Fish traders in Borno State are accusing their union leaders of harming their trade by forcing them to fix prohibitive prices on the commodity from the Lake Chad area.
The traders said unless government intervenes and reverses the trend, they may be forced to abandon the business.
Lake Chad area of Borno State reportedly accounts for a good amount of fish consumed across Nigeria.
When Boko Haram seized the region about two years back, the prices of fish and other sea foods shot up across the country due to lack of supply from the displaced fishermen.
After dislodging Boko Haram and reclaiming some of the territories, the military, on December 25, 2016 opened the routes linking Maiduguri with Lake Chad to allow the resumption of the fishing business.
Despite the opening of the highways, a trip to Lake Chad is considered dangerous except with military escort.
Soldiers have been repeatedly accused of hijacking delivery and sales of fish as they alone could access the volatile region.
More allegations were made that the soldiers had forbidden civilians from transporting fish from Doro-Baga, Borno State's largest fish depot, to Maiduguri. Anyone caught then could be labeled as Boko Haram member.
In fact, in 2015, the military carried out mass public burning of stock fish allegedly seized from suspected Boko Haram fighters while transporting them to the markets.
The soldiers were also accused of collecting illegal tariffs from fish merchants before allowing them into Maiduguri.
It took the intervention of the military high command in Maiduguri at that time to intervene by issuing strong warning of severe sanction against any soldier caught selling fish.
But that did not seem to have ended the travail of the displaced fish traders, as another form of extortion has again allegedly reared its head, this time through the officials of the fishermen union under the aegis of Association of Fish and Seafood Traders.
Some of the aggrieved traders said despite the availability of large quantities of fish in the Lake Chad waters, fish has remained scarce and expensive in the market because of illegal collection of high tariff from traders by officials they suspect were working in cohorts with the authorities around the lake.
"We fish traders are seriously facing threats of being pushed out of business here in Borno State," said Adamu Usman, a fish merchant.
"In the past, before Boko Haram came, we used to pay only N700 to transport a carton of fish from Baga market in Kukawa Local Government Area to any part of the country. But today, some persons who imposed themselves as our officials are taking as much as N2,500 per carton of fish just to transport them from Baga fish market to Maiduguri."
The aggrieved fishermen who spoke to journalists in Maiduguri said the N2,500 being collected was outside taxes they pay to revenue officers of Kukawa Local Government of Borno State.
Mustapha Abubakar, another fish dealer, said the union leaders, led by one Alhaji Gamandi, who functions as the chairman, would stop any trader who refused to pay the N2,500 per carton of fish from transporting their stock out of Baga.
"The so-called union leaders have hijacked the transportation business in such a manner that one cannot transport his fish if the N2, 500 was not paid per carton. If you have about 10 cartons of stock fish, it means you would have to cough out N25,000 before they are allowed to be loaded into the trucks," he said.
The fish dealers said sometimes, two or three trailer trucks of fish move out of Baga town twice a week, each trailer carrying at least 1000 cartons of fish.
"For each trailer load of about 1000 cartons of fish, the officials collect a total of about N2.5 million," Mr. Abubakar said.
The traders said a carton of fish usually goes for between N20, 000 and N23,000, and that by the time they added the cost of transportation, the purchase price goes up to N27, 000; which they said exclude the cost of offloading upon arrival in Maiduguri.
'It becomes extremely difficult for us to break even when we have to sell a carton of fish for N35, 000 in the retail market.
"In the past, the charges for transporting a carton of fish used to be N700 regardless of where it is being transported to in Nigeria from Borno State.
PREMIUM TIMES' investigation at the famous Baga Road fish market revealed that a carton of fish goes for N34, 000, while the cost rises to around N36,000 to take it out of the market.
A popular fish merchant at the market, Idrissa Usman, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that the profit margin had become very slim compared to what it used to be in the past.
"People are not willing to pay more for the expensive fish we buy from Baga," Mr. Usman said.
"The fishes are available there in the lake's waters, but the high charges for bringing it to the market is what is killing the business. Due to lack of money in town, our customers would price your commodity at the old rates, and if you insist on selling on a higher price, they won't buy. So we have to sell just to break even, which is not good for us".
Most of the fish traders heaped the blame of their travail on their union officials.
"We want the government to prevail on the officials to lessen the charges they place on the transportation of fish, else we may not be able to do the business anymore," said Aliyu Malami, another fish merchant.
But the chairman of Fish and Seafood Dealers Association, Abubakar Gamandi, denied claims of arbitrary raising the cost of transporting fish from Baga to Maiduguri markets.
He said the increase was with the consent of all "stakeholders" in the business.
Mr. Gamandi, who is also the acting chairman of the West Africa Association of Fish and Sea food Dealers, said those accusing his committee of wrongdoing in respect of the new tariffs for transporting fish were either ignorant or are new in the business.
"Of course, we have increased the price of transporting fish from Doron-Baga to Maiduguri, and this was done based on prevailing circumstances and in a democratic manner. The last time we had a meeting with all the stakeholders in the business, a lot of concerns were raised especially on how much a carton of fish should be transported. Various prices were suggested - ranging from N3,000, N2500 and N2,000. . And after wide consultations, we settled for N2,000 per carton.
"It is wrong for anyone that is complaining today to say we are taking N2,500 as charges for transporting a carton of fish."
He also denied the allegation that he and a few members of his committee imposed themselves as officials on the union.
Earlier, the aggrieved fish dealers informed journalists that Mr. Gamandi and his committee lost a court case that challenged their legality to preside over the affairs of the fishermen. They alleged that Mr Gamandi had to collude with other top actors in the industry to form a committee that now dictates how fish business is run in the Lake Chad.
Mr Gamandi denied these claim.
'You see, that corroborates my earlier statement that those making these complaints are those who dabbled into the fishing business," said Mr. Gamandi, a seemingly educated man.
"Of course, there was a court case over some allegations of mismanagement. Some of them confused the office I serve in at the national level here in Nigeria with the roles I played at the level of the International body of our association, but the same court has since ruled that it has no case against me or any other members of my committee.
"As at that time, there was no substantive leadership locally here and by the virtue my being the acting chairman of the fishermen association at the regional level, I was asked to step in. As it is today, I am wearing two caps, one as the chairman here in Nigeria and then at the West African level".
Mr. Gamandi said those behind the allegation were just dancing to the tune of politicians.
"I can tell you that this is pure politics being played out here. And we know those behind this," he said.
"But as far as we are concerned, the decision to increase the fees for transporting fish was borne out of the need to carry every member of the fishing community along. Since the displacement of the stakeholders in the fishing business from Baga general fishing area by Boko Haram, many have lost their means of livelihood.
"When I say stakeholders, I meant the fishermen, the boatmen, the food sellers, the local transporters, the firewood sellers and so on, whose daily jobs contribute in one or way or the other to ensuring fish gets out of Lake Chad to the general market.
"We the officials have observed that the opening of the road to Baga by the military only affects few people, which are the fishermen and the transporters because no one lives in Baga. All of us go there from here and return after a forthnight.
"On that note, there are other members of the fishing community who had lost their means of livelihood as a result of the insurgency who are now crowded at the fish depot begging to do menial jobs like loading the cartons of fish to the trucks.
"So we felt the best way to also help these displaced and jobless persons is to increase tariffs so that at the end of the day, we could accommodate them by giving out stipends from the collection in order to enable them keep body and soul together. That is what a good leader must do in times likes this - we just need to develop communality to help one another.
"We have our records which are very clear and well documented. From the tariff collected per carton, we also pay local government commodity tax to the local authority," he said.
Mr. Gamandi also denied the insinuations of collection of bribe by soldiers who provide escort services to the fishermen and their trucks as likely reason the union officials hiked the cost of transporting a carton of fish from N700 to N2,000.
"The military has nothing to do with how we do our business. As citizens, the military command agreed to give us escort each time we are moving into Lake Chad region for fishing and we do so twice a month. They don't collect anything from us other than making sure we go there safely and return safely,"he said.