Olumba E. Ezenwa, Royal Holloway University of London
Violence in the Sahel is escalating, killing more than 11,000 people in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2012. Such conflict has emerged for a number of reasons, including religious insurgencies and access to water and grazing resources. Climate change leading to environmental degradation exacerbates these clashes.
The Sahel region is a large semi-arid land mass located to the immediate south of the Sahara desert. It stretches from Senegal on Africa’s western coast to Eritrea on the opposite Red Sea coast. It is home to the Fulani, or Fula people, one of the most widely dispersed ethnic groups in West Africa. Nomadic Fulani herdsmen have historically grazed their cattle throughout the region.
But the Sahel is acutely experiencing the effects of climate change. Environmental degradation has diminished the grazing opportunities available to the Fulani. According to the World Bank, 75% of the Sahel is now too dry for livestock herders to settle in one place.
Since the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, Fulani herdsmen have gradually been forced to migrate away from the Sahel region in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Their settlement into areas they previously visited nomadically has become a source of dispute with settled farmers. As they compete for access to scarce water and grazing resources, these disputes often spill over into violent conflict.
Violence between herders and farmers – called “eco-violence” – has occurred for decades. But in recent years the conflict has intensified.
This is particularly true in Nigeria’s Benue state, where 92 people were killed in ten different incidents between March and June of 2022. Located in the country’s fertile Middle Belt, competition over arable land and grazing resources has grown intense. Both settled farmers and Fulani herders claim rights to the land.
My research examined the reasons behind the escalating violence. I found that the events experienced by Nigeria in recent years were consistent with what is known as the “Homer-Dixon model”.
The Homer-Dixon model predicts that scarcity of environmental resources and socio-political processes – such as population growth – lead to political instability and the formation of authoritarian political structures. This in turn leads to changes in the distribution of opportunities and thereby to increased violent conflict.
General Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani man, was elected as Nigeria’s president in 2015. Through nepotistic domestic policies and corruption, Buhari’s government has shifted the political opportunities available in Nigeria to the Fulani ethnic group. This has created the conditions for violence to escalate.
Between 2015 and 2018, the Nigerian government increased its efforts to secure grazing pasture for Fulani herders. They proposed the formation of open grazing zones which would take land from indigenous farmers and give it to Fulani herdsmen. Although the bills were prevented from coming into law by Nigerian legislators, Buhari’s special adviser urged Nigerians to either surrender their lands to Fulani herders or risk losing their lives in the persisting conflict.
Policies such as these, that clearly favour certain groups, justify the perceived grievances of Fulani herders and create an atmosphere that encourages violence.
Under Nigeria’s incumbent government, the likelihood of Fulani herders facing punishment for committing violent acts have also reduced. The Miyetti Allah, a Fulani cattle breeders association, claimed responsibility for the massacre of 72 people in 2018. But the group’s leader, Garius Gololo, has yet to be charged with any offence.
Against this backdrop, herders have been allowed to violently address their grievances against the settled farmers of Nigeria’s Middle Belt. This has resulted in reprisal attacks and extensive destruction within the region. As of 2021, 357,473 people have been displaced in Benue State.
Climate change forces people to migrate and creates the necessary pressure for conflict to emerge. Avoiding migration towards places where agricultural and water resources are already scarce can only be done through action to mitigate climate change.
But the surge in violence has largely been caused by failures of government. Addressing Nigeria’s structure of political opportunities is therefore equally important. In Nigeria – and much of the Sahel region – ethnic relations underpin political posts, government contracts and sanctions for criminal behaviour. In these countries, the ethnic groups of those in power are often afforded greater political opportunity.
History shows that this can jeopardise effective governance and the security of a country’s ethnic groups. When the rules are changed to favour one group, this may encourage clashes between ethnic groups that frequently become violent.
Change to an open political system in which the government ensures equitable representation will contribute to reducing the impacts of environmental resource scarcity and consequently the rise of eco-violence. If neither the effects of Nigeria’s current political structure favouring certain ethnic groups are addressed nor any countermeasures taken, widespread violence will continue following the next election in 2023.