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Nigerian Scholar Links Drought, Climate Change to Conflict in Africa

Professor Anthony Nyong cites competition for resources as factor in Darfur crisis

Dr. Anthony Nyong
Professor Anthony Nyong of the University of Jos in Nigeria spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, October 18. (photo courtesy Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars)

By Tanya Salseth Feau
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Conflict and drought caused in part by climate change are factors that must be taken together to explain worsening conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, says Anthony Nyong of the University of Jos in Nigeria, who spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington October 18.

Three years ago, the geography professor joined 400 other scientists from the developing world on a project examining how poor households in the African Sahel -- a wide swath of the continent stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa -- deal with the region’s cycles of drought.  What he found surprised him.

Traditionally, desertification in the Sahel has been blamed on overgrazing practices of the local population.  “This is not the case,” Nyong said, adding that “the real problem is climate change.”  Rainfall in the Sahel has been declining steadily since the 1960s.

Nyong added that conflict often is related to climate change throughout the Sahel.

Discussing the ongoing conflict in Sudan, he said, “What is happening in Darfur is related to resources.  When resources are destroyed … there is a greater level of competition.  You cannot separate conflicts from people’s vulnerabilities to climate change.”

In the Sahel, conflicts over resources often come to a head between pastoralists, who need fields where their animals can graze, and sedentary farmers, who depend on these same fields for agriculture. Complicating this relationship are differences in culture and language – in Nigeria alone, there are more than 400 different languages, said Nyong.

At a time when the majority of conflicts in Africa are portrayed in terms of warring factions or ethnic clashes, the geography professor suggested that conflict management should concentrate on the object of the conflict and not on the participants: “The people that are involved in these conflicts are not madmen or women.  They are human beings seeking survival.  That’s all they want.”

For Nyong, ethnic diversity has the potential for conflict, but also can be an asset, because ethnic groups are often the best protectors of specific resources that are important to them.  The key, Nyong said, is to reduce pressure on these highly valued resources through livelihood diversification and policies that integrate human security.

He dismissed potential technological solutions to the drought problem and criticized the introduction of Western systems of development, which he says have eroded the power of local communities.  “Development does not exist in a vacuum.  Just transposing what has worked [in the West] into another society does not necessarily mean it will work.”

Nyong, who is a consultant to the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Environment, said that local knowledge is key. More responsibility should be given to village chiefs and village councils. Laws that encourage an interface between local committees and elected authorities also would help rebuild the strength of traditional institutions, he said.

“Drought does not respect country, values, or political boundaries,” Nyong explained.  “Nigeria has half the population of West Africa -- if you solve Nigeria’s problems, you’ve solved half of West Africa’s problems,” he said.

But the road to resolving those problems remains long, the academic said.  He is concerned that without an effective and sustainable system of managing conflict, Sahel countries will not be able to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals agreed upon by all 191 U.N. member countries in September of 2000, especially the goal of reducing poverty by half by the year 2015.

For additional information on the Millennium Development Goals, see the August 2005 electronic journal.

For information on U.S. policy in the region, see Africa.

Created: 24 Oct 2005 Updated: 25 Oct 2005

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