Anthony Nyong of the University of Jos, Nigeria, discussed the relationship between drought and conflict in the West African Sahel at a recent Wilson Center event co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program. A strip of land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel is characterized by irregular rainfall and recurring drought. Focusing on the Sahelian region of northern Nigeria, Nyong examined how scarcity of natural resources and conflict interact to exacerbate vulnerability and human insecurity.

Since the 1960s, the West African Sahel has experienced a steady decline in annual rainfall, as well as an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought. "Life in the Sahel," Nyong said, "is governed by rainfall." As water becomes scarcer and demand for it increases, so too does the threat of conflict over resource allocation. But Nyong believes that drought, while a component of conflict, is not the cause of conflict. "I've always said that Africa's problem is not climate; it's the straw that breaks the camel's back." Rather, he believes that uncontrollable climatic factors complicate Africa's more controllable problems, such as population and poverty.

While population and poverty affect the whole of Africa, Nyong identified several factors specific to western Sahel that exacerbate conflict in the region. Natural resource scarcity, he believes, is a result of the region trying to compete in the global agriculture market: "The cultivation of crops for the international markets made us go into marginal land to produce more crops to make more money." As farmers continue to move north into increasingly dry and unsustainable land, Nyong said "there is an expanding zone for conflict."

The zone's vulnerability to conflict is heightened by unregulated border crossing between Nigeria and its equally dry neighbor to the north, Niger. Pastoralists from Niger, whose welfare depends on the protein and money provided by their livestock, often let the animals encroach on Nigerian farmland. Showing photographs of dry riverbeds and empty wells, Nyong explained that virtually no grazing land remains. As a result, pastoralists relocate their herds in search of sustenance, often finding it in Nigeria's croplands. Despite the Nigerian government's self-reporting system, whereby pastoralists alert authorities when animals have illegally eaten Nigerian farmland and then repay farmers for lost profits, Nyong noted that this system does not address the border problem: "Cows won't respect the laws of Nigeria," he said.

To manage climate-related conflicts, Nyong believes that international actors must realize that Africans have lived and dealt with drought and other climatic stressors for centuries. He attributed unsuccessful attempts at drought management to the unnatural use of "Western" methods of conflict resolution within the existing indigenous framework. With over 400 languages spoken in Nigeria, Nyong pointed out that each indigenous group has had its own method of dealing with drought. Instead of replacing this existing framework, Nyong suggested building community-based strategies into regional and national development policies.

Additionally, he sees a need for more published information on the West African Sahel, specifically Nigeria. "When you pick up literature on West Africa, it is all on Francophone Africa. You see nothing on English African countries." Nigerians, he noted, are the "poorest of the poor in the world," and account for half the population in West Africa. A lack of information on such a significant percentage of the population, Nyong believes, is an impediment to successful conflict resolution. "By solving Nigeria's problems," he said, "you've solved half of West Africa's problems."

Knowledge, Nyong believes, is a key factor in development. Rather than focusing on financial capital, he proposed teaching farmers and pastoralists about sustainable development and training Nigerians in alternate livelihoods. He rejected, however, relocation as a solution to the problem: "Land to an African is not just a fiscal resource. It is a spiritual resource. It is something that he holds dear to him. Resettlement projects have not worked. Wherever you move people, they are moved to a place where they are an alien… [Relocation] is a very last resort."

Drafted by Alison Williams


  • Anthony Nyong

    Head, Gender, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development Unit, African Development Bank