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Africa Politics & Government Security

Resource Conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa Raises Questions of Ignoring a Growing Threat to Global Security

Despite not meeting mainstream headlines, the most deadly conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa are often linked back to struggles over resources. The United Nations Environment Programme stated that 40% of all intrastate conflicts are linked to resource disputes.

Nigeria’s decades-long conflict has taken the lives of many and involves a mixture of perpetrators, including government officials and international corporations, compounding the issue. Ethno-religious tensions and terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram, contribute to consistent violence, but the less-documented source of conflict is one arising from environmental devastation. The fight between nomadic herdsmen and farmers, which has continued over the past decade, began as desertification and water scarcity caused by climate change became more considerable. The climate-induced conflict has a larger impact than Boko Haram’s terrorist reign, reaching an estimated death toll of 10,000 people

Despite not meeting mainstream headlines, the most deadly conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa are often linked back to struggles over resources. The United Nations Environment Programme stated that 40% of all intrastate conflicts are linked to resource disputes. In fact, the Darfur conflict from decades ago, which involved aggression between pastoralists and farmers and claimed the lives of around 300,000 people, also had roots in resource scarcity. 

Climate change threatens the region with increased water scarcity and loss of arable land, meaning the occurrence of resource conflicts is only going to increase. In 2007, the Security Council held its first debate on the impacts of climate change on security, in which then-Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, commented that scarce resources “can lead to a breakdown of established codes of conduct, and even outright conflict.” In July 2020, Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča posed climate change as a “danger to peace”  before the Security Council. He stated that failing to address the impacts of resource scarcity and climate disasters will undermine the success of peacekeeping efforts in vulnerable countries.

This is not just an issue for intrastate conflicts, which occur when resources are spread across borders with no clear jurisdiction. Ethiopia, for instance, began building a dam on a tributary of the Nile River in 2011 and was met by fierce opposition from Egypt, who relies on the Nile for 90% of its water needs, while Ethiopia needs the dam to source electricity, thus raising concerns that relations will continue to deteriorate. 

Source: The Center for Climate and Security, 2020



The above map signals possibilities of conflict if climate change is not impeded. It also shows that resources are not the only factor resulting in militarized aggression. When conflict over resources escalates into violence, it is usually coupled with slacking resource management and failed government systems. This is evident in Nigeria, where the military has been accused of covering up for perpetrators, and the government is hesitant to act because of the religious divide between the two sides. 

The growing threat of climate change and resource conflicts to global security has been addressed by the United Nations, the European Union, and various academic experts over the years, but actions from the international community seem minimal. 

The most common explanation would be the politics surrounding climate change itself. Governments facing domestic resistance towards accepting climate change will have difficulty justifying actions to improve resource management. Another important factor is a lack of  awareness  of this issue. More attention has been placed on explosive threats, such as religious extremism instead of the softer cry of resource conflicts. To prevent more violent disputes arising from climate change, the international community needs to become more involved. Action should go beyond adhering to emissions reduction targets. Countries that may not experience this issue first-hand should contribute to conflict prevention, notably by sticking to the $100 billion climate finance pledge. International organizations can take part in dispute resolution and in training nations to improve resource management. Governments facing intrastate conflict should concentrate their efforts on distributing resources fairly and mediating relations between interest groups.




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By Jennifer Chance

Jennifer Chance is a Senior Editor at Journal on World Affairs at UCLA and is currently studying Economics and Politics & International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has a passion for journalism within the context of human rights and international affairs.

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