The Pastoralist Crisis in West Africa: Terrorism, Food and Climate Change
Updated: Jan 17
The United Nations' 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) took place in November 2022 in Egypt after a series of extreme weather events and natural disasters throughout the year highlighted the destructive effects of a changing climate firsthand. As the planet’s temperature increases, the African continent is experiencing increasingly severe climate extremes , such as floods and droughts; West Africa was hit by devastating floods, while the Sahel region struggled with a food crisis due to irregular rainfall. These events have had a significant impact on food security in the region, and an evident effect on conventional security. According to the World Food Program's (WFP) latest assessment, the combination of climate shocks, economic insecurity, high food prices, and slow economic recovery has caused 38 million people in the region to become food insecure.
The World Weather Attribution service reported that in 2022, the semi-arid stretch of the Sahel faced a drought-induced food crisis due to crops receiving less than 40% of their needed water by the end of August. The combination of the low harvest yields with the war in Ukraine impacting grain and fertilizer supplies has caused food prices to rise significantly, resulting in widespread food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty. In addition, weather shocks have contributed to political instability by exacerbating existing conflicts over resources. As the availability of these resources becomes increasingly scarce, there may be greater competition and tension between different groups.
The 2022 Global Terrorism Index from Australia’s Institute for Economics and Peace shows that the Sahel has become a global epicentre for violent extremism, with recent attacks in coastal countries revealing that the threat is spreading rapidly across the region. Evidence suggests that climate change may contribute to rising extremism in West Africa. Indeed, the dire economic and food insecurity situation created by climate shocks may generate a sense of frustration and hopelessness among individuals and communities, setting the perfect ground for extremist groups to exploit these conditions by offering a sense of purpose, identity, and support. According to a UNOWAS study, recent years have shown an increase in violent conflicts involving pastoralists in parts of West Africa and the Sahel, often fueled by competition for land, water, and forage due to the severe climate shocks hitting the region. As scarce resources and increasing socio-political tensions put their livelihoods at risk, many pastoralists have reportedly turned to armed groups for economic security - and have become increasingly vulnerable to terrorist recruitment overtures. In that sense, pastoralists become both victims and perpetrators in these conflicts, which, due to their transhumance mobility, can be challenging to contain and may spread across borders. Examining the pastoralist crisis in the Sahel, which is closely connected to climate shocks, may provide insights into how climate-related events can pose threats to peace and development in the region.
The Pastoralist Crisis and its implications on the Sahel
Transhumance involves the seasonal movement of pastoralists and their livestock from areas with limited resources to areas with more available pasture and water. This is essential to the Sahel food trade considering no one area of land can support the livestock all year. Many different routes exist to facilitate this movement, with cross-border transhumance in the region regulated by the 1998 ECOWAS Protocol on Transhumance. The purpose of this Protocol is to ensure cross-border livestock movement and work to address issues that can occur when animals are being transported. One cross-border transhumance route that is particularly well-known in the region is from Burkina Faso to Ghana and Togo during the dry season, as the wet season in the coastal countries provides much-needed food and water for the pastoralists livestock.
However, passage along these traditional routes is now challenged by the growing threat of extremism spilling over from the Sahel into the coastal countries. As WFP’s Olo Sib explains, “the routes traditionally used by the pastoralists to move their livestock are the same routes used by different armed groups, who do this on purpose in order to create confusion”, creating a stigmatisation that associates pastoralists with terrorist groups. Sib adds that this amalgam is fueled by the fact that most of the young fighters recruited by terrorist groups come from pastoralist communities. As a result, many countries in the Gulf of Guinea have tightened their borders to prevent the spillover of terrorist groups and limit security risks. These measures have disrupted the region’s typical seasonal migration of transhumant herders and livestock between Sahelian and coastal areas.
The crisis has had negative impacts on the livelihoods of pastoralists in the Sahel. Many pastoralist communities have been forced to sell their livestock at discounted prices or to abandon their herds altogether due to their inability to access water and pasture through the trade routes. This has been further compounded by the climate shocks hitting the Sahel including droughts and extreme heat. Given that pastoralists in the Sahel region rely heavily on livestock, grains, and other agricultural products for their livelihoods, the disruption of these trade routes can have a significant impact on their ability to support themselves and their families. The negative virtue cycle is compounded; as the number of pastoralist communities affected by food insecurity fueled by climate change increases, some may turn to armed groups to meet their basic needs, which further fuels the pastoralist border crisis.
The Pastoralist Crisis and its implications on the coastal regions
On top of having consequences on the economic situation of pastoralists in the Sahel, WFP’s most recent assessments in the Gulf of Guinea countries shed light on how the pastoralist crisis has direct implications for the communities living in the coastal regions. Sib observes that “food insecurity is on the rise compared to last year, with the number of people food insecure increasing by 20% in the coastal countries”. For coastal communities who are heavily reliant on the import and export of the pastoral trade, the disruption of trade routes and supply chains can lead to a decrease in the availability of these goods, driving up prices and unaffordability.
Communities living in coastal regions sustain themselves through products made available through transhumance, and through fishing. With transhumance patterns becoming more and more unpredictable due to climate shocks and the problems associated with rising terrorist activity in the Sahel, fishing as a means to sustain livelihoods has become an overwhelming priority. However, changes in temperature and precipitation patterns have affected the distribution and abundance of fish, with increases in water temperatures causing poleward migration of marine from their original habitat. It is becoming increasingly difficult for fishermen to sustain their livelihoods, and some may turn to illegal fishing methods or other illicit coastal activity, including piracy, in order to access the resources they need to support themselves and their families.
The effects of climate change have exacerbated the pastoralist crisis in the Sahel region and have had significant consequences for both the people living in the region and for coastal countries that rely on their trade. Although rising extremism is not yet commonplace in West Africa’s coastal countries, we can observe how the transhumance disruption and environmental degradation create the conditions for insecurity and unrest that are conducive to the emergence of extremist groups. Terrorist groups, encouraged by their success in the region and bolstered by new recruits driven into their arms by heavy handed tactics and mercenary activity in Burkina Faso, Mali and elsewhere, are now seeking new areas to operate in, causing the threat to shift from the Sahel region to coastal West Africa. The economic vulnerabilities present in the coastal regions as a result of climate shocks, rising food insecurity, and disrupted trade makes the possibility of terrorist groups presenting themselves as an alternative very plausible.
Looking ahead: anticipation and prevention
Although the drivers of rising extremism in the coastal areas of West Africa are complex and multifaceted with a range of factors likely to be at play, the threat of extremism spilling over is very much present and is one that must be averted through anticipation and prevention. In the Sahel, there is a desperate need to address the structural causes of the pastoral crisis. And without compromising national security and the risks of terrorist infiltration it is important that pastoralists can once again assume their traditional transhumance movement of livestock, something that is vital in stemming the tide of terrorist recruitment and ensuring stability in both coastal and in-land West Africa.