Nigeria decides: Acknowledged or not, environmental disasters drive the nation's politics

The Sahel is creeping south by approximately 3,600 square kilometres a year, swallowing whole villages.

SHOCKING statistics on environmental degradation are so commonplace that far too often the sheer scale of the disaster is not fully acknowledged. This is not one of those times. 

Nigeria votes in a general election Saturday March 28, and though Boko Haram, the economy and corruption, not the environment, are the leading items on the agendas of the presidential candidates as an issue, the scale of the challenge faced by the west African giant in dealing with its ecological disasters, can best be demonstrated through the impact they have had on its national politics.

Environmental matters, however, have  still managed to indirectly find their way on the platforms used by the front-runners in the upcoming elections, though lower down in the order of priorities. 

Whether they are given high priority, or get only a casual nod, the environment will be most important driver and, judging by the mind-boggling statistics unveiled, continue to be the most important real driver of the West African nation’s decision-making processes. 

Last week President Goodluck Jonathan was named the “Life Patron of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore”, a Fulani cattle rearers union. A community that has been part of a farmer-herdsman conflict that the country has been grappling with over the past decade. 

Farmer-Herder Conflict

The conflict is between Africa’s Fulani community, the largest nomadic population in the world spread over at least nine countries in West Africa, and Nigeria’s southern state farmers. For decades Nigeria’s Fulani, and their prized long-horned zebus, were able to peacefully negotiate grazing routes with Nigeria’s southern farmers, but now many farmers are planting over those grazing routes and Fulani herders are increasingly moving their herds onto non-Fulani homelands.  

This has escalated in the last decade into devastating incidences of violence between the two groups. According to the Nigeria Social Violence Dataset, which tallies incidents of deadly social violence in the country since 1998, clashes between the two groups have resulted in 3,732 fatalities. 

Legislators from the northern region of Nigeria are seeking to acquire lands in all the states of Nigeria for the establishment of grazing routes and reserves for Fulani herders. But this grassroots conflict is not going to go away easily because it is related in part to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes Africa as one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability and within Africa, Nigeria is one of the countries expected to be worst affected.

Sahel Creeping

The Sahel is creeping south by approximately 3,600 square km a year, swallowing whole villages. According to some estimates, two-thirds of Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara states could turn desert or semi-desert in the 21st century. A special report by the United States Institute of Peace report quotes geological data obtained from the government showing a 400% increase in sand dunes over the next twenty years.

These statistics paint a stark picture of  how Nigeria’s ecological disasters are in fact driving, and will continue to drive, the country’s politics. 

Communal violence over contested resources underlie many of the violent conflicts that dot the country’s social landscape and are only set to get worse. 

Some 85% of all Nigerian agriculture is rain-fed, and many crops are sensitive to even tiny shifts in rainfall and temperature. Experts are already linking mounting crop failures and declining yields in the northeast to higher temperatures and drought. Nigeria’s economy also relies heavily on climate-sensitive occupations: farming, fishing, and logging occupy 70% of the workforce and accounts for the majority of jobs created recently.  

Climate change-related resource shortages will therefore lead to further unemployment, and, with an unemployment rate of 25%, Nigeria’s human capital is already poorly leveraged. What is of even more concern, in terms of stability, is that a full 60% of Nigeria’s population and three-quarters of its unemployed are under thirty.

Environment and violence

More youth joblessness often creates political instability as it deepens the recruitment pool for political violence. Politicians are more able to bankroll, mobilise, and therefore manipulate much of Nigeria’s youth for violent activity. 

There has also been evidence of this youth unemployment feeding and fuelling the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, as well as other rebellious factions. In the dusty streets of Borno state’s capital, for instance, Boko Haram attracts rafts of jobless young men.

The insurgent group has cost the country dearly. Along with huge loss of life and a public flogging for being unable to contain the insurgency, the government is currently spending approximately $733,485 on soldiers alone every month. 

There are also other groups unemployed youth are joining, such as the Niger Delta’s many militias and gangs. 

Niger Delta tragedy

The Delta rebellion, which has receded somewhat since Jonathan became president, however was also the result of a man-made environmental disaster. The oil curse has hit the country’s politics in more ways than one - it has made the country complacent in the face of habitat and wildlife degradation, which could have been possible avenues for economic diversity through it’s already uncultivated tourism industry. 

The country does not even have adequate data on the status of biodiversity and the extent of this degradation, making it difficult to plan adequate conservation. 

Oil has also caused pollution in the Niger delta which perpetuates an already complex web of conflict in the area, with the official estimate of the financial loss put at about $3.5 billion annually. 

Since the 1950s oil has been extracted in the areas with destructive consequences on the environment, bringing about environmental degradation and destruction of the people’s primary means of livelihood. The rise of militarism and terrorism in the Niger Delta  was attributed in large part to the Federal Government and Oil Companies’ clampdown on non-violent protests for environmental justice in the Niger Delta. 

This significantly affected the level of crude oil production in the country as well as revenue generation, causing national insecurity and an increase in defence spending. 

According to an analytical evaluation of the cost of the conflict in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, given that the country spent $2 billion annually to service its external debt, it followed that a resolution of the Niger Delta conflict would save the country more than what it needs to service its external debt. 

So for now it’s fortunate that the Niger Delta region has witnessed relative calm since the proclamation of amnesty on June 25, 2009, by former president of Nigeria Umaru Musa Yar’adua and the highly rated subsequent disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programme under Jonathan. 

However, according to national reports, less than five days before the presidential election, the former militants of the Niger Delta region changed their choice of presidential candidate from Jonathan to Mohammadu Buhari, stating the incumbent had failed the people of the Niger delta and the country as a whole. 

This adds a precarious dimension to peace, should Jonathan be re-elected, having been accused of being a tribal president who does not have the interest of the people of the Niger Delta at heart, it could escalate the situation in the Delta once more. 

Oil fields under water

The oil reserves, the root of these environmentally driven political problems, are at risk from the environment itself. 

There is insufficient data to make conclusive statements on sea level rises on Africa’s shorelines, but there is a mean global sea-level rise of 3.28mm/year - though this will change according to increasing global temperatures. 

Hydrological modelling says a metre of sea level rise could put nearly all the Delta’s onshore oil fields under water. The modelling also indicates that a half meter sea level rise would submerge more than 28,500 square km of coastal land - a scary prospect considering the ocean city of Lagos has more than 80% of the total industries in the country. 

This rise in sea levels would also lead to huge displacement with people leaving the area -  one 2011 study found the homes of 9.7 million Nigerians could be vulnerable to rising seas by 2050. 

The country seems to be stirring its policy to adapt to these drastic changes, recognising that this environmental disaster will dominate the country’s economy and politics - hopefully it is not too little too late for some of the changes. 

Examples include the Lagos State’s 2012 Adaptation Strategy, and the establishment of the Science Committee on Climate Change to develop strategies to bridge the gap between increasing scientific knowledge and policy. 


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