Violence, Environment, and The Nigerian Question – By Ayeni Faith Damilola
Nigeria is the most populous country in the whole of Africa, seventh most populous in the world, and after China and India, it has the largest youth population on earth. Apart from its ‘Giant of Africa’ label, one thing the rest of the world seems to know too well is its unending series of violence. Violence itself is a native of nowhere. The most peaceful nations of the world could be in the news for few smashes once in a while. Citizens rise up against one another in other places, but, like summer flowers, it fades out, and they simply move on. Such could also be said of Nigeria before the ’90s when violent conflicts broke out and soon faded out. Even the civil war and its three million deaths did fade out, and Nigerians moved on. People sent away from a region with machetes and guns returned to live a good life afterwards. The first unending violence, however, broke out in the Niger Delta, and there have been two more, even more deadly, and almost equally destructive: bokoharam insurgency and farmers-herders conflict. For all three, the cause is lost in clashing opinions.
While thousands and thousands of death have been recorded and properties worth billions of dollars lost, the economy grieves, partly as a result of these series of longlasting violence. Nigeria recently became the poverty capital of the world with over 80 million people suriving on less than a dollar per day. In all of these, there is a question Nigerians haven’t found a satisfying answer(s) to. It is the Nigerian question. What exactly is the root of these series of ‘unending’ violence? Is it politics, religion, or ethnicity? And I add this: Could it be the environment? This piece aims to answer the question, wearing the lense of an environmentalist, but let’s first take a closer look at the three unending crises that keep Nigeria in the limelight for violence.
Niger Delta Conflicts
Oil related conflicts in the Niger Delta dates back to the early post-independence days, but violence which is now a feature of the region most likely started in the early 1990s. The Niger Delta is, perhaps, the largest wetland in Africa and was home to one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet not too long a distance ago. Over the last 25 years, bombings, piracy, kidnappings, killings, and maiming have been the area’s classic delineation. A young Niger Deltan can hardly recapture a time armed men, either police, soldiers or militias, were not hanging around every corner of his/her household. The cause, to many, is unguarded competition for oil wealth while some analysts see the unending violence as having root in politics. But one thing is particularly true of the region: Environmental issues have always been on the front burner. The region’s over twenty million people were mostly farmers and fishers before the discovery of oil. Oil spillage became a challenge, and at the time the violence first broke out, there had been over a million barrels of oil in the soils and waters of the Niger Delta. An impoverished soil and poisoned water could no longer cater for the agricultural and social needs of the locals, so, more people became jobless as the day went by. Niger Delta became unhabitable. The dwellers also had health issues, ranging from skin lessions to breathing problems, eye problems, and skin cancer, to contend with as a result of dangerous gases which were continously flared into the surrounding air as a result of careless oil operations.
Bokoharam is one of the deadliest terrorist groups the world has ever seen, going by its thousands of victims -military and civilian alike. The endless attacks are largely in the northeast, especially Borno state, and one thing is so true of that part of Nigeria: It housed (and still does) a part of Lake Chad, a large fresh water body in the ’50s. Spanning about 26,000km2, Lake Chad was the sixth largest lake in the world when the men were still boys, and from it about 70 million locals got their daily winnings. It was available for fishing, irrigation of farmlands, drinking by livestocks, and more, but at the time bokoharam broke out, about 90% of its mass had dried up as a result of climate change and overuse. Millions were, therefore, already hungry, angry, and desperate. Bokoharm thrives in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and all of these countries homed part of the flourishing lake and once had miillions of their citizens earning a living from it. Something seems to add up, but we are not there yet.
Farmers-herders conflict can also be tracked down to the late 90s. The Fulani militants which constitute a side in the conflict was ranked the fourth deadliest terrorist group in 2014 by the Global Terrorism Index, and between 2016 and now, about 4,000 Nigerians have been lanced on the head or the heart in the series of undying clashes. It is a struggle over land and water between semi-nomadic herders and farmers. Most people consider it an ethnoreligious bloodbath, with the Fulanis seen as tactfully carrying out an islamisation agenda. Maybe that is true. But one thing is undisputable: The north battles environmental deteriorations, and prominent among them is desertification which gulps about 351,000 hectares of its land annually. This is a result of climate change. One of such cases is the shrinkage of Lake Chad on which some of these herders previously relied for their cattle’s well being. Hence, they were forced to migrate down south, through farmlands, and in the middlebelt – an unavoidable passage to the north – an unending conflict broke out.
The Nigerian Question
Is it politics, religion, or ethnicity? And my own add : Could it be the environment? Many environmental findings have predicted a dire future – the type that we now experience – for Nigeria. One of them is the IPCC fourth assessment report (2007) which called Nigeria a ‘hot spot’ for climate change – and that means more than it sounds like. A 2011 report sponsored by the Centers of Innovation at the U.S. Institute of Peace also used a similar tone. According to it, “Nigeria’s climate is likely to see growing shifts in temperature, rainfall, storms, and sea levels throughout the twenty-first century.” All of these we have seen, but it’s more than that. As the report puts it, “Poor adaptive responses to these shifts could help fuel violent conflict in some areas of the country.” Without doubt, all of the violent conflicts earlier listed occur in or can be linked to parts of the country where there have been existential environmental challenges capable of threatening the very survival of citizens.
It is, therefore, sound to coonclude that the series of longlasting violence Nigeria experiences is a blowback of environmental degradation – natural and man-made . The new environment has been pitting neighbours against neighbours, muslims against christians, one tribe against another, and citizens against the state. If the pastural lands in the north weren’t overtaken by advancing desert, calling for a compulsory migration of herds, there wouldn’t have been a fight over land and water in the middle belt. Had the Niger Delta soil not been rendered unproductive by hundreds of thousands of tonnes of spilled oil, and the water poisoned, citizens wouldn’t have picked up arms. A toad doesn’t run in the daytime for nothing. The same thing can be said of bokoharam, a terrorist group made up of the poorest of the poor uneducated young people who are most likely victims of an environment that no longer supports fishing and other farming activities they grew up to survive on. If this is true, who is at fault? Citizens who never interacted sustainably with their immediate environment, government that never took adaptive steps towards an impending climatic shift, and the word at large, especially the highly industrialised countries which turned the atmosphere we all share to a garbage can for dangerous gases.
Ayeni Faith Damilola, program manager, Green Global Environmental Network