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The thesis can be summarised in a few lines: as grazing lands and crops wither under the unrelenting sun, poverty thrives, and tempers flare. As a result, jihadists rush into the breach, self-defence groups form and deadly violence breaks out.
While this scenario is playing out in some areas of the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, in parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the relationship between climate change, resource scarcity and the rise in terrorism and organised crime is more nuanced.
Diminishing arable land
It is true that potentially usable arable land in Central Sahel is decreasing each year as a result of global warming. It is also true that the population seeking to use this land has never been so numerous. No one can dispute the devastating effect of droughts on crops and pastures. In reality, however, cultivated areas and agricultural production are increasing in large parts of Central Sahel, as is conflict between herders and farmers.
Simplifying the problem may at times offer a convenient way for some Sahelian leaders and international partners to connect two issues of importance to donors: climate change and jihadism. It also allows these same decision-makers to attribute the causes of violence, which are many and complex, to external factors beyond their control.
Global warming and its effects are real and need to be urgently combatted. However, the easy correlation between increased temperatures, resource scarcity and the steady rise in violence witnessed by Central Sahel in recent years does not always survive scrutiny.
Badly managed competition
In central Mali, the drilling of new wells in the 1970s – like that sunk in Tolodjé around 1978, an important pastoral reserve in the southeast of the Mopti region – made arid areas more attractive, drawing in Dogon farmers who settled there, initially with the permission of the Fulani landowners.
Over time, the number of farmers grew and they began asserting their rights over the land surrounding wells that had originally been dug for the herders’ benefit. Tensions between herders and farmers worsened in a context where neither the state nor traditional local authorities seemed capable of regulating land-use issues in a peaceful and consensual manner.
In this area, the rise of jihadist and self-defence groups is partly related to such quarrels over newly available – not dwindling – water reserves.
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This example is not an isolated one. In neighbouring Burkina Faso, the municipality of Béléhédé saw its rice production increase thanks to a development project. But this project also changed the local demographic and political balance by pulling in non-native farmers, mostly from the Fulsé and Mossi ethnic groups. As a result, indigenous Fulani, who are often nomadic herders, felt they had been pushed off their land without adequate compensation.
In order to reinforce their land rights, the Fulsé and Mossi sought to bypass the traditional local authority (in Béléhédé the Emir of Tongomayel) by appointing their own village chiefs. In response, Fulani herders have enrolled in jihadist groups known for rejecting state decisions and helping the communities that support them gain access to land.
In both cases, it was not the scarcity of resources that led to violence. Rather, poorly managed competition around access and use of increasingly coveted land was to blame.
Pastoralism in crisis
Climate change has played a part in the genesis of the crisis affecting Central Sahel: the droughts of the 70’s and 80’s changed agro-pastoral dynamics in favour of the settled farmers who were less durably impacted by it. But it is not the only reason, or the most significant one behind the recent rise in violence.
The 70’s and 80’s actually marked the start of a crisis that led to the marginalisation of herder communities, partly explaining the draw of jihadist rhetoric for many Fulani nomads. The years of drought decimated herds and left many Fulani penniless forcing them to seek employment tending the livestock of settled farmers. The ensuing national policies implemented by Central Sahelian states only reinforced this unbalanced situation by favouring agriculturists over pastoralists.
It is therefore essential that the authorities give back space to herder communities. But simply chasing farmers from the pastoral areas they inhabited years ago would be akin to throwing oil on fire.
Thinking outside the box
Here, long-term is key. Governments need to produce resources for their citizens, but they also need to put in place appropriate policies and mechanisms to peacefully and fairly regulate the issue of access and distribution of land in rural areas.
National and local authorities should recognise too that development projects not only generate vital resources, but they can also create or exacerbate competition for these same resources. Therefore their careful management will become increasingly necessary as the population increases and available land and water reach their limits.
Global warming and resource depletion are undoubtedly significant challenges in Central Sahel. They are also critical factors in the current conflict dynamics and will likely remain so in the future. Yet even as they recognise this, Sahelian states and their international partners should more accurately assess climate change’s contribution and acknowledge the impact political decisions on access to resources – especially land – can have.
Bottom line: The stakes are high. Governments in the Sahel, and elsewhere, must ensure that today’s policies and investments involving the development of new resources don’t breed tomorrow’s conflicts.
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