How Climate Change Drives Conflict in Mali
Military solutions won’t end terrorism in the Sahel. Addressing the environmental factors destroying livelihoods and fueling extremist groups’ recruitment could.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: The life-and-death stakes of ignoring climate change in Mali, Chad looks much the same after Idriss Déby’s death, and African countries stand to benefit from a breakthrough malaria vaccine after decades of disappointment.
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The Climate Crisis at the Heart of Mali’s Conflict
While high-level climate summits tend to discuss the long-term consequences of emissions policies and renewable energy subsidies, in Mali the consequences of climate change are already a matter of life and death.
The West African country has been caught in a protracted conflict for nearly a decade, with battles between fundamentalist groups and government troops destabilizing large parts of Mali. The international community has responded with U.N. peacekeepers, the multilateral G5 Sahel Joint Force, France’s Operation Barkhane, and smaller operations—almost all of them military solutions that fail to address how climate change is driving Mali’s insecurity.
Climate insecurity. A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) details how Mali’s climate insecurity has undermined attempts at peacebuilding. For over a decade, Mali has been at the center of anti-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa all moved to establish an independent state in the north of the country.
Meanwhile, the central government’s hold on power in Bamako remains precarious with two military coups in eight years—first in 2012 and then in 2020. The United Nations established one of its largest peacekeeping operations in Mali in 2013 to help bring stability to the country.
When it extended the mandate of its MINUSMA mission in the country in 2018, the U.N. listed climate change as a security threat in the preamble of Resolution 2423 and as a hindrance to peacebuilding programs. It seemed as though international actors were finally ready to confront the role climate change plays in exacerbating Mali’s conflict.
A country overtaken by the Sahara in the north or occasionally flooded in the interior around the Inner Niger Delta, Mali and its neighbors have increasingly seen more unpredictable weather, which has upended the livelihoods of millions of people.
Mali has seen a mean annual increase of 0.7 degrees Celsius in its temperature since 1960 while rainfall has steadily decreased, according to the report. This has not only made the logistics of peacekeeping more difficult; it has made the country more vulnerable to terrorism and insurgency.
Recruitment. A changing climate has disrupted livelihoods across the country. Today, agriculture employs close to two-thirds of Mali’s labor force and contributes to 39 percent of the country’s GDP. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Mali has experienced decreasing rainfall, interrupting the seasonal work of pastoralists and farmers, leaving many without food and work and increasingly vulnerable to recruitment into Mali’s armed groups.
“There seems to be a relationship between child recruitment and scarce rainfall in central Mali,” said Farah Hegazi, one of the report’s authors. “Families send their children to armed groups as a form of income. When there is more rainfall, there is noticeably less recruitment into armed groups.”
What’s worse, where government-run projects are beset by nepotism and corruption, nonstate actors have taken their place. Katiba Macina, an armed group that operates from the Inner Niger Delta to the Mauritanian border, has built wells and set up agricultural projects. Frustration with local government officials, as well as the charismatic ideology of the group’s founder, Imam Amadou Koufa, makes Katiba Macina and other jihadi groups seem more attractive to disenfranchised young people.
“There is nothing else to do. They need the basics, which they cannot access, and the only option is to take up arms and get what they can,” one MINUSMA soldier told researchers. “It is difficult for me to separate the two—the lack of natural resources and the unemployment because I see one leading to the other.”
An absent state. In large parts of the country, the Malian state is absent. There are few government offices or programs that citizens can point to as a source of stability or aid. Politicians focused on addressing security threats have failed to address bread-and-butter issues away from the capital.
Government policies and international peacemaking efforts also fail to take into account one of the root causes of the conflict—a lack of resources and opportunities for the people caught in the middle of the violence. For example, the 2015 Algiers peace accord, which narrowly focused on curbing violence between the Bamako government and the Azawad movement, had little buy-in from other armed groups and civilian stakeholders.
The people of Mali have shown more resilience and innovation than policymakers in their response to climate change. For example, fishing communities in the Inner Niger Delta have created floating rice paddies to supplement income lost to a decrease in fishing. But that innovation has not protected them from being shot at by jihadis as they travel the delta’s waterways, forcing many to give up their historic livelihoods as they flee in search of safety.
A lesson for the region. Decreasing grazing land and water sources in the north of the country are forcing herders to move farther and farther south, spurring conflict with farmers over land. Shrinking arable land has led to conflict between two of the country’s oldest tribes, the Dogon and the Fulani, where traditional approaches to conflict resolution have failed to solve new environmental challenges and each side has formed a citizen militia, further adding to Mali’s climate of violence.
This sort of conflict is already plaguing other parts of the Sahel region, such as Nigeria, where the conflict in the north is in part driven by rights to land usage. It is also a reminder that defeating terrorist groups rarely involves more guns and boots. The solution, as the SIPRI report and other observers argue, is not to paint blue helmets green but rather to introduce a more holistic strategy to development and peacebuilding.
The Week Ahead
April 28: The African Union launches the Africa Migration Data Network for reliable statistics on movement on the continent.
April 28-29: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa testifies at the judicial inquiry into corruption and state capture.
What We’re Watching
Chad after Déby. At former Chadian President Idriss Déby’s funeral last week, it was clear that France would miss its deceased ally. “You gave your life for Chad in defense of its citizens,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at the state funeral, flying in from Paris to attend the service in person.
Nearby sat the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who was visiting the region already, and leaders from the G5 Sahel Joint Force, signaling Chad’s outsized role in the fight against terrorism in the region. “We will not let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and territorial integrity,” Macron continued.
France seems to have endorsed the military government that has taken over the country, effectively ignoring calls from within Chad for a civilian-led transition. At the helm is Déby’s 37-year-old son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Déby, but there are already concerns that the younger Déby lacks support from within the uniformed elite.
In the meantime, the rebel fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, against whom Déby died fighting, have made contact with civilian groups, offering a dialogue as they close in on the strategically important capital, N’Djamena.
An overdue murder trial in Burkina Faso. A military tribunal in Burkina Faso has charged former President Blaise Compaoré for his alleged role in the death of the revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara in 1987. The socialist leader was killed in a coup led by Compaoré, who along with 13 others will face charges that include complicity in assassination.
Compaoré has always denied involvement in the death of the national hero Sankara, whom he called a friend. Compaoré is unlikely to appear in court: He fled to Ivory Coast in 2014 after being ousted from power.
A malaria vaccine shows promise. After decades of disappointment, scientists have finally made a breakthrough in combating one of the world’s deadliest diseases: malaria. An experimental vaccine was found to have 74 percent to 77 percent efficacy after a year targeting the most dangerous form of the parasite in children.
Developed by the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the vaccine was administered in a trial involving 450 toddlers in Burkina Faso. The next phase of the trial will see the vaccine also tested on a further 4,800 children in Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Chart of the Week
While malaria is all but eradicated in wealthy countries, it remains one of the leading causes of death in the developing world. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 229 million cases of malaria, with 409,000 deaths. More than half of those deaths were in just six African countries, according to a WHO report published last year.
This Week in Tech
A national Twitter rivalry. Twitter’s decision to establish its Africa headquarters in Accra was seen as the latest chapter in the rivalry between Ghana and Nigeria. Both countries have tried to position themselves as tech hubs not only in West Africa but as a gateway to technological innovation on the continent.
Ghana won out because it is viewed as a “supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.” When Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced on April 12 that Accra would be home to its Africa operations, Nigeria’s information minister blamed the local media’s negative portrayal of Africa’s largest economy.
“The natural expectation would have been for Nigeria to be the hub for Twitter in this part of Africa,” Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters in a video unironically posted on Twitter. “This is what you get when you de-market your own country. … Nigerian journalists were … painting Nigeria as a hell where nobody should live.”
The journalist and editor Azubuike Ishiekwene reminded Mohammed of his own words in 2009 when former U.S. President Barack Obama chose to visit Accra rather than the Nigerian capital, Abuja: “It is not your population, the size of your territory, your endowment in mineral resources, or your claim to being a giant that the world is interested in. It is good governance, purposeful leadership arising from free and fair elections, zero tolerance for corruption, and the continuous strengthening of democracy.”
A new strategy for Nigerian police. If Nigeria’s new acting police inspector general, Usman Alkali Baba, is truly to reform the country’s police in the wake of the #EndSARS movement, he must begin with community policing, argues Lanre Ikuteyijo in the Conversation Africa. His research shows trust in community policing is low and injustice is high.
The East African Community risks becoming irrelevant. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to revive the regional bloc first founded by his father, former President Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Uganda’s Milton Obote in 1967. Yet, as all seven members of the current bloc face allegations of human rights abuses, human rights advocates Kifaya Abdulkadir and Otsieno Namwaya ask in African Arguments, how will the EAC hold itself accountable?
Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel