Fulani and Jihad in West Africa: a complex relationship

With Islamist extremism on the rise in several regions of West Africa, Fulani communities are purported to be front and center. In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians. Security forces attempting to root out terrorists have reportedly targeted Fulani communities based on their perceived support for jihadists.

Fulani are associated with modern Islamist movements in part because they are perceived to have strong historical ties to jihad. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several prominent Fulani individuals and groups waged jihadist revolutions across West Africa, including in Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. These revolutions shaped the region and continue to exert strong historical and cultural influence today.

In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians.

In the chapter I contributed to Extremisms in Africa Vol 3, I attempted to set the record straight regarding perceived links between Fulani and jihad in West Africa. By exploring case studies from both the 18th and 19th centuries and from modern day movements, it aimed to identify the role that Fulani individuals and groups have played and continue to play in jihadist movements in West Africa. Ultimately, I wanted to explore the strength of the foundation on which perceived equivalencies between Fulani and jihad are based.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With Fulani elites triggering the jihadist revolutions that brought about the Fuuta Djallon Imamate, the Sokoto Caliphate, and the Macina Empire, jihad in the region had become fully associated with the Fulani by the end of the 18th century.

However, a closer look revealed that jihadist leaders catered to an ethnically diverse group of supporters, and that narratives at this time were often based on a broader ideology rather than ethnic affiliation and loyalty. As a result, many of the fighters in these movements were not Fulani. Additionally, there are examples of jihadist leaders antagonizing and attacking Fulani communities that disagreed with them, and there are several incidents of Fulani communities and subclans refusing to participate in the jihads – for example, Mbororo groups.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Moreover, modern jihadist movements in these regions differ from their historical counterparts in several important ways. Contemporary movements advocate for a strict and literal Salafi interpretation of Islam, while historic movements were waged under the more inclusive Sufi tradition practiced by the majority of Fulani Muslims. Twenty-first century jihadist leaders also demonstrate more ethnic diversity than their 18th and 19th century counterparts, with group leaders coming from Arab-Berber, Tuareg, and Kanuri ethnic groups in addition to Fulani. Contemporary jihadist campaigns also cater more to lower- and working-class individuals, while historic jihadist movements were predominantly waged by elite groups and clans.

Some analysis of modern jihadist movements in West Africa points to outsized Fulani participation. Fulani are reported to be disproportionately represented amongst some jihadist groups in the central Sahel, and there is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

Yet other evidence challenges this picture. Analysts note that jihadist groups in West Africa today lack popular support, even in Fulani-majority areas, and that they represent only a “tiny fraction” of the population. Contemporary jihadist groups often cater to non-Fulani populations and have even attacked and preyed upon Fulani communities. In addition, there are several areas of the region where Fulani are a prominent minority that have not experienced jihadist movements or violent extremism. For example, Guinea, the country with the largest Fulani minority in West Africa, is not affected by jihadism and Fulani groups there are not and have not been particularly involved in violent conflicts.

There is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all. Allegations of robust links between Fulani groups and jihadist movements are difficult to substantiate due to the dynamic, complex nature of the regional context. The social, economic and geographic diversity within Fulani groups, the ethnic diversity among contemporary jihadist leaders in the region, and the predominantly socio-economic drivers of jihad in West Africa (both in the past and in the present) all complicate attempts to draw direct links between Fulani communities and modern jihadist movements. In this context, the value that highlighting such links can bring to efforts to fight terrorism in the region is extremely limited.

Conversely, the risk that such narratives will yield false equivalencies between Fulani communities and jihadist movements presents significant threats to efforts to combat the spread of Islamist extremism in West Africa. False equivalencies between Fulani and jihad, which are already common, have fueled and will continue to fuel actions against innocent civilians based on ethnic identity, which in turn breeds resentment and grievance on which jihadists can draw in their attempts to recruit new fighters for their causes. The deliberate ethnic targeting of Fulani by security and counterterrorism forces, which is taking place across the region, will breed resentment and grievance among Fulani communities, including among those who originally stood opposed to jihad.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all.

The relationship between Fulani groups and jihadist movements in West Africa is, and has always been, extremely complex. Narratives implying a simple relationship are harmful, both to efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism, and to broader policies and programmes aimed at stabilising and developing the region. Scholars, policymakers and practitioners interested in reducing violence in the region should avoid ethnic narratives and focus instead on understanding and addressing the political and economic drivers of the phenomenon.


We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to stephen@gga.org.


To get your copy of Extremisms: Volume 3, click on your preferred link below:

Loot: https://tinyurl.com/yyzvaxmu

Takealot: https://tinyurl.com/yxqdm7by

Amazon Kindle: https://tinyurl.com/y3zgz55f

Amazon Print edition: https://tinyurl.com/y3gw5xxo

MADELINE VELLTURO is a research analyst with Stimson’s Protecting Civilians in Conflict programme. Her portfolio includes United Nations peacekeeping and multilateral institutions, as well as African geopolitics, with a focus on the Sahel region and an emphasis on pastoralism and herder-farmer conflict. She received a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on international security policy and conflict resolution. Madeline lived for several years in Accra, where she founded a series of creative writing workshops for at-risk urban youth. She has also lived and worked in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda with local non-profit organisations in the fields of peacebuilding, literacy, entrepreneurship and public health. Madeline holds a Bachelor’s from Bryn Mawr College.

Why interventions in African conflicts must be aware of hybrid political orders

The following article provides a brief summary of some of the key points covered by Bethany in her chapter contribution to Extremisms in Africa Vol 3 entitled: Hybridity and Fragmentation: Implications for Regional Security Policy in the Sahel and Beyond.

Many of Africa’s most significant challenges today are at their core political in nature, with policies developed in response centering on the incentives and priorities of the elite political class at the geopolitical, national and subnational level. The Sahel is a cruel microcosm of these dynamics.

Elite-driven necropolitics, practices that ultimately decrease human security and increase the prevalence of low and high level conflict, are prone to security sector abuses, politicisation and securitisation of ethnicity, weak peripheries and ”strong” centres, pluralistic security environments featuring statutory and non-statutory actors, and overall erosion of state legitimacy and capacity to handle complex cross-border emergencies.

As militancy and extremisms spread across the continent, we also see an over prioritisation of counter-terrorism (CT) activities, often at the expense of local community needs. CT missions developed at the geopolitical and national level are often misaligned with localised community challenges, creating wedges instead of seams. These efforts have largely failed to achieve decreases in violence and predation – by state and non-state actors alike.

As militancy and extremisms spread across the continent, we also see an over prioritisation of counter-terrorism (CT) activities, often at the expense of local community needs.

The resulting disillusionment and increases in armed community mobilisation creates fertile ground for militant opportunism, and heightens distrust between the state and the community. Though my chapter focuses on the dynamics of hybrid political and security governance in Sahelian West Africa, these umbrella dynamics are legible across the continent in strong and weak states, and serve as both precursor and covariates to manifestations of violent extremism.

All political orders contain elements of hybridity. It is the arrangement of power within these systems that impacts their function and long-term stability. Some define hybrid orders as states where the informal has been injected into the formal, to the detriment of government function. I argue instead that these orders are a spectrum of continuity, where formal and customary reinforce each other’s weaknesses.

Though these hybrid systems contribute to a facade of stability and statehood, they are in reality quite brittle. The constellation of elite bargains and concessions that lend to “function” in peace time, lend to disfunction as violent conflict escalates. Violent extremist organisations (VEOs) take advantage of hybridity and the grievances and weaknesses engendered within to recruit and entrap communities distant from positive state power and presence.

The resulting disillusionment and increases in armed community mobilisation creates fertile ground for militant opportunism, and heightens distrust between the state and the community.

This is particularly relevant from a centre-periphery context, where the outskirts and porous/under- and alternatively governed areas are more likely to have locally driven security and economic relationships with Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) and (potentially) VEO groups. Proximity does not entail support – these local relationships have little to nothing to do with the parochial, globalised agendas espoused by extremist organisations. For instance, local actors will exploit the chaos stirred up by the arrival of jihadists to settle old scores, and engage in the types of escalating intercommunal violence we see in central Mali.

Policy that does not take into consideration how trust, legitimacy, and continuity in governance (both formal and informal) condition the security environment, risk inflaming the vulnerabilities of these hybrid orders rather than taking advantage of potential sources of stability in this complicated, insecure context.

For example, in Niger, inclusion of traditional authorities in the formal government system created continuity between local communities and the state, with chieftains serving as the trusted interlocutor between customary and formal institutions. These traditional actors serve as the connective tissue, the middle space, the seam of governance. It is thus no surprise that the jihadists have targeted local chiefs for assassination and kidnapping, seeking to decouple the relationship between state actors and local communities. In their absence, the hybrid system collapses, pitting community and state priorities at odds.

In Niger, inclusion of traditional authorities in the formal government system created continuity between local communities and the state, with chieftains serving as the trusted interlocutor between customary and formal institutions.

The targeted violence against traditional authorities reflects how aware violent actors are of the positive potential these leaders have as bridges between the community and the state. Customary authorities are critical to area access, to resource management, to conflict resolution. When non-state actors co-opt traditional leaders, they gain access to decision-making processes that further legitimise their position as a governance alternative to the state. As a result, communities bordering the conflict zone are forced to negotiate with these actors for their security. These forced negotiations create an aura of complicity that sets the stage for state security sector abuses of these communities out of suspicion that they are aiding the militants.

Similar dynamics took place in northeast Nigeria, as communities found themselves between Boko Haram and aggressive counterterrorism responses from state and non-state actors alike. The inability of pro-state forces to secure communities, and their subsequent targeting of the same erodes perceived legitimacy of the state. By attacking or co-opting the connective tissue of trust, legitimacy, and continuity of governance, militants have the potential to replace these functions with their own, isolating and endangering communities the state seeks to recapture.

In seeking to address the dynamics laid out above, focus should be on bottom up solutions. Unfortunately, the bottom is quite large, and governance and security resources are scarce. The role of external actors is a further complication, the coordination of which my colleague Stephen Buchanan-Clarke speaks to in his chapter on the escalation of extremist violence in Southern Africa in Extremisms in Africa Vol 3.

When non-state actors co-opt traditional leaders, they gain access to decision-making processes that further legitimise their position as a governance alternative to the state.

Policymakers need to prioritise securing communities for localised stabilisation to take root, reducing intercommunal violence and increasing intercommunal trust, and promoting efforts to realign state security policy towards meeting the security and governance needs of communities outside the capital, while at the same time achieving substantive counter-terrorism gains.

While the Sahel trajectory continues its worrisome spiral, prevention is still possible in the Littoral states. However, rather than solely focusing on preventing individual radicalisation and expanding counter-terrorism capacity, policymakers need to internalise the lessons from the Sahel.

Local matters

Despite years of emphasis on “top down and bottom up” policy responses, the social infrastructure needed to resist militant-driven insecurity is that which has been most neglected by both the state and international intervention – the hyperlocal and historical mechanisms for conflict resolution and inter-communal violence reduction.

Interventions in African conflicts must be hybridity aware, managing the inherent vulnerabilities of hybrid order, identifying fulcrum points in the trajectories of hybridity, and developing pluralistic and inclusive capacity to solve collective action problems – be they terrorism, illicit trafficking, or escalating conflicts over dwindling resources.


We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to stephen@gga.org.


To get your copy of Extremisms: Volume 3, click on your preferred link below:

Loot: https://tinyurl.com/yyzvaxmu

Takealot: https://tinyurl.com/yxqdm7by

Amazon Kindle: https://tinyurl.com/y3zgz55f

Amazon Print edition: https://tinyurl.com/y3gw5xxo

BETHANY L. MCGANN serves as research and project manager for the RESOLVE Network, the research component of the Countering Violent Extremism team within the Center for Applied Conflict Transformation at the United States Institute of Peace. Her research focuses on issues of hybrid security governance and non-state actors in sub-Saharan Africa. She has led the design and implementation of multi-year desk and field studies funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which have focused on Sahelian sub-state hybrid armed actors, militias and local security assemblages. She contributed the Africa paper for the 2019 West Point Student Conference on US Affairs. Her most recent research was cited in New America’s 2019 Annual Terrorism Assessment. Bethany holds a Master’s in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and a Bachelor’s in Government and International Affairs from Smith College. (The views in this publication are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the RESOLVE Network, its partners, the United States Institute of Peace, or any American government agency.)

Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP


Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.


Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.


Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.

Never waste a crisis

Africa: agriculture and environment

Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods

A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular definition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.

Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.

Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has significant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.

The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a significant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more specifically unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and figures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).

Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.

The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insignificant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.

Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.

This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.

That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100   years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.

These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.

David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered significantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and fisheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.

The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have significant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.

African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.

Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversified livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”

This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.

For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”

Nathanial (Nate) Matthews is a political and environmental scientist and Director of Programmes at the Global Resilience Partnership. He holds a PhD in geography, has published two books and authored over 55 scientific publications and reports. He has 16 years’ experience in international development across 30 countries. Twitter: @Nate_Matthews_