By Nafeez Ahmed
20 May, 2014
The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian school girls, and the massacre of as many as 300 civilians in the town of Gamboru Ngala, by the militant al-Qaeda affiliated group, Boko Haram, has shocked the world.
But while condemnations have rightly been forthcoming from a whole range of senior figures from celebrities to government officials, less attention has been paid to the roots of the crisis.
Instability in Nigeria, however, has been growing steadily over the last decade - and one reason is climate change. In 2009, a UK Department for International Development (Dfid) study warned that climate change could contribute to increasing resource shortages in the country due to land scarcity from desertification, water shortages, and mounting crop failures.
A more recent study by the Congressionally-funded US Institute for Peace confirmed a "basic causal mechanism" that "links climate change with violence in Nigeria." The report concludes:
"...poor responses to climatic shifts create shortages of resources such as land and water. Shortages are followed by negative secondary impacts, such as more sickness, hunger, and joblessness. Poor responses to these, in turn, open the door to conflict."
Unfortunately, a business-as-usual scenario sees Nigeria's climate undergoing "growing shifts in temperature, rainfall, storms, and sea levels throughout the twenty-first century. Poor adaptive responses to these shifts could help fuel violent conflict in some areas of the country."
According to the late Prof Sabo Bako of Ahmadu Bello University, the 1980s "forerunner" to Boko Haram was the Maitatsine sect in northern Nigeria, whose members included many victims of ecological disasters leaving them in "a chaotic state of absolute poverty and social dislocation in search of food, water, shelter, jobs, and means of livelihood."
A year after the USIP study, Africa Review reported that many Boko Haram foot soldiers happen to be people displaced by severe drought and food shortages in the neighbouring Niger and Chad. Some 200,000 farmers and herdsman had lost their livelihoods and, facing starvation, crossed the border to Nigeria.
"While a good number of these men were found in major cities like Lagos," pushing water carts and repatriating their earnings to the families they left behind," said Africa Review, "others were believed to have been lured by the Boko Haram."
Indeed, one retired Nigerian security official told the journal that the Nigerian military recognised a correlation between regional climatic events, and an upsurge in extremist violence:
"It has become a pattern; we saw it happen in 2006; it happened again in 2008 and in 2010. If you remember, President (Olusegun) Obasanjo had to deploy the military in 2006 to Yobe State, Borno State and Katsina State. These are some of the states bordering Niger Republic and today they are the hotbeds of the Boko Haram."
The other issues are Nigeria's intensifying energy crisis. In recent months, the country has faced a fuel crisis partly due to the government slashing previously high fuel subsidies, contributing to increasing public anger and civil unrest.
But while corruption and ageing infrastructure play an important role, the end of cheap oil is the real elephant in the room. One study by two Nigerian scholars concluded in 2011 that "there is an imminent decline in Nigeria's oil reserve since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur; this is shown to be in agreement with previous studies."
According to one senior Shell official in March this year, crude oil production decline rates are "as high as 15 to 20 per cent." Replacing this "natural production decline rate... requires more funds than is currently available." The same month, the head of Nigeria's petroleum resources department called for more investment in exploration to offset rapid decline rates:
"Oil reserves are dropping; our output is dropping too... We need to do more in this regards to have more reserves. We have reached the plateau of production in the Niger Delta and we are already going down."
With such domestic oil production challenges undermining Nigeria's oil export revenues, the fuel subsidy slash has pushed the brunt of the crisis onto the population, escalating the poverty and inequality that is a recruiting sergeant for Islamist terror.
In northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram hail from, there is little evidence of an oil boom. With about 70% of the population subsisting on less than a dollar a day - some 20% higher than the already dismal rate in the south, rates of illiteracy and illness are endemic.
As noted by David Francis, one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram, "Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren't Muslim fanatics; they're poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader."
Apart from the fact that the west has been content to turn a blind eye to these problems by propping up the corrupt Nigerian government while accelerating oil and gas deals, there is a further complication.
Abundant evidence shows that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) have exploited the rise of Boko Haram to gain increasing control of the Nigerian militant movement.
What we're not being told, however, is that al-Qaeda's rapid expansion through northwest Africa has occurred under the rubric of Algerian state intelligence services - with US, French and British knowledge.
Our relationship with the Algerian military junta, responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians, is driven by the usual unquenchable thirst to access what the US energy department estimates are the world's third largest shale gas reserves.
According to Prof Jeremy Keenan, a leading Algeria expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies who advises the US State Department, European Union, and Foreign Office on regional security issues, AQIM's expansion across north Africa has focused on oil-rich nations - particularly Algeria, Niger Delta, Nigeria, and Chad; the latter three precisely where Boko Haram has reportedly received terrorist training.
Over a decade ago, Keenan reports, these countries signed a "co-operation agreement on counter-terrorism that effectively joined the two oil-rich sides of the Sahara together in a complex of security arrangements whose architecture is American." The agreement evolved into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, which was eventually absorbed into the US Army's African Command (AFRICOM).
Keenan argues that the west's oil and gas greed has caused our governments to turn a blind eye to the role of oil states like Algeria in fostering regional terrorism - instead exploiting the resulting chaos to legitimise efforts to consolidate access to remaining African energy reserves.
If this analysis is correct, then the hundreds of innocent girls kidnapped in Nigeria are not just victims of Islamist fanaticism; they are also victims of failed foreign, economic and security policies tied to our infernal addiction to black gold.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books.