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How is climate change driving conflict in Africa?

In light of recent events, such as the mass kidnapping of the 343 schoolboys in Nigeria, the war in Tigray in the northernmost region of Ethiopia, as well as decades-long issues such as the Darfur war, the accumulating news headlines seems unequivocal: there is a growing link between climate change and conflict, and that link is seen right across the African continent.

Climate change is widely recognised as a “threat multiplier” due to its role of exacerbating the traditional cause of conflict. The most egregious form is the way changes in climate alter competition over increasingly scarce resources. Research on the so-called ‘heat–aggression relationship’ suggests there is a 10- 20% increase in the risk of armed conflict associated with each 0.5°C increase in local temperatures.

This hypothesis has been recently expanded upon, with research indicating that – from 1970 to 2015 – local temperature increase in 159 countries also saw an increased number of terrorist attacks and subsequent deaths.

The authors of that report concluded that: “When temperature increases, the number of terrorist attacks and deaths due to terrorist attacks tend to increase. Our results are consistent with a large body of research on the effect of climate on conflict and are of practical concern given increasing average global temperatures.”

Such research has paved the way, today, for reduction in the growth of climate change being recognised as an essential prerequisite to achieving peace in many parts of the world. Alongside the cultivation of economic and political stability, increased peace as a product of addressing climate change efforts at that heart of much environmental protection and restoration work.

The Sahel
Across the Sahel, stretching from Senegal in the West to Sudan in the East, prolonged periods of drought, intense desertification and soil erosion persist, resulting in depleted productivity of land, changes of grazing patterns, all because of climate change. In Sudan this has led to civil war lasting from the 1980s.

Between 1983-84, famine alone killed nearly 100,000 of those living in  its Darfur region. Desperation triggered mass ecological migration, mainly towards Southern Darfur, disrupting harmony between inhabitants. In particular the pastoralists, the Arab nomads, in the search for survival, moved into more fertile lands inhabited by settled farmers, the fur tribes. Thus, this conflict, largely driven by resource scarcity, became enmeshed with ethnic polarisation.

Weapons smuggling and continual underdevelopment and marginalisation have ensured that fighting has continued well into the 2000s. The most violent actions have been taken by the government in support of the Arab nomadic militias. Civilian areas in West Darfur, south of North Darfur around Kabkabia and Jebel Marra have been heavily bombed. Boxes filled with metal shrapnel were dropped from the back of Antonov planes and helicopter gunships were flown at low altitude to clear villages.  In 2014, bombing renewed its intensity February-March with the aim of clearing out the settled farming communities. Seen from the camps in Chad, the terror of these bombing campaigns deters the thousands of refugees from returning back to their country. From 2003, the conflict has left 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced. Violence has since flared up this January 2021, leaving at least 83 people dead.

The Lake Chad Basin
Moving West, the next hotspot is the Lake Chad Basin. Around 30 million people in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon are competing over this dramatically shrinking water source, which from 1960, has lost 90% of its surface water. Displacement, hunger and malnutrition are rife. This has contributed to increasing abductions, killings and rights violations and to the growth of terrorist organisations, causing 10 million people to need humanitarian assistance.

In addressing the rise of terrorist groups in the region, the 2017 Security Council Resolution 2349, recognised “the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity”.

Plainly put, at the UN, President Buhari of Chad proclaimed that the “The ‘oasis in the desert’ is just a desert now… Farmers and herdsmen struggle over the little water left; Herdsmen migrate in search of greener pastures resulting in conflicts; Our youths are joining terrorist groups because of lack of jobs and difficult economic conditions.”

In North East Nigeria, where more than 50% of the population make their living from farming, fishing and livestock production, increased aridity has eradicated many livelihoods making them vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram.

Its attacks have grown in brutality and consistency in 2020, with early December’s attack leaving 110 rice farmers dead. Since Boko Haram’s formation in 2009 it has caused nearly 40,000 casualties and has contributed to the displacement of 2.4 million people around the Lake Chad Basin.

However, Boko Haram is only one of the many violent actors in the country. In the light of recent kidnaping of 344 boys in Nigeria, banditry has also grown rapidly in areas deeply affected by climate change. Among the kidnapper’s complaints were objections over how their cattle are being killed and how various vigilante units disturb them. Recent large-scale armed attacks are suspected to have been carried out by the semi-nomadic Fulani community. This is part of a wider trend of growing organised violence between pastoralists and settled farmers, representing a similar dynamic to the Darfur war. This has caused 300,000 people to flee their homes, and mass insecurity in parts of Adamawa, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states since 2018. The roots of the conflict lie in climate-induced degradation of pasture and increasing violence in the country’s far north, owing to the rapid growth of ethnic militias, which have forced herders south. According to Amnesty International, 1,126 people were killed by bandits in Nigeria between January and June in 2020 alone.  

The Horn of Africa
The horn of Africa, encompassing Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya is also affected by climate driven conflict. Drought impacts over 13 million people, encouraging induced migration and ultimately ethnic tensions and terrorism.

In the arid region of Tigray, years of drought contributed to its different patterns of settlement, social formation and economic production to the rest of Ethiopia. In 1973, drought caused chaos to the social and environmental systems allowing the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), set up in 1975, to thrive. The TPLF to this day has maintained its popularity amongst the peasantry.

With war beginning in November 2020 in Tigray, a region already hosting 100,000 Eritrean refugees and suffering from drought, the position of its communities has become extremely volatile. The violence from the conflict has transnational reverberations affecting Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.

Peacekeeping troops were pulled out of Somalia, crucial for halting the advances of Al Shabaab. Their absence has also accentuated the existing conflicts between the clans and warlords that battle over the monopolisation of water and other valuable resources. Ownership over water sources and access acts as a significant source of power. 

According to the U.N., more than 2.5 million people in Somalia have been forced from their homes by drought and insecurity in recent years; many are now at risk of starvation.

“These camps have become hotspots for criminal activities such as human trafficking and child exploitation, and a recruitment ground for Al Shabaab.” Across Africa, the effects of climate change are shaping these conflict patterns, in particular the pattern of violence arising from forced migration into contested space.

Finally, the insecurity has been exacerbated during the last few years, by another confluence of climate change and violence as locust outbreaks have swarmed across the horn of Africa. Unusual weather patterns amplified by climate change in the Arabian Peninsula enabled conditions for mass locust breeding. In particular, Yemen’s response system has been unable to inhibit its growth. Five years of civil war and bombing campaigns led by Saudi Arabia, assisted by Britain, have destroyed much of the vital infrastructure that deals with locusts.

One thing seems to be clear – Africa, a continent that contributes merely 2% of the earth’s growing carbon emissions, bares the full force of the consequences of global warming, none more so than in climate-fuelled armed violence.