$51 has risen to $95; a bag of maize rose from $25to $41, while a bag of millet increased to $63 from $46, according to traders.

Grocer Sanda Adamkolo said he now sells a bag of chilli for $101, instead of $38.

Maiduguri trader Simon Bulus told IRIN his supply of tinned food, juice, flour, rice, pasta, sugar, seasonings, milk and soap has run out as he could not reach his normal supplier by phone. “I ordered 50 cartons of various items [from another supplier] but I only got 20 because of high demand from other traders,” he told IRIN.

The vast majority of Nigerians rely on mobile telecommunications as they do not have landlines.

The military have banned trucks from accessing much of Borno State, leading to severe stock shortages, said Bukar Zanna, head of the traders’ association in the Borno town of Gamboru Ngala. “Our fear is that if the situation continues like this we may soon run out of essential goods,” Zanna told IRIN.

Medical director at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital Abdurrahman Tahir told IRIN the hospital could not send doctors to emergencies, or ferry the sick or injured to hospital without communications services.

But, he said, they are not giving up. “We have reactivated our broken CB radios and purchased more walkie-talkies for medical staff.”

Lt-Col Sagir Musa, military spokesman in Borno State, said the movement restrictions on goods in parts of northern Borno are designed to prevent supplies falling into the hands of BH. “We don’t want supplies meant for residents ending up in the hands of terrorists. We have instructed community leaders in some areas to inform the military when they bring in supplies so we can provide them with security cover to convey the goods”.

“Inconveniences”

“The phone cut is an operational strategy to cripple BH in the current campaign because without communication they cannot coordinate and that will put them in disarray. We know there are inconveniences associated with the phone shutdown but the security benefit is worth it,” a senior military official in Maiduguri involved in the military offensive told IRIN.

According to him, BH re-wires mobile phones to create remote-control detonators for home-made bombs. The phone cut has helped diminish what was a campaign of near-daily bomb explosions by BH, he said.

On 14 May 2013 President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in the three states considered BH strongholds, conferring sweeping powers on the military to reclaim areas of Borno, which had been under BH control since January. Bombardments of BH camps have led most members to scatter, many of them reportedly across the border to Chad.

Anxious residents

Many residents are uneasy as they have not been able to contact their families. “For more than two weeks I have not had any contact with my parents, brothers and sister who are in Gubio,” said Bulama Mali Gubio, spokesman for the Borno Elders Forum (BEF). “I have no idea what situation they are in which makes me restless.” Most workers who are not originally from Maiduguri have relocated their families out of the region for safety reasons.

Those who have stayed flock to cyber cafés with Internet Service Providers independent from the main mobile operators. Long queues are forming at their doors.

“I have been waiting for four hours but it has not come to my turn yet. I will not leave until I email my wife to confirm to her I’m safe because I know she is worried she has not heard from me for almost three weeks,” said federal government official Michael Adeleke.

“I just paid some money into my wife’s bank account to let her know that I’m alive and well,” said Ahmed Bawa, a paramedic whose family lives in Kaduna.

Wealthy residents are turning to Thuraya satellite mobile phones, costing up to $1,000, with high call tariffs.

Some have even driven 240km to reach Dagauda village in Yobe State to make calls, said Maiduguri resident Kabiru Dalhatu. “Our village has become a Mecca of sorts in the past two weeks. Dozens of people in cars come from Maiduguri, Damaturu and Potiskum to make phone calls and go back, including military and police officers,” Danlami Inuwa, a resident of Dagauda, told IRIN.

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