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Preventing Hell in the Sahel

June 15, 2020

By Rebecca Tinsley

Trails of destruction and ruin left behind by Boko Haram/Iswap in Borno State, June 10, 2020.Pic Credit Elombah News
Trails of destruction and ruin left behind by Boko Haram/Iswap in Borno State, June 10, 2020.Pic Credit Elombah News

A British Parliamentary report, published today, criticizes the Nigerian security services for failing to protect thousands of unarmed farmers targeted by extremist militia. It follows the June 9th massacre of 81 people by Boko Haram in Borno State.

The UK Parliamentarians set out to examine the roots of the violence perpetrated by mainly Muslim herdsmen against mainly Christian farmers in the Middle Belt – a situation repeated across the Sahel, affecting people of all faiths, in Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic.

The report concludes that climate change, desertification and a rapidly growing population threatens the livelihood of pastoralists, leading them to move their herds onto farmland. Problems that were previously resolved with traditional mediation have turned deadly due to the availability of cheap weapons from conflict zones in the region. Herders are emboldened by unscrupulous politicians and extremist Muslim clerics to destroy Christian villages and churches, targeting pastors, and carrying out “ritual slaughter” and mutilation. They also kill thousands of unarmed Muslims who do not subscribe to their particular interpretation of Islam.

Nigeria now ranks third on the Global Terrorism Index of the countries most affected by terrorism, more dangerous than Syria, Pakistan or Somalia. Nigeria is closely followed in the league table by other countries in the Sahel where turbo-charged jihadism is taking an increasing toll.

Yet, the international community seems to barely register the scale of the problem or the suffering of civilians, from West Africa to Sudan. Many diplomats persist in believing the war on terror is confined to the Middle East, ignoring or minimizing the potential for insecurity and economic disruption in Africa.

As the UK Parliamentarians’ report makes clear, countries continue to provide aid to the Nigerian government without demanding more from its security services and officials. I saw this when I visited the ruins of a village in Nigeria’s Plateau State. The mayor told me that when he heard the militia were about to attack, he called the security services, stationed nearby, begging them to come. Instead, the well-armed Fulani herdsmen arrived, carrying Islamic flags and yelling “Allah u Akbar” (God is the greatest). During the following eight hours, they separated the Christian civilians from the Muslims, destroyed the church, and ritually slaughtered the “unbelievers.” The following day, the mayor told me, the security services finally arrived, bringing a mechanic digger so the survivors could dig a pit for the hundreds of bodies.

Based on its research, Amnesty International concludes the security services demonstrate “at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity” in attacks on Christians. Testimony from a former Nigerian army chief of staff confirms fears that the armed forces are “not neutral, they collude” in “ethnic cleansing” by expensively-equipped Fulani militia.

What should be done?

The international community could start by recognizing that desertification and climate change are impacting the life chances of millions of people in the Sahel. Young people in rural areas can no longer count on livelihoods as farmers or herders. Yet, quality education is not easily accessible, meaning they lack the skills to find employment. Extremist groups take advantage of these blighted prospects: most young men would prefer a life of adventure, riding around in a “technical” or Hilux truck in a militia, rather than working in a field in the heat.

The developed world could also stop subsidizing its agricultural produce while forbidding Africa from subsidizing its own farmers; and the West could stop dumping its agricultural surplus on African markets in the guise of aid.

Billions of dollars have been spent fighting the war on terror elsewhere, rather than addressing the impact of global climate change or trying to improve infrastructure, education and opportunities in the Sahel.

Some African leaders are also to blame for diverting the revenues from natural resources to grand status symbol projects, or buying property in London or Paris, rather than investing in their people’s potential. Responding to terror with the occasional military operation in the Sahel region only postpones the conflict: the root causes – marginalization and desertification - must be addressed if the radical jihadist agenda is to be undermined. 

Even the prospect of waves of migration from the Sahel to Europe has provoked only superficial remedies. For instance, the European Union works with Libya and others to stop boats crossing the Mediterranean, rather than addressing the reason why so many people are prepared to leave their homes and families, risking their lives to reach Europe.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed anything about the international community, it is that nations seem incapable of working together in the face of an enormous and immediate risk to human life. What chance is there that there will be high-level diplomatic cooperation to tackle the environmental and demographic factors that jihadism exploits?

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