Band of Conflict: What Role Do Demographics, Climate Change, and Natural Resources Play in the Sahel?
Stretching across northern Africa, the Sahel is a semi-arid region of more than a million square miles covering parts of nine countries. This band of territory is home to one of the world’s most punishing climates; vast expanses of uncharted and unmonitored desert; busy migration corridors that host human, drug, and arms trafficking; governments that are often ineffective and corrupt; and some of the most crushing poverty in the world. It is not surprising then that the area has experienced a long history of unrest, marked by frequent military clashes, overthrown governments, and insurgency.
The Sahel’s latest crisis began early last year in Mali, a country previously hailed as one of Africa’s strongest and most stable democracies. In spite of this reputation, longstanding ethnic and regional tensions and inequalities have persisted and these tensions have occasionally led to violent conflict. The latest eruption of violence started in early 2012 with a small rebellion of ethnic minorities in the sparsely populated north and then morphed into a national crisis, as former president Amadou Toumani Touré’s own army, dissatisfied with his unwillingness to engage with the rebels and seek lasting solutions, deposed him in a dramatic and unexpected military coup last March.
In the ensuing chaos, indigenous and dissident Malian groups were assisted and sometimes taken over by outside extreme Islamist forces, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). With a dysfunctional government and disaffected army, Mali lost huge swathes of territory to these forces and was about to see its capital, Bamako, invaded when France – Mali’s one-time colonial ruler – entered the fray on January 13, 2013.
The current conflict has engulfed neighboring Niger and spilled over into Algeria, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria, creating a refugee crisis, destabilizing already tenuous food security (on average, 800,000 Sahelian children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition every year), and raising questions about the exploitation of rich natural resource deposits, particularly uranium.
The French intervention has reportedly made significant progress against the rebels in Mali’s north. But the long-term prospects for the region remain grim: demographic trends, conflict over natural resources, and susceptibility to climate change may well portend a much longer period of instability.
Origins of Strife
Western media outlets have primarily depicted the ongoing struggle in Mali as a fight to defend the country from radical Islamists supported by Al-Qaeda and armed with weapons left over from the Libyan civil war. However, the roots of the conflict are much more complex than these two narratives suggest.
AQIM is just one of several militant organizations attempting to take advantage of the ongoing conflict; Algeria’s emergent Ansar Dine and other separatist groups are also involved. Meanwhile, the presence of soldiers and especially arms from the 2011 Libyan war has certainly made the situation worse, but did not cause it. These two factors should thus be viewed as accelerants rather than catalysts.
Fundamentally, the trouble in Mali – and in next-door Niger – stems from persistent disputes with several ethnic minorities, and especially a centuries-old conflict with the Tuareg people, nomadic descendants of the Berbers. Like many on the continent, the Tuareg tribes saw their ancestral homeland divided by the wave of colonialism that swept across Africa around the turn of the twentieth century. They now roam throughout the sparse desert in Mali’s north and across its borders into Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, and Niger, but are frequently disenfranchised by national governments representing southern ethnic groups and have no place to call their own.
Tuareg separatist revolts have sprung up across the region on several occasions; the current rebellion in Mali is at least the fourth in the region since it obtained its independence from France in 1960.
One major Tuareg grievance has to do with the resource-rich lands they inhabit. Buried beneath large tracks of the Tuareg’s historical range are substantial deposits of gold, copper, uranium, phosphates, and other valuable commodities. Yet the Tuareg – and, for that matter, most residents of Mali and Niger – see almost no benefit from their countries’ natural riches. (Note: Not all the Tuareg’s grievances are as pure as fair representation and land rights – hereditary slavery, for example, is a common practice among some tribes.)
Uranium has emerged as a particular source of tension. Niger is the fourth-largest uranium producer in the world and plans to double its output by 2015. Uranium deposits have also been discovered in Mali. Together, Niger and Mali rank behind only Kazakhstan and Canada in estimated uranium wealth.
But both countries also rank near the bottom in a plethora of development indices. Just five percent of Niger’s annual national budget – about $110 million – comes from uranium revenues (which in turn account for more than two-thirds of all export revenues). In 2012, Mali was 182nd out of 186 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, while Niger ranked dead last. In all, four of the bottom seven countries in the Human Development Index are in the Sahel.
Domestic Resources, International Interests
France plays a unique role in Mali and Niger. As the former colonial ruler of much of West Africa, it has deep connections in the region, economically and culturally. Uranium has emerged as one of the strongest of these links.
France is the world leader in nuclear power, annually generating more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources. The French nuclear industry also brings in about EUR 3 billion a year through electricity exports to Italy, Switzerland, and a handful of other European nations.
The French government controls more than 85 percent of Areva, the world’s second-largest uranium mining company and Niger’s single biggest investor. Roughly one-third of the raw uranium used by Areva currently comes from Niger, and in 2009, Areva signed a EUR 1 billion agreement to operate a new mine at Imouraren for 40 years. Mali, in addition to having untapped uranium reserves itself, could play an increasingly important role in bringing Nigerien uranium to market once the Imouraren mine begins operations in 2014-15.
Protecting the flow of resources that enable its extensive nuclear power system is a top priority for France; replacing uranium mined from the Sahel with ore bought on the open market would likely increase costs substantially.
Youth and Conflict
Despite the presence of these valuable uranium contracts, however, the threat of terrorism is the stated, and likely overriding, reason for Western military intervention in Mali. After all, Tuareg separatists have been active for decades. It is the presence of AQIM and other jihadists that threatens both France’s interests and the stability of Mali.
UN High Commissioner on Refugees António Guterres wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “there are worrying signals that the radical military presence in northern Mali is already drawing in disaffected youths from elsewhere in the region.”
The age structures of the Malian and Nigerien populations, which are unusually dominated by young people, may aid in these recruitment efforts. Driven by poor access to healthcare, poverty, and culture, Niger and Mali have, respectively, the lowest and third-lowest median ages in the world – 15.5 years in Niger and 16.3 in Mali. Large numbers of disaffected youth have been shown to be fertile recruiting grounds for extremist groups, but median age can also provide more general information on a country’s propensity for civil conflict and autocratic government.
New Security Beat contributor Richard Cincotta has demonstrated a historical correlation between age structure and free and democratic politics. According to Cincotta’s examination of the past half-century’s worth of demographic and political data, high proportions of young adults in a country’s population make the establishment and retention of a liberal democracy relatively less likely. A glut of young workers in the labor market tends to depress wages, increase unemployment, and increase the likelihood of political violence. This creates incentives for elites to support more autocratic governments.
These are only historical tendencies – a young population does not automatically explain or create violence, as some have suggested. But the takeaway is that, in addition to being potential recruiting grounds for extremists, Niger and Mali’s young populations – who presently have little hope for future integration into the economic or social fabrics of those nations – make democracy less likely and political instability more likely.
Climate Change, Water, Uranium
A third underlying thread of instability in Mali and Niger is environmental.
The dry Sahel has become even more arid over the past few decades, with adverse effects on local agriculture. One study suggests that one in six trees in the area have died since the 1950s. Another finds that the effects of climate change are pervasive and that disputes – although not actual physical violence – between groups in the Niger River Basin are now common over access to land and water.
In a region already susceptible to food crises, the reduction in crop yields brought on by warmer temperatures and changing rain patterns could be devastating. Indeed, the Sahel has witnessed three major food crises in the past eight years, including one last year that endangered nearly 19 million people. The implications of climate change could thrust the Sahel into what the BBC has called “permanent food crisis.” The Tuaregs are particularly at risk, as the ancestral grazing areas on which their livestock depend are particularly vulnerable to climate changes.
Uranium extraction creates its own environmental problems. The mining process requires staggering amounts of water. As part of a 2010 investigation in Niger, Greenpeace estimated that approximately 270 billion liters of water had been used over the past 40 years, resulting in significant depletion of the water table that will take millions of years to reverse. Investigators also found that four out of five drinking water samples collected in the mining town of Arlit had radiation levels above what was recommended by the World Health Organization.
Such extensive water use and tampering is especially jarring given how water-scarce the region is: less than half of the Sahel’s approximately 60 million people have reliable access to water today.
Desert winds spread uranium mining waste overland as well. Among the 80,000 people who live in Arlit and Akokan, the two largest towns around France’s major Nigerien mining operations, instances of fatal respiratory disease are nearly twice the national average.
Blunted, But Not Broken
After three months of fighting, French forces reportedly have insurgents on their heels in northern Mali. However, many of the underlying issues that gave rise to today’s conflict remain unresolved.
Climate change is changing the ecological balance in the Sahel, and its effects on food security, political stability, and migration patterns remain to be seen.
The demographic structures of Mali and Niger suggest that the region’s current instability should not be surprising – and that this window of danger may last for quite a while longer. Mali and Niger’s median ages are not projected to reach 30 until the end of this century, according to the latest medium variant UN estimates. Much like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen, persistent instability could in turn provide fertile territory for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to recruit new members.
However, it’s important to note that up until last year, Mali had been bucking these trends for more than two decades. Malians completed four peaceful elections between their first in 1992 and last year’s coup (although they did so with the lowest voter turnout rates in the region).
If they are to return to the path of stable democracy, the next election – scheduled for this July – must bring to the fore a competent government that will, for the first time, ensure democratic and egalitarian governance not just for major population centers in the south, but for all. Moreover, this new government must address core issues like natural resource extraction and the effects of climate change. Disappearing grazing areas and lack of compensation for resources extracted from their lands will merely exacerbate the long-standing grievances of Tuareg tribes in Mali, Niger, and elsewhere.
As France prepares to hand over its operations to UN peacekeepers, the threat of renewed conflict, not only in Mali but all along the band of the Sahel, still lingers and will continue as long as these chronic issues are left unaddressed.
Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC World News, Christian Science Monitor, Council on Foreign Relations, Energy Daily, Greenpeace, The Guardian, IRIN, International Business Times, International Trade Center, Marketwire, The New York Times, Open Democracy, Pulitzer Center, Reuters, UNDP, Voice of America, World Nuclear Association.