By Ulf Laessing
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - A Nigerian government push to strangle the Boko Haram insurgency has shut down the cattle trade that sustained the city of Maiduguri, leaving many residents with no livelihood, including many of the two million people displaced by the war.
In recent months the army has taken back much of the territory lost to the jihadists during the five-year insurgency.
But the war, which killed thousands of people, is still taking its toll in the northeast, despite President Muhammadu Buhari's vow to crush Boko Haram by the end of last year.
The group, now officially allied to the Islamic State fighters who control much of Iraq and Syria, has responded with suicide bombings and hit and run attacks against civilians.
In the latest shock to civilians, meat has become scarce as the army has closed cattle markets to stop Boko Haram from raising funds by selling livestock, officials say.
The shutdown of the Maiduguri cattle market -- one of the biggest in west Africa -- has, overnight, made hundreds of cattle traders, herdsmen, butchers and laborers unemployed.
"We are suffering," said Usama Malla, a cattle herdsman who lost his job. While he spoke, an angry crowd quickly gathered to criticize the government. "We want compensation," others demanded.
The sprawling market had been one of the main employment opportunities for the more than one million displaced people who live in camps on the outskirts of the town after fleeing Boko Haram.
Officials say they were forced to shut the market because Boko Haram has resorted to stealing cattle from villagers to feed its fighters and raise funds after the army pushed it out of cities. Cattle looting has displaced its previous sources of income: robbing banks and kidnapping wealthy people.
The market closure has disrupted beef supplies in Maiduguri and the rest of Borno state, adding to the hardship of people who have long complained of poverty and neglect in the north -- struggles that prompted some to join Boko Haram's revolt.
"I cannot afford meat anymore," said Musa Abdullahi, a laborer sipping milk sold by a female street vendor. He said he has to feed two wives and nine children, and can't remember the last time he was able to buy meat for the family. "I used to get a piece of meat for 350 naira ($1.75), now it costs 900."
Borno state governor Kashim Shettima said he had reopened the Maiduguri market to trade existing stock but banned the arrival of any new cattle for two weeks so authorities could identify sellers.
"There were suspicious persons who sold cattle which they had bought from Boko Haram," he said. "This is financing the terrorists."
The closure has left some 400 animals dying in trucks stopped by the army on the way to Maiduguri, traders said.
Officials say authorities plan to distribute food and find jobs for the city's youth. But options are limited as a slump in vital oil revenues has undermined Buhari's plans to develop the north, which is poorer than the mostly Christian south, where Nigeria pumps its oil.
Located some 1,600 km (1,000 miles) from the Atlantic coast and the southern megacity of Lagos, Maiduguri used to be a busy cattle market serving neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger until Boko Haram attacks closed the nearby borders.
Supplies for the Maiduguri market had thinned even before the cattle embargo as Boko Haram fighters burned fields and forced farmers out of their villages in recent years.
The army, which moved its command to fight Boko Haram to Maiduguri to be close to the front, has repelled two recent attacks on the city of two million, allowing commercial flights to resume.
But soldiers manning sand-bagged checkpoints and imposing a curfew are a reminder that life is anything but normal. Suicide bombers strike often in its suburbs.
Security officials say Boko Haram's cattle raids suggest the group is desperate to find food after the army pushed it out of several towns. More than 70 supporters begging for food surrendered last week, the army said.
But cattle traders say the raids are simply a new tactic by the jihadists raise funds.
Daho Dida, a cattle trader sitting in the shade of a wall, said fighters had stolen a 350-strong herd from him and a 500-strong herd from his brother. He said the military had failed to stop the raids, with soldiers running into the bush the moment they came under fire.
"They buy foodstuff, petrol and other stuff with the money," he said of the fighters.
The jihadists sell stolen cattle to middlemen who take on the risk of dealing with them by paying just 20,000 naira ($100) a head, a quarter of the usual price, said Adam Bulama, a leader of a civilian vigilante force helping the army.
It's a worthwhile risk for middlemen to ship the cattle to Maiduguri, where prices have surged to 120,000 naira per head because of the temporary ban.
Bulama said dealers need personal connections with staff at abattoirs that are still slaughtering cows from the existing stocks. "Now meat is scarce in Maiduguri," he said. "Nobody can afford it."
Buhari says Boko Haram is no longer able to overrun security posts or seize government offices. But displaced people holding out in camps remain wary of going home. Boko Haram fighters often ambush "liberated" roads or villages in hit and run attacks, aid workers say.
"Houses in our village were burned," said Bulami Ari, a 47-year old farmer who lives with his two wives and six children in a tent since the jihadists raided last year their village, located just 45 km outside Maiduguri. "There is no security."
($1 = 198.6000 naira)
(additional reporting by Lanre Ola; editing by Peter Graff)