In Mali and in the Sahel, changing rainfall patterns have been said to stress much of the current security crisis affecting the region, which can also be traced back to inadequate governance, corruption and local grievances. Prof. Tor A. Benjaminsen from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences argues that tackling these political sources of contention must be a priority, as climate change could aggravate the region’s security threats in the future.
There is a widespread international view that climate change will lead to drier conditions in the soil, to desertification, to scarcity of resources and to conflicts in the Sahel. That is of course possible in the future, but that explanation is often used to hide other root causes of conflict, in particular with regards to Mali’s ongoing violence. The fact is that the Sahel has become greener since the droughts of the 1980s. Climate models also predict more rainfall in the Sahel in the future, but also with more concentrated rainfall. It’s uncertain what the effects will be on livelihoods, land use and ecology.
I think the current crisis in the Sahel and in Mali has political causes. For instance, rural people in Mali have become increasingly angry at a corrupt and predatory state. In addition, livestock herders feel that they are neglected by a development model that has been imposed on them by the state and by international aid donors. It tends to prioritise agriculture at the expense of pastoralism, so the result has been that pastoralists have lost access to important dry season pastures, and that livestock corridors have been blocked, for instance, through agricultural development. When the pastoralists need to pass, that's when conflicts emerge.
When there are conflicts between farmers and herders, the two parties have tended to seek the support from the state administration through bribes. Farmers and herders have bribed state officials, which has led the state officials to try and please both parties, so that the conflicts have continued. We have seen that the same thing happens when these conflicts have gone through the courts. When I interviewed rural people in Mali before the current crisis, I very often heard that they felt they are being milked by the elites, which created a general anger against the state. The result is that the so-called “jihadist groups” don't have any difficulties in recruiting people, because many see these groups as a lesser evil than the corrupt state.
I think in order to solve the current crisis in Mali and in the Sahel in general, it's extremely important to listen to the grievances of rural people and especially the grievances of pastoralists. And to take these criticisms much more seriously than what has been the case so far.
Although we need to factor in climate impacts on resource availabilities and variability of rainfall, the political factors are more urgent to tackle. We don't know what will happen in the future and how climate change will impact the Sahel. It is of course possible that climate change will play an even bigger role in the political processes in the future.