Nigeria: On the Front Line of Climate Change, Conflict


By Paul Parks

The Nigeria Watch Project at the University of Ibadan reported that in 2017 more than 8,600 people were killed in Nigeria from civil strife, criminal acts, resource-related conflicts, and other violent incidents.

While this number is down substantially from the more than 20,000 deaths at the height of the Boko Haram conflict in 2014, the level is more than twice as high than in the five years before 2010.

This increase in violence is tied to a large degree to land use, natural resource development, and disruptions in traditional lifestyles. Where climate degradation and conflict were once seen primarily as a Niger Delta issue related to oil development, conflict has now become endemic in the North East with Boko Haram and in the North Central region between herders and farmers.

While these various conflicts have diverse causes, climate change is a factor in all of them. Climate change is causing increasing temperatures leading to encroaching desertification, rising sea levels leading to coastal degradation, variability in weather patterns to stresses in the agricultural and livestock sector resulting in volatile food prices, and more frequent and violent storms.

Climate change is a gradual and complex process, and the outbreak of violence is related to many factors beyond environment, but to quote the Norwegian researcher Halvard Buhring:…. take the notion of climate change as a “threat multiplier” seriously and investigate the conditions under which climatic changes may accentuate the threat to societal stability and peace, and the mechanisms through which a destabilizing effect might materialise.
Nigeria is not alone in facing this challenge. For example, climate change affecting land use and herding occur in places as diverse as Bhutan in the Himalayas to Algeria in North Africa.

In sub-Sahara Africa, climate change impacts traditional herding in Kenya, Namibia, and Uganda among others. Explaining why his children would not follow in his footsteps, one Algerian herder said: “It’s not like it was before. There isn’t rain.” A statement that rings equally true in Northern Nigeria.

Research from institutions as diverse as University of Texas, Cambridge University, and Peace Research Institute in Oslo Norway demonstrate the links between climate change and conflict. This has led to serious consideration of ways to reduce these risks, which is increasingly discussed in international forums. In almost all the research, Africa is shown to be particularly vulnerable to conflict augmented climate change.

Policy makers in Nigeria need to understand how climate change acts as a threat multiplier and to address this on a policy and operational manner. Maintaining stable livelihoods is a primary objective of any government, and changing climate is increasingly a determinant in this.

Consider migration, as national resources are degraded and depleted by climate related factors, stable livelihoods are undermined leading to migration. While public attention has focused on herders or youth attempting to make the crossing to Europe, the far more numerous migration is from rural to urban areas. Rural dwellers are increasingly unable to support themselves and are forced to seek economic refuge in cities, which are often already overwhelmed in providing public services and employment.

Considering environmental degradation, Lake Chad is a stark warning of what can happen. In the last thirty years the rainy season in Northern Nigeria has decreased by 30 days and the Sahara has advanced southward by 1-10 km a year. Lake Chad once the largest fresh water lake in the country has now shrunk by at least two thirds.

Indeed, in Nigeria what remains of Lake Chad is basically swamps and wetlands. The Lake’s disappearance along with the tripling of the Basin’s population since the 1980s has led to massive food insecurity for more than 2 million people in Northern Nigeria and widespread extreme poverty.

This poverty, economic fragility, drought and environmental degradation has provided a fertile ground for non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram to contest state authority across the region.

In the international climate negotiations, the response to these climate impacts is referred to as adaptation. The Paris Climate Accord, signed by 174 countries, recognizes that climate change is happening and that adaptation measures are urgently needed.

Nigeria has signed and ratified this accord, and submitted to the UN its first national climate strategy, a large part of which addresses adaptation. Indeed, Nigeria has worked diligently to be a strong partner in the Paris Accord.

Lake Chad is never going to be the lake it once was, yet even in its reduced state it provides livelihood to two million and food security to thirteen million people. The World Bank working with Nigeria and the other affected countries has developed a comprehensive plan to improve the lives of the people who depend on the lake.
The plan looks at improving management of the remaining fisheries and agricultural production, better land and water rights, better logistics, renewable energy, improved education and health of the people. The plan does NOT try to refill the lake, instead it takes what exists and works to improve the lives on the people who now, and in the future, will depend on it.

This adaptation approach needs to be applied to other climate challenges. The current crisis over the migrations of the herders needs to take into account that farmers too are suffering from climate change. Variability of rainfall in the Plateau States has increased by 20 per cent putting pressure on farmers’ lifestyles. Given the inexorable, albeit not fully predicable, increased aridity and desertification; the stress on both herders and farmers will only get worse in the future.

For adaptation to be successful, greater public discussion about active involvement across all stakeholders is urgently needed. Climate change is with us, and the stress on Nigeria will only increase.
To be successful, adaptation measures requires well developed, long-term plans that address the complexities of the issue, including the reduction of violence. These plans will take years and much money to implement, and require the long-term commitment of the government.

It is encouraging to see the Governor of Kebbi State speaking out on this. Public dialogue needs to expand to all levels of government and citizens and lead to actions.

Far too many Nigerians live on the very edge of economic survival and are the ones must vulnerable to climate impacts and susceptible to the allure of violence. Nigeria needs to move forward quickly and decisively on addressing climate change in very tangible ways.

* Parks, Director at Carbon Limits Nigeria, writes