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To Fight Climate Change and Insecurity in West Africa, Start with Democracy – New Security Beat

Secretary of State Blinken is right to focus on climate change and democracy during his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. At the top of his and everyone else’s mind should be the question: will democratic backsliding in countries like Benin make it more difficult to deal with the effects of climate change? Even more worrisome: will it worsen conflict hotspots, such as the West African Sahel, where climate change is playing a role? All eyes should be on coastal West Africa as countries such as Benin deal with violent insecurity and climate pressure creeping down from the Sahel. My ongoing research in Benin suggests that the country’s democratic local institutions, despite all their faults, are the country’s best defense against the breakdown in rural governance that has befallen Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso. 
Benin is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the violence that has engulfed wide swaths of West Africa with armed groups such as Islamic State in West Africa and Al Qaeda operating just beyond its borders and carrying out attacks within the country itself. There are concerns that Benin itself could succumb to these insurgencies if those groups are able to make inroads with rural dwellers, especially livestock herders, who are ignored or persecuted by governments in the region. Pastoralist herders frequently conflict with farmers when their livestock damage crops or when one group disputes the other’s land or water rights. These rights make up the fabric of local institutions so when they are negotiated inclusively and with reference to the law, they tend towards lasting solutions. But when disputes are instrumentalized to favor one group, grievances can emerge and lead to conflict.     
Managing these conflicts is tricky not only because more people are seeking land each year, but also because herders move their animals long distances and cross national borders in search of pasture. These movements depend essentially on the climate vicissitudes in the semi-arid Sahel and, in recent years, have become enmeshed in the security crises in Nigeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Pastoralists, rightly or wrongly, are stigmatized as foreigners even if they have the right to travel internationally with their livestock, and this contributes to violent clashes. 
According to data from the Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED), violence involving pastoralists as perpetrators and victims has been associated with over 12,000 deaths in the countries that neighbor Benin since 2010. Both non-state armed groups and counter-insurgency forces violently attack pastoralist herders, who tend to live in isolated areas, out of suspicion that they are complicit with the enemy or to intimate and extort them. Islamist groups that allegedly stand for herders’ grievances spend more time kidnapping their children and stealing their cattle. Ethnic Fulani pastoralists in eastern Burkina Faso, an area rife with Islamist insurgency, are responding to these threats by heading to Benin with plans to stay, posing challenges to local authorities and residents.
Challenge number one is understanding how climate change and insecurity can become mutually reinforcing dynamics that increase local tensions between competing groups. Even if men with guns were not making their lives miserable back in Burkina, many pastoralists would still likely head to Benin to seek greener pastures. A survey that my Beninese colleagues and I conducted this month with 158 formerly migratory Burkinabe livestock keepers now residing in Benin is instructive. 25 percent of respondents declared that security was the most important factor in their decision to move south. For 45 percent of respondents, a lack of pasture and water was their first or second most important reason for moving. When asked if they plan to return home one day, just over half said no. Those respondents provided a similar mix of security concerns and feelings that their livestock simply live better in the sub-humid conditions of Benin. Climate change is not likely to make it easier for them back home as shifting rainfall favors woody vegetation over the grasses that their livestock prefer. 
Concerns about rainfall was a recurrent theme in their responses, but even when the grass can grow, competition with farmers over land is fierce. When asked how they avoid conflicts with farmers, 79 percent said that opening their wallets to pay compensation for crop damage was the most important thing they do. But this can backfire as such transactions are opportunities for corruption, which can escalate conflicts, and entice cash-poor farmers to intentionally cultivate “trap” fields where they know livestock will trample them. 
These are the everyday headaches that pastoralist herders face across the region. Whether they escalate into deadly clashes depends on how local governments respond to them. Survey respondents described much better relations with local authorities than with local farmers. When asked why, they responded like model citizens—relations with local authorities are good because they pay their taxes and they contribute to the local economy. Yet, this is not enough to avoid the knife edge of conflict that could lead to their expulsion.
One could argue that if the growing number of Burkinabe pastoralists in Benin leads to violence in that country, it is a quintessential case of climate-induced conflict. As a sign of democracy at work, however, local officials across northern Benin are doing what they can to mitigate this risk by mediating competing resource demands and accommodating pastoralists’ needs. It may not be enough, but it is a far cry from the situation in Chad, where agents from an authoritarian government prey mercilessly on herders because there is nothing to stop them. Many herders in Chad would rather go to the Central African Republic, where there is no government in rural areas, than face agents of their own. 
Benin is not Chad but its democracy is teetering. The most recent national elections brought political violence to areas south of where the Burkinabe pastoralists are settling. If predatory politics take root in local communities, Sahelians will find a less warm welcome. Secretary Blinken and other officials should do everything they can to help prevent Benin from going down that road.
Leif Brottem is an Associate Professor of Global Studies at Grinnell College. He conducts research on pastoral mobility, governance, and conflict in West and Central Africa. Twitter: @LeifBrottem
Photo Credit: West African Shepard Watering His Animals at a Natural Pool during the Rainy Season, courtesy of Riccardo Mayer, Shutterstock.com.
Sources: African Affairs, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, Cambridge University Press, Clingendael, France24, Freedom House, Human Ecology, Human Organization, Human Rights Watch, Nature, New York Times, Noria Research, Third Worldly Quarterly
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