“The life of nomads is nearly finished.”
Often the gloomy assessment of NGOs and anthropologists, in this case the words come from Mohammed Taher Ould Elhadj, a chief of the Arabic-speaking Berabish nomads of northern Mali. ‘People are dying,’ he told me, ‘not only from the lack of food and medicine, but also from the lack of hope.’ But why does this matter? Beyond the cultural heritage, even beyond the economic value of pastoral herding in landscapes too arid for sedentary grazing, there is another pertinent reason to fight for the survival of North African nomadism: because without the nomads, there can never be security in the Sahara.
The decline of nomadism in North Africa goes back to the nineteenth century. When French forces starting making inroads in the region, it was nomadic chiefs who led the insurgency against them. Subdued by the superiority of French artillery, they would be squeezed by the policies the French introduced. Drawing on the agricultural policies of their homeland, French officers tipped the scales in favor of Africa’s sedentary communities. There are numerous examples of mass killings perpetrated against rural populations (the Voulet-Chanoine mission from Dakar to Lake Chad, which exterminated thousands, is the most notorious), but the French colonial attitude to nomadic life is best reflected in the borders they left behind.
The Sahara straddles ten countries (and one occupied territory). In every single one, the areas inhabited by nomadic tribes are peripheral. Along with the catastrophe of colonialism were climate-related disasters. There have been terrible droughts throughout Saharan history (a drought in 1913 led to the abandonment of several colonial outposts and thousands of deaths), but few have registered as devastating an impact as the Great Sahel Drought of 1968-74, which destroyed around a third of the country’s herds. Before numbers could recover, another major drought struck the region, in the 1980s. Water tables sank, soil moisture was reduced, plant cover thinned, trees died and more than 100,000 people are thought to have been killed by famines and diseases. One elder I met in central Mali listed seven different grasses that no longer grow, exterminated by the droughts.
The impact continues to be felt. In Mali, the droughts lowered the flood level of the Niger river, prompting rice farmers to move closer to the river-bed. As a result, Tuareg herdsmen were unable to feed their animals from the nutritious bourgou-grasses flanking the river. ‘In a very short time,’ according to ecologist Charles Grémont, ‘the multiple ties with the people and resources of the Niger valley that had long been fundamental to the history of the southern Tuareg were cut off.’ This kind of climatic degradation helps to explain the roots of the present-day Malian conflict.
Colonialism and climate change: a double-headed monster with a long shadow. Once flourishing rural communities now find themselves destitute. Grazing routes have been blocked by neo-liberal economic policies and land privatization, and despite its importance to the meat and dairy industry (as well as leather products), pastoral herding is increasingly under-valued. Aid funds ear-marked for remote communities in the desert rarely reach them intact, whilst plush villas continue to be raised in the big cities (for example, in Bamako, the Malian capital, there is an area known as Quartier de la Sécheresse—“Drought Quarter”—because so many of its buildings have been funded by misappropriated relief funds). With herd numbers and animal productivity sliding, many young men find themselves without gainful employment. In such circumstances, they become easy prey for jihadist recruiting officers.
Africa and the Middle East are distorted mirrors of each other. Before the Syrian civil war broke out, herders in the northeast of the country lost around 85 percent of their livestock in the most severe drought in 900 years. They became embroiled in the displacement of around 1.5 million rural inhabitants, which security analysts have cited as a cause of the Syrian civil war. In Iraq, the anti-Sunni policies of successive governments and their backers weakened the partially nomadic Anbar tribes, enabling Islamic State to reassert itself, after previously being repelled by the tribes.
In Africa, nomadic communities face similar levels of vulnerability. The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), fighting for broader representation and economic opportunities in 2011, allowed itself to be co-opted by armed jihadist groups, unleashing devastation on Mali. In Nigeria, Boko Haram exploits Fulani cattle herders, exacerbating tensions between herders and farming communities. These are tough places to eke out a living. Without the jihadists, there would still be tensions and disputes; with them in the mix, the carnage is unstoppable.
Is there a way out? Actually, yes. Nomadic life needs investment. Grazing routes need to be protected. More wells need to be dug, and nomads need greater access to equipment, medicine and veterinary education. If nomadic life flourishes, the desert will have its guardians; the incentive to cooperate with jihadists will shrink, along with the rate of drug-trafficking, arms-smuggling and migration. As one Malian corporal pointed out to me, ‘the nomads are fatigued by the jihadists… they want an end to this.’ For too long, the equation of Western engagement with North Africa has been: it’s too volatile to invest in. But the reality is: invest in it, because it’s volatile. As long as we cold-shoulder this delicately poised region, it will be a pariah on Europe’s back. Only by working together can both regions thrive.