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Arms are not enough: Solutions for the Sahel must consider climate

Abuja, Nigeria

On February 25, Nigeria will begin voting for its new president in one of the most tightly fought elections in decades. And the most likely winner has already set down a marker in his campaign. “You can’t be talking about climate change when people are taking cover from bombs,” observed Nigerian presidential hopeful Peter Obi.

Obi is polling at 37 percent as of early February, and looks set to win. He promises to put an end to the “incessant banditry, insurgency, kidnapping, and cross-border terrorism” currently plaguing Nigeria. It is a strategy based around military expansion and the pivot of armed forces towards external threats, particularly border securitization with the other Lake Chad basin states: Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. Obi’s security platform is also a classic militarization strategy, frequently deployed by domestic and international actors in the Sahel. It is on the agenda of the February 2023 Munich Security Conference as well.

Peter Obi and the international leaders convening in Munich are also increasingly acknowledging the dangers posed by climate change. However, when push comes to shove, their security priorities are elsewhere.

A focus on counter-terrorism by Nigeria and international actors operating in the Lake Chad basin is by no means misplaced. Deaths by violent extremism in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with more than 22,000 people killed since 2011 in clashes between Boko Haram and the state. Last year saw almost 4,000 deaths by non-state forces in Nigeria alone, with many more occurring in Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and of course, Mali.

Yet Obi and others who see counter-terrorism and climate as separate concerns may be making an error. The security risks in the Sahel are not in opposition to climactic concerns. Indeed, understanding them may help unlock the possibility of more lasting solutions.

Nigeria: The Local Politics of Climate Security

February’s elections come at a crucial moment for Nigeria. Climate change is recoding life in that nation. Existing issues of social inequality, economic deprivation, and governance are building, with conditions growing increasingly hostile. Farmers, pastoralists, and others that depend on agriculture for a living make up some 35 percent of the country’s population, and they have been particularly affected by these trends. Environmental degradation and climate change have reduced the availability of grazing land, meaning that pastoralists are increasingly infringing on farmland to feed their herds. More and more, these communities are encroaching on each other’s livelihoods, leading to disputes that often turn violent. From an international perspective, these localized conflicts have not been granted nearly the attention of larger regional dynamics, despite tangible costs to life.

While the international eye lingers on the eradication of armed non-state networks and projections of global power in the Sahel, the sobering fact remains: in the past two years, farmer-herder conflicts have killed as many Nigerians as Boko Haram. This is no coincidence. Armed groups capitalize on resource scarcity and economic precarity to legitimize their rule and bolster recruitment. This is being seen not only in Nigeria, but across the Sahel region, with the UNOCHA conference on the Lake Chad basin in January 2023 naming extreme weather events and environmental conditions among the region’s most pressing challenges.

Mali: Lessons for Intervention

Further west, Operation Barkhane has taught the international security community some harsh lessons in Mali. Successive operations led by French armed forces there have failed to improve the situation, with conflict deaths rising every year since 2017. Faced with widespread criticism both at home and abroad, France has since withdrawn from Mali, with Germany set to exit fully by the end of 2023.

Mali is a clear illustration of how security interventions rooted in tunnel-vision military action are doomed to fail. Consecutive European military campaigns have failed to grasp the nuances of the conflict. Here, as elsewhere in the Sahel, conflict dynamics simply cannot be understood without due regard to the changing natural landscape that shapes them.

To see how environmental conditions affect Mali’s human security situation, one need only look at the impact of deforestation on civilians. In the past 20 years, the country has lost approximately 15 percent of its tree cover, meaning that those travelling to collect water are more exposed to armed groups and other violent threats. Meanwhile, climate change-induced water scarcity is lengthening these journeys. Conflict casualties have increased as a result, with women and girls subject to sexual and gender-based violence by the armed groups that military operations have failed to defeat. Other impacts include increased resource competition, inciting complicated cycles of violence that include fishers, pastoralists, farmers, land owners, and other community members.

Of course, the roots of Mali conflict are highly complex, unfurling from an array of challenging dynamics including socioeconomic exclusion, government mismanagement, colonial legacies, and limited state capacity— and not from climate change alone. However, the conflict is being molded by environmental factors that are expected to become more severe by every climate change projection. Higher temperatures, more droughts, and increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns are expected in the Sahel, all of which will exacerbate scarcity, particularly in the water and food sectors. This will lead to widespread health problems, shifts in migration and demographic pressures, and further violent conflict over resources.

Bringing Climate into the Security Discourse

Despite the evidence, policymakers consistently position climate change as an independent factor in the region, often even contrasting it with the broader conflict situation. When faced with tough choices, leaders tend to view climate action in terms of trade-offs with what they perceive as more immediate security dangers. They nearly always prioritize the latter.

Climate security approaches, be they domestic or international, will not solve all of the Sahel’s problems. However, just because climate action is insufficient to end the Sahel and Lake Chad basin’s conflicts does not make taking such action any less necessary. More than an issue of shrinking natural resources, climate change is a recalibration of life’s possibilities. Discourse that fails to acknowledge this fundamental reconfiguration of security and insecurity misses a vital point.

As international leaders gather in Munich to discuss challenges to global security, they should remember the impacts of their zealous military campaigns on real people, undertaking much greater efforts to understand the conflicts they seek to resolve comprehensively. This cannot be done without considering the climate.


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