MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA/WASHINGNTON - Three years ago, at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency, Nigerian soldiers stopped all fishing activities in the country's section of Lake Chad. Militants had infiltrated the ranks of the fishermen, the army said, and were using the guise to fund arms purchases and launch surprise attacks on innocent people.
The local fishermen's union said it understood the army's actions but pushed for an easing of the ban, because its members had no other way to earn a living in the largely dry and remote area.
Relief came to the local fishermen over the weekend, when the Nigerian Army commander in charge of the area, Major General Ibrahimn Attahiru, addressed the fishermen and said they could return to work based on some guidelines the army had reached with their leaders.
Fishermen support changes
The president of the Lake Chad Fishermen Association, Alhaji Abubakar Gamande, confirmed the development in an interview Monday with VOA's Hausa Service and pledged that fishermen will follow the new rules.
“Based on what happened in the past, we will not continue to operate as we used to, where everyone did as he deemed fit,” he said. “We and the army will watch the activities of the fishermen and anyone whose work requires entering the lake. We will not let him operate as he wishes. We will screen all our members. We have to know where they are coming from and where they are going."
In normal times, the fishermen can still make a decent living off Lake Chad despite the lake's radical shrinkage over the past 50 years, which scientists believe is a result of overuse and shifting rainfall patterns brought on by climate change.
Local authorities back in control
But Boko Haram's takeover of northeastern Nigeria severely disrupted a fishing industry that draws traders from Nigeria's Lake Chad neighbors Chad, Cameroon and Niger and enables many locals to support themselves. By early 2015, the well-armed militants had seized effective control of the areas along the lake, and there was little the fishermen could do to stop Boko Haram activity.
Local authorities are now back in control, following a 30-month regional offensive by the army and a multi-national task force that includes soldiers from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin.
Gamande was full of praise for the army, which he said has worked tirelessly to restore peace to the area.
Quiet on new rules
Asked how the new rules will prevent Boko Haram activity, the union leader said he cannot reveal all the details for security reasons.
“On our own part as a union we have laid down guidelines that enable us to know who comes for fishing, those who buy, and those who come to sell,” Gamande said.
“We will do all we can to ensure that what happened in the past will never happen again. Enough is enough.”