The Sahel is engulfed by violence. Climate change, food insecurity and extremists are largely to blame

west africa

West Africa (Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Robert Muggah, Co-founder, Igarape Institute and SecDev Group & José Luengo Cabrera, West Africa researcher, International Crisis Group


For centuries, herdsmen across Africa’s Sahel headed south during the long, hot dry season. Farmers typically welcomed them because their cattle and goats fertilized depleted cropland. While herders and farmers routinely competed over scarce resources, outright violence was restrained through customary arrangements and swift mediation from local leaders. But this symbiosis is crumbling. Instead, thousands of civilians from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria are killed every year in bloody inter-communal violence. Many more are caught up in deadly overlapping conflicts that are spinning out of control.

A cowherd in Toukounous, Niger. Tension between herders and farmers is rising across the Sahel.

Climate change is partly to blame. The United Nations estimates that roughly 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded. Temperatures there are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. As a result, droughts and floods are growing longer and more frequent, undermining food production. About 50 million people in the Sahel depend on livestock rearing for survival. But the land available to pastoralists is shrinking. This is aggravated by surging population growth that is pushing farmers northward to cultivate more crops. And while adverse climate conditions are sparking violence, proliferating jihadi insurgencies are also creating no-go areas, turning a bad situation even worse.

Climate risks, food insecurity and metastasizing violence are all set to intensify in the west African Sahel. The region is a canary in the coalmine; a presage of what is to come in other vulnerable parts of the world. Climate scientists believe that temperatures there could be 3-5°C warmer by 2050, and this in a region with monthly averages of 35°C. Rainfall is already erratic, and wet seasons are shrinking. There are lean times ahead. Still reeling from the food crisis of 2012, more than 33 million people in the Sahel are classified as food insecure. Declining grain and food production is forcing pastoralists into a desperate search for fertile pasture. When herders arrive too early or stay too long – violence is likely to follow.

The region’s violent conflicts are contagious. One reason for this is that national borders are porous and largely unguarded. Instead, they are criss-crossed with enterprising merchants and cattle herders, together with sinister extremist and criminal networks trafficking in toxic ideologies, drugs and weapons. Insurgencies in one country can and often do spill across borders, as was the case when conflict spread from northern to central Mali and into north and eastern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger. Manipulated by government and business elites, marginalized pastoralists serve as the footsoldiers of the Sahel’s interlocking conflicts. They are ready recruits precisely because of diminished livelihood options and social exclusion.

A motley assortment of jihadi groups and political militia have established footholds in remote parts of Africa’s western Sahel. They are thriving owing to a combination of weak state authority, an abundance of firearms and the steady erosion of local dispute resolution mechanisms. They are also tapping a rich vein of recruits from nomadic communities such as the Tuareg, Dossaak and Fulani. Multiple foreign-supported counter-terrorism operations have made some gains, but are clearly failing to contain the spread of violent activities. If anything, extremist groups are fragmenting and deepening their hold of border areas. The military strategy of backing armed proxies (like the Self-Defense Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA) or Movement for the Salvation of Azawad) in the Mali-Niger border area is also stoking up inter-communal conflict.

There are good reasons to believe that climate-related shocks and organized violence will deepen in 2019. The UN special adviser on the Sahel, Ibrahim Thiaw, claims that the region is already home to the largest number of people who are disproportionately affected by global warming. It also has the conditions – a high dependence on agriculture, discriminatory political institutions and a past history of conflict – for war. According to Busby and von Uexkull, for example, countries with a history of conflict in the previous five years with over 40% of the population in agriculture and at least 20% of the population formally excluded from political power are most at risk.

The warning signs are flashing red after a combination of poor rainfall, livestock losses and pasture shortages contributed to historic food insecurity in 2018. At least 6 million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal required urgent food assistance at the end of last year. Another 8 million more people are currently receiving relief aid in Nigeria’s middle belt provinces of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe and the Lake Chad basin. The Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel is anticipating what it describes as “persistent food insecurity” for the foreseeable future. The combination of poor governance, languishing economies, depreciating local currencies, inflation, spiking migration and transhumance and violence are a volatile mix.

Regional deterioration

Sahelian countries experienced unprecedented levels of organized violence in 2018. This is particularly the case for Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which registered the highest conflict-related death tolls in years. Taking all the G5 Sahel group of countries together, they experienced over four times the number of fatalities in 2018 when compared to 2012, with 62% of all reported violent deaths concentrated in Mali. At least 5 million people were displaced across borders or internally in 2018 and an astonishing 24 million people required food assistance across the region.

The Sahel in Peril: This visualization shows how climate change and food insecurity are contributing to rising tensions in the Sahel, with armed groups spreading violence across te region. EarthTime and the Igarapé Institute have collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross to visualize these issues. To dig deeper into this visualization and explore this issue further, follow this link.

Mali was a regional hotspot, experiencing a steep surge in violence against civilians in 2018. This was largely the result of intensifying inter-communal conflicts between herders and farmers, but also a result of shifting tactics of jihadist groups operating in the center and north of the country. According to the Armed Conflict and Event Location Dataset (ACLED), there were at least 882 civilian fatalities last year, more than eight times the figure in 2012 during the country’s civil war. Most of these deaths were concentrated in the central region of Mopti (56%) and the northern territory of Gao (31%). In addition, over 80,000 people were internally displaced at the end of 2018, more than double the number at the end of 2016. The number of people in need of food assistance reached 5.2 million in 2018, up from 2.1 million in 2013.

Burkina Faso also witnessed a sharp increase in jihadist attacks in 2018, more than four times the number reported in 2017. ACLED researchers counted some 158 jihadist attacks last year, most of which were concentrated in the country’s Sahel (78) and Est (53) regions. Jihadi elements like the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (linked to al-Qaeda) have stepped up their targeting of government forces and civilians, and are increasingly stirring up communal tensions across the region. A state of emergency was declared across these two regions on 31 December 2018.

Spreading Violence in the Sahel: The Sahel is affected by overlapping and spreading conflicts. The visualization above is a collaboration between EarthTime, the Igarapé Institute and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Click here to explore in more detail.

Niger registered a tripling of protests and riots and rising border violence in 2018. A new tax law and the spiraling cost of living sparked waves of unrest. According to ACLED, some 30 mass protests occurred in 2018, compared to just 11 in 2017. Roughly 60% of these events were concentrated in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Inter-communal violence is also on the rise, including in western Niger on the border of Burkina Faso and Mali. More than 52,000 people were displaced in 2018 alone (added to the estimated 144,000 who are already displaced). Making matters worse, the number of people who are food insecure is expected to rise by over 55% this year, from 787,000 in 2018 to 1,221,000 in 2019.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s middle belt is on fire. Farmer-herder violence is now far deadlier than the havoc wreaked by Boko Haram. ACLED has documented violent escalation in Benue, Plateau, Taraba and Nasawara – with fluctuations aligned with dry and raining season – as well as with electoral cycles. Violent disputes involving herder militia are due to an interplay of factors, including control over grazing areas, disputes over land, manipulation by elites and extremism. In a worrying sign, Fulani herdsman are increasingly confronting government forces (e.g. including, most recently, during military-led Operation Cat Race and Operation Whirl Stroke).

Improving livelihoods

Stability will only be achieved if foreign and national governments can move beyond counter-terrorism and divert a greater share of resources toward reconciliation, dialogue and tangibly improving vulnerable people’s livelihoods. While military pressure is undoubtedly required, it must also be accompanied with greater investment in restoring national and local negotiation and reconciliation processes.

While incredibly tricky, efforts must also be made to disrupt the political manipulation of inter-communal disputes. This starts with avoiding discriminatory legislation, including the outlawing of open grazing or requiring livestock to be moved by rail and road (as was the case in Benue, Nigeria, in 2017). Even more important, elites must be prevented from deploying community militia to expand their profit and power, as is the case, for example, with the Fulani militia in Tillabéri, in western Niger. Dialogue forums like the Food Crisis Prevention Network supported by the OECD could help anticipate these challenges and find face-saving solutions.

Humanitarian and development investment in border regions and in public goods is essential. There are vast and unmet needs across the Sahel. Indeed, all but one of the G5 Sahel countries rank among the 10 lowest performing countries of the Human Development Index. Agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others have found that small-scale projects focused on income-generating public goods – peace wells, solar electricity generators, community markets or dairy production – can have a calming effect so long as they do not stoke rivalry or competition. Sustained improvement in service delivery to marginal areas, and efforts to redress political and economic inequality are also essential.

Another critical priority is expanding job opportunities and safety nets for young people involved in the agricultural and livestock sectors. One of the reasons why armed groups are growing is precisely because they are the only game in town. A priority for the development community and national governments across the Sahel is to provide targeted food and income support together with livestock and crop insurance to smooth losses. Targeted support for pastoral communities is also essential. The World Bank has already launched a series of initiatives to support them – the Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project, the Regional Investment Program for Livestock and Pastoral Development in Coastal Countries, and the initiative for Pastoralism and Stability in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. These need to be significantly ramped up.

Finally, the region’s governments, businesses and civil societies would benefit from expanded investment in platforms that forecast political violence, food crises and climate stress. Those that already exist – including the World Bank’s Famine Action Mechanism, the UN’s Early Action System, the ACLED violence monitoring datasets, and Uppsala’s Violence Early Warning System (VIEWS) – could use an additional injection of resources. It is equally important that public and private leaders and civil societies recognize and anticipate ways that agriculture and livestock production are likely going to change in relation to climate, and encourage investments in adaptation and new crops in advance to avoid major declines in crop yields. The future looks challenging, which makes it all the more important to prepare for it.

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