Climate Change Threatens To Trigger A New Era of Conflict in the Sahel

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The Sahel, the 5,400 km tract of semi-arid land stretching from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East has for centuries been plagued by conflict. Wedged as it is between the expanse of the Sahara desert to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south, the Sahel exists as a natural meeting point between civilisations.

Between the 9th and 18th centuries vast wealth was to be generated by those who controlled the Sahel and the trans-Saharan trade routes. The most lucrative of all trades was that in slaves powered by the engine of the growing Islamic world. The Sahelian kingdoms that sprang up to exploit this opportunity soon adopted Islam for commercial convenience and the temptation of riches drove them ever further south conquering and enslaving the people of the mostly animist southern kingdoms.  Yet the Sultanates could only expand so far. When they reached the jungle that spanned the southern rim of the Sahel the horses and camels of their slavers died from heat and tropical diseases. They came to believe that the jungle was haunted by evil spirits and the process of Islamisation southwards came to an abrupt halt. A tension nonetheless persisted especially between those animist agriculturalists who remained above the jungle line and the mostly Muslim pastoralists who migrated south.

It was a cruel twist of fortune that colonial powers would create no less than 10 new nations split along this ethnic, religious, social and climatic fault line. The introduction of Christianity exasperated this sharp division ever further with war between North and South being a persistent feature of Sahelian post-colonial history.

Today, this North-South tension is being heightened to an explosive new level by non-other than climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) over 80% of the Sahel’s land is degraded and more than 20 years of severe drought have been recorded there in the past 4 decades. Population growth, overgrazing, desertification and mishandled government policies are transforming the region into a barren wasteland. These resource shortages and the simultaneously receding forest zone are promising a whole new period of Muslim pastoralist migration southwards and subsequently beginning a new chapter of ethnic and religious conflict that threatens to split the continent in two.

In Nigeria, the effects of this new phenomenon are already being deeply felt. In 2015 over 700 Nigerians were killed in the country’s “middle belt” of states as mostly Muslim herders were pushed by climatic factors from their traditional homelands further north. These herders (most belonging to the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups) have experienced stubborn hostility from the majority Christian Tiv and Tarok tribes whose historic lands they are infringing upon. As herdsmen drive their cattle to new pastures destruction of crops is commonplace especially as these herders move deeper into the more densely populated central states. This in turn has resulted in the formation of “self-defence forces” and ethnic militias. According to the global terrorism index, Fulani pastoralists were cumulatively the fourth deadliest terrorist group in 2014 regularly using Sudanese provided weapons to attack and intimidate farmers. In defence of their actions they appeal to the preservation of their culture and identity as cattle herders which is increasingly threatened with extinction.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect to date of increasing resource scarcity in the Sahel was the uprising of Tuareg pastoralists in Northern Mali in January 2012. A series of catastrophic droughts in the 1970’s and 1980’s decimated the Tuareg population of Mali and critically undermined their respect for the government in Bamako. This led to the migration of thousands of Malian Tuareg to  Libya and Algeria where many became employed in special military units and the oil industry. However, a wave of xenophobia in Algeria led to their expulsion in 1986 whilst the fall in oil prices and disbandment of many Libyan military units in the late 1980’s forced many Tuareg to return to their barren and infertile homeland.  The result was an explosion of anti-government sentiment in the North which triggered a devastating series of civil wars, the latest being caused by the 2012 rebellion. The Malian conflicts are the deadliest examples to date of the effects of climate change on this already fragile part of Africa.

There is however an even darker and more frightening dimension to this conflict over resources. This is the ever looming threat of violent jihadism in the region. Muslim pastoralists, whilst being historically less pious Muslims, are turning to jihadist groups for arms and men allowing for a southwards expansion of many terrorist organisations. The growing popularity of Wahhabi Islam in the Sahel is reflective of this trend towards more conservative religion as Muslim herders attempt to court and gain the favour of armed militants. Many young and resentful pastoralists in the Sahel are also attracted to the venomous ideologies of such groups which promise to lend some purpose to their lives and which frankly offer good pay. Indeed, conversion to Islam is a well-tested means to acquiring arms and support in the region. The Lord’s Resistance Army accepted some principles of Islam and gave some its soldiers Muslim names in order to access Sudanese arms markets in the 1990’s. Climate change is simply multiplying the number of similar cases where historically less pious or even non-religious groups are embracing radical Islam for material gain.

This means that many previously marginal jihadist groups are gaining crucial footholds in the countries that span the Sahel. They become engaged in these resource conflicts and embed themselves in the host country before rising up and seizing full military and political control. In Mali, the Tuareg allied themselves with multiple Jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. Their most influential Islamist ally however was a previously little know group called Ansar Dine.  This group attached itself to the Tuareg nationalist cause and grew in strength and confidence. When, in July 2012, the Tuareg declared their own independent state in Northern Mali, Ansar Dine pounced and overwhelmed their former allies. The result was the creation of a short lived but nonetheless huge Islamic Caliphate encompassing over half the country’s territory and all of the North’s major cities. Boko Haram in Nigeria has equally fed off resentment and demand for weapons needed to fuel what is fundamentally a resource conflict.

Many groups in the region no longer even see their alliances with Jihadist groups as necessary means to their ends. They see them as ends in themselves not least because of the lucrative opportunities that arise from leadership of the local Jihadist cause. In this region of Africa, groups which successfully promote themselves as local flag-bearers of global jihad can expect a generous stream of funds mostly from Sudan.  The Janjaweed in Darfur and the Allied Democratic Forces in Northern Uganda are both jihadist groups that have gone from strength to strength on Sudanese cash and arms because of their respective hegemonies over local Jihad.

Climate change in this region therefore has the clear potential to trigger a destructive spiral of ethnic and religious conflict. In the likely absence of effective government support in the Sahel, violence will continue to be seen as the best solution to scarcity and this conflict will only accelerate as it sucks in and strengthens the continent’s ugliest groups.  As climate change continues on its relentless path the future of this region sadly looks increasingly bleak.

Cameron Chippindale

First year undergraduate studying PPE from Bingley in West Yorkshire. Feel free to get in touch regarding any of my articles.