Jihadists, drought threaten pastoral life in Sahel region

Herders are facing growing obstacles as extremist groups drive insecurity and drought reduces the amount of grazing land.
Sunday 06/05/2018
A camel herder crosses the Yobe River on the outskirts of Damasak in north-eastern Nigeria. (AFP)
Dwindling resources. A camel herder crosses the Yobe River on the outskirts of Damasak in north-eastern Nigeria. (AFP)

TUNIS - Jihadism and climate change are twin scourges increasingly limiting water and grazing resources in the Sahel, threatening to alter the lives of shepherds and forcing populations to migrate.

“Around 95% of the 700 cows of our village have been in Mali’s grazing land for five months now,” said herders’ association chief al Hadrami Ould Sheikh al-Jali in the southern Mauritanian region of Timbedra.

“Our cattle are 100km deep in Mali land. Drought has ruined our grazing land and the lack of water had forced us to move our animals to Mali.”

Mobility of herders in the Sahel region has helped shepherds survive cyclical droughts. Accords between neighbouring countries regulate the movements of herders and their animals.  Farming ministers and authorities from seven regions in Mauritania and Senegal met recently to facilitate shepherds’ movements.

Livestock farming ministers from 15 West African countries also met in Nigeria to discuss how the natural mobility of herders is threatened by communal conflicts, the spread of jihadists and severe drought.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement that the dry weather could lead to one of the worst harvests in many years in the Sahel.

Lack of rainfall in southern Mauritania, parts of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Senegal wreaked havoc on livestock and crops and triggered displacement of herders. Mass hunger is a distinct risk among the region’s populations.

“If we don’t do anything, what will they do? Die, join extremist groups, migrate? Migrate where?” asked Abdou Dieng, WFP regional director for West and Central Africa. “We must invest in programmes in the Sahel.”

Change in climate patterns and the spread of armed Islamist groups in the region add challenges.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it expects the Sahel region to get hotter, with temperatures in the area increasing approximately 1 degree Celsius in the next two decades, by 2 degrees by 2065 and 4 degrees by the end of the century.

The United Nations said 5 million people will need food aid in the coming months because of the drought in West Africa.

The Sahel’s population soared 30% from 2000-10 and will average 3% yearly increases, the United Nations says. More people require more land, more food, more water and more jobs in a context in which all four are already in short supply.

The median age of the region’s population is under 20 and children are among the most likely in the world to be out of school. This makes low-skill farming and herding the only sources of livelihood for most of the population.

As extremist groups drive insecurity in the region and drought reduces the amount of grazing land, herders are facing more obstacles in terms of mobility.

Shepherds from southern Mauritania and Mali, who could previously cross the border with relative ease, faced a different situation this year.

“Body checks and declarations of the number of animals and other goods are enforced at each of the many monitoring and control points inside Mali,” Mauritania herder Sheikh Ayya Ould Krami told the Mauritanian daily Al Akhbar.

“Mauritania is not applying reciprocity,” he said. “Mali imposes a tax of at least 10,000 CFA ($18) for each herd whatever the number of animals comprising it. That is unfair.”

Jihadists also tax herders in their strongholds.

The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), which has an estimated 5,000 fighters, is raising taxes on herders as it creates its own economy over grazing land in the Lake Chad area.

Reuters quoted herders in the area as saying that ISWA provides safe grazing for about 2,500 naira ($8) a cow and 1,500 naira ($5) for smaller animals. ISWA, which split from Nigeria’s Boko Haram in 2016, also runs slaughterhouses for the cattle, taking fees for each animal, as well as from other activities such as gathering firewood.

ISWA is said to be digging wells and giving out seeds and fertiliser to win support within pastoral communities.

“The Islamic State has a terrible reputation for being so brutal around the world and people can’t imagine an Islamic State faction could be more moderate (than Boko Haram),” Jacob Zenn, of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, said to Reuters.

“It opens the longer game of trying to create a connection to people,” Vincent Foucher, who studies Boko Haram at the French National Centre for Science Research, told Reuters.

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