Climate Change Fuels Boko Haram

Feb 29, 2016Issue 3 - March 2016, Issue 3 Commentary, Nigeria

By Nafeez Ahmed

Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist terror group, continues to rampage across the country with growing impunity. Since its emergence in 2009, the group has killed 20,000 people and forced over 2.5 million Nigerians from their homes.

Its expansion has been aided by growing ties with more established terrorist networks, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), providing the group with “training and material support” according to the UN Security Council. Last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), active in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Boko Haram’s Islamist agenda is distinctively anti-women. Over the last three years the group has abducted over 2,000 women and girls, sold them or given them as “reward” to their fighters. Two years ago, the group garnered international notoriety for abducting 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Since then, Boko Haram has vowed to ban all girls from attending school so that they can serve the husbands to whom they are—often forcibly—married.

But the brutal oppression of women by Boko Haram is only one dimension of the marginalization of women in Nigeria, which is worsening in the context of the civil conflict, and deepening social crises.

Courtesy of ©EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello

Courtesy of ©EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello

Growth for the few

From 1996 to 2010, the percentage of Nigerians below the national poverty line rose from 65 to 69 percent. In 2010, inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, rose from 0.429 in 2004 to 0.447 in 2010.

Nigerians in rural areas have it worse, with 66 percent of the rural population living below one US dollar a day. “Malnutrition is widespread. Rural areas and disadvantaged groups are particularly vulnerable to chronic food shortages and unbalanced nutrition.”

Women and children are the ones most affected by this extreme poverty. Nigeria is ranked 79 out of 86 in the OECD’s 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index, and 120 out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Index. Over a third of all Nigerian children are stunted, and nearly a quarter underweight.

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Africa Economic Outlook report recently concluded that, “Gender gaps are notable in access to education as well as political representation. Although school participation has been improving at the primary level, the proportion of girls enrolled is still lower than boys across all levels of education, with the ratio decreasing at tertiary levels.”

Yet although Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, “the growth has neither generated employment nor translated into poverty reduction nor addressed inequality in Nigeria,” according to the ADB.

The country’s economic contradictions are an ideal showcase of the failures of IMF and World Bank neoliberal reforms. “Nigeria’s uncritical embrace of Western-style neoliberal economic policy largely undermined the country’s quest for a sustainable economic development,” writes Nigerian scholar, Olumide Victor Ekanad of Redeemers University in Ogun State.


There are two further interlinked systemic pressures in play: resource depletion and climate change.

According to a 2013 report commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Nigeria’s crude oil production has decreased since its peak in 2005, largely due to the impact of internal conflicts, leading to the withdrawal of oil companies and lack of investments. Since then production has fluctuated along a plateau.

The DFID report noted that new offshore fields might bring additional oil on-stream, surpassing the 2005 peak – but also noted that rising domestic demand “at some point in the future may cut into the amount of oil available for export.”

The drop in investment has been compounded by the new economics of unconventional oil: higher production costs, a supply glut due to the need for faster and more frequent drilling, and consequently lower market prices.

With Nigeria’s population expected to rise from 160 to 250 million by 2025 and oil accounting for some 96 percent of export revenue as well as 75 percent of government revenue. the government has had to adopt harsh austerity measures. Sharp reductions in public spending, power cuts, fuel shortages and conditional new loans are likely to exacerbate economic inequalities and stoke further the popular grievances that feed groups like Boko Haram in the North.

This is hardly a new pattern. Nigeria’s history of neoliberal austerity and growth for the few has played a key role in driving young unemployed men into the arms of Islamist militants.

Courtesy of ©EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello

Courtesy of ©EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello

Environmental crisis

Compounding these systemic crises is a factor whose potentially devastating effects we are only beginning to understand: climate change.

Last year, a study in the American International Journal of Social Science found that the inadequacy of the government’s climate adaptation programs led to “exposure of the vast population of farmers in northern Nigeria to harsh environmental effects, consequently generating conflict.”

Study author Chukwuma Onyia, a former staffer in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), argued that “Nigerian’s over-dependency on crude oil rents, coupled with the behavior of political elites and the people-unfriendly market liberalizations foisted on Nigeria by the World Bank and IMF derailed the developmental focus of the state, and increasingly weakened its capacity to adapt to a changing climate, particularly in arid northern Nigeria.”

The failure to respond to Nigeria’s changing climate generated increased drought and desertification, in turn leading to “decreased agricultural production, economic decline; population displacement and disruption of legitimized authoritative institutions and social relations.” The net effect was an acceleration of the attractiveness of groups like “Boko Haram and other forms of Jihadi ideology,” resulting in escalating “herder-farmer clashes emanating from the north since 1980s.”

Indeed, the rapid spread of Boko Haram coincided with the shrinking of the region’s Lake Chad from 25,000 km squared in 1963 to less than 2,500 km squared, a phenomenon driven largely by climate change. At this rate, Lake Chad is set to dry up completely within 20 years.

The disappearance of Lake Chad has led millions of people to lose their livelihoods. The result has been a groundswell of discontent, waiting for an outlet.

“Living in poverty in Nigeria’s deeply unequal society, this situation breeds the kind of resentments that make both the educated and uneducated easily attracted to radical new religious movements, particularly those that preach equality and adherence to simple and pure religious values,” writes Ayo Obe, Vice-Chair of the International Crisis Group’s Board of Trustees.

“In this century, Boko Haram has emerged in Maiduguri as a new magnet both for uneducated youths displaced from their traditional livelihoods, and for educated youths attracted to its egalitarian, anti-corruption preaching. Moreover, Boko Haram had shrewdly established economic programs to provide means of employment, augmenting the group’s allure for the region’s disillusioned youth.”

Courtesy of Amnesty International

Courtesy of Amnesty International

Bullets can’t save lives

But the government has failed to address these deeper issues, focusing instead overwhelmingly on short-sighted military responses. This has led to the indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians and, at times, the deliberate targeting of peaceful protestors.

In a 2015 report, Amnesty International reported that 7,000 men and boys as young as nine have died in Nigerian military detention from starvation, suffocation and torture. A further 1,200 were extrajudicially killed and a total of 20,000 young men and boys as young as nine years old have been arbitrarily arrested and detained by the Nigerian military as part of its ‘war on terror’, mostly without charge.

Women, already facing gender discrimination in Nigeria, now face a worsening predicament caught between the misogyny of Boko Haram and the state’s resort to increasingly brutal and counterproductive counter-insurgency measures.

As Human Rights Watch Watch reports, in responding to Boko Haram attacks, Nigerian security forces have “used excessive force, burned homes, engaged in physical abuse, ‘disappeared’ victims, and extra-judicially killed those suspected of supporting Boko Haram.” Many of the victims of these crimes are women: “Few members of the security forces implicated in serious violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including violations against girls and women, have been prosecuted.”

As Western governments contemplate increasing military aid to Nigeria, they are overlooking the inevitable: the escalating insurgency is largely a symptom of endemic corruption, a failed economic system, and the protracted collapse of state institutions as a result of their inability to provide basic services to its impoverished population.

As these crises tear apart the fabric of Nigerian society, an extremist movement with a simplistic moral certainty and utopian promises is exploiting this deep discontent.

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