Lessons from Trump’s dethronement for Africa

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – NOVEMBER 05: A man participating in a protest in support of counting all votes watches U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference as the election in the state is still unresolved on November 5, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With no winner yet declared in the presidential election, all eyes are on the outcome of a few remaining swing states. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/AFP

In a historic US election, President Donald Trump was ousted from office by Joe Biden. Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote, while Trump still managed 47.5% in the largest voter turnout since 1908. The presidency of Donald Trump is widely viewed as anomalous, a monstrous blip in an otherwise healthy and deeply consolidated democracy. This would be a mistake. A deeper analysis reveals that populism can take root even in societies with relatively broad-based access to political and economic opportunities.

Globalisation, accelerating apace since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has resulted in a highly uneven distribution of the gains from trade and volatility from easy flight of capital. While global GDP has ballooned, inequalities have widened, with real income growth among the top quintile rapidly outpacing middle class wage growth. Local displacement has intensified. Outsourcing or automating jobs in the name of economic efficiency has created political ruptures in historically strong democracies. These dynamics have ploughed the soil for populism to take root. The populist playbook is to exploit the fears and disappointments of the economically marginalised and subvert democratic institutions in the process.

Trump’s tantrums over alleged vote-rigging and repeated court threats are simply part of the script. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding has so arrested the attention of scholars that between 2011 and 2018 alone, 1,700 academic articles were published on the subject. In the 40 years prior, a total of 1,500 articles covering threats to democracy appeared. The fact that Biden has won out against Trump may provide some reprieve for friends of democracy across the globe, but complacency is unwarranted. Otherwise strong democratic equilibria tend to be disrupted by socio-economic inequality, financial shocks, the exploitation of extreme political views by technological interference (read Cambridge Analytica) and the resultant perpetuation of echo-chamber social-media politics.

None of these trends show any sign of abating. Worryingly, they are also mutually reinforcing, which can create path-dependent trajectories away from democracy. As scholar Daron Acemoglu has pointed out, the global factors that have contributed to growing domestic inequality in the US have not been addressed, and policymakers are far from a consensus on how this can be done. Biden’s work is cut out for him to forge bi-partisan agreement that, for instance, higher federal minimum wages and a more redistributive tax system may be desirable. Even with that in place, though, the global trend towards distrusting scientific facts and resenting elites is strengthening. Populism thrives in such contexts.

Perhaps the most concerning element of Trump’s ascendancy was the willingness of Abraham Lincoln’s 150-year-old party to acquiesce to Trump’s proposition to ride on a Republican ticket. And, typical of populist incoherence, most of what he stood for and campaigned on were diametrically opposed to orthodox republican positions such as free trade. Nonetheless, as one commentator put it, Biden has ‘sleep-walked’ into the White House and the embers of democracy are still alive in the US. Notwithstanding the warning to avoid complacency, it remains good news because, on average, democracy causes economic growth. Why? Because its ability to remove leaders like Trump is one of its enduring attractions.

Consolidated democracy, for all its inefficiencies, respects the rule of law, insists on the separation of powers, punishes corruption, and gives the citizenry a voice that produces proper accountability from the elite. This institutional strength, in turn, results in economic dynamism, as contracts are honoured and businesses can flourish. Responsible players are crowded in while irresponsible players are either crowded out or deterred from engaging in corrupt activities. In a nutshell, good governance is more likely to take root in the context of robust political competition where the opposition has a fair and credible chance of winning elections.

While the world breathes a momentary sigh of relief, African countries continue to fight for democracy to take root at all, never mind worrying about whether it will consolidate. While the evidence suggests that democratisation across the continent is advancing, on average, a number of important red flags punctuate the trend. Tanzania, soon to be among the most populous countries on the continent, held its general elections on 28 October 2020. Incumbent President John Magufuli successfully rigged the process to secure for himself an incredible 84% of the vote while the main opposition managed to eke out 13%. According to the Polity V dataset, the country’s democratic score improved from 2 (out of a possible 10) to 4 from 2014 to 2015 (the year in which Magufuli came to power).

We expect that figure to move below zero once the next set of figures is released. Not only did Magufuli rig the elections, he has ruled with an iron fist of fear, initially rooting out some petty corruption – his populist ticket – but he has since crushed civil liberties and shut down opportunities for opposition parties to engage in politics. Post-election, Tundu Lissu, chief opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, has had to flee the country after calling for protests against the election results; this in the midst of reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since 27 October, with at least 18 remaining in custody. The frequency of abductions and/or forced disappearances has ticked up significantly since Magufuli came to power.


Economic growth has been sclerotic under Magufuli’s rule as he continues to be suspicious of the private sector and insists on white elephant megaprojects such as the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project that the country cannot afford. GDP per capita growth initially fell to 3% in 2015 (from 3.6% the year before) before recovering to 3.7% the following year. It has since fallen to 2.7%.

Magufuli came to the presidency from a weak base within the CCM – the liberation movement of Julius Nyerere – and is working hard to purge elites from within his ruling coalition who would otherwise ensure some degree of power-sharing. There is every reason to expect that Magufuli will attempt to clinch a third term in office, which would violate the constitution. He would join a long list of those who long ago eschewed term limits, a fundamental governance limit on executive power. A fundamental problem is not only that autocratic rule tends to result in misery and squalor for the majority, but that governance-dismantling autocrats seem to spur each other on across borders.

Zambia’s elections are set for 2021, and President Edgar Lungu appears to be taking a leaf out of the Magufuli playbook but with some variety to spice up the mix, drawing on Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwean script too. It appears that his strategy for rigging the elections is to amend the constitution to allow coalition formation (instead of a runoff second ballot between the top two candidates) in the case of no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. He brought this infamous “Bill 10” to parliament at the end of October but it failed (though by a margin of only 6 votes). At least this strategy indicates that Lungu is scared of losing the popular vote and does not have Magufuli-like power to simply rig the election to an arbitrary winning proportion of his pre-selected choice.

The opposition has a strong likelihood of winning the election, though Hakainde Hichilema – the leader of the opposition – is undoubtedly keen to avoid more jail time at the hands of Lungu’s trumped-up charges (as has happened before). Analysts expect that Lungu, on failing to win Bill 10, will now simply abolish the current voters’ register and create a new one more favourable to his prospects. The graph below indicates a surge of violence around the 2016 elections that saw Lungu gain a second term in office. As Natasha Chilundika has written over at Democracy in Africa, we really need to avoid a repetition of this come 2021.


Slightly further afield in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Still going strong, according to scholar Moses Khisa, Museveni has “run roughshod over important constitutional and institutional safeguards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal [1995] constitution”. Museveni is edging in on the 38-year rule exercised by Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and the 37-year reign by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (both upended by their own ruling coalitions in 2017). Museveni’s assault on democracy began in 2003 with an eradication of constitutional term limits.

In addition to subverting apparently democratic institutions to advance authoritarian ends (by co-opting and corrupting the judiciary, for instance), he has also used external security threats as a cover under which to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. Museveni has had Kizza Besigye, his main opposition, arrested more than 1,000 times. A period of relative calm prevailed between 2007 and 2013, but violence against citizens has been on the rise, with incidents this year alone matching the 2006 data. The prospect of commercial oil revenues will further embolden Museveni’s autocratic stranglehold through enabling him to distribute patronage to a carefully selected circle of insiders and repress outsiders.


On the subject of Mugabe and dos Santos, their removal tells an important story. Autocrats who successfully consolidate power are almost always only removed by an internal coup or death in office. Very few in contemporary history have been upended by democratic forces. The risk of further autocratic consolidation is, therefore, immediately at hand. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s death did not suddenly usher in democratic rule. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold over the ruling coalition in Russia today is evidence enough to show that new autocrats are likely to gain ascendancy and the fight for democracy to take root requires far more than the removal of one autocrat. It requires the slow, hard work of establishing governance institutions that respect the rule of the people by the people.

In both Zimbabwe and Angola, new autocrats have arisen. Mnangagwa and Lourenco respectively came to power through removing their long-standing leaders who had placed family members ahead of party loyalists, threatening their access to power and rents. One may have expected that some kind of power-sharing mechanism would be re-established in both Zanu-PF and the MPLA respectively, but there is little cause for optimism on the basis of the current evidence. Both incumbents enjoy vast access to resource wealth, again enabling the distribution of rents to a select circle of loyalists and careful elimination of internal and external threats to their rule.

Citizen attempts to protest against grand corruption in Zimbabwe around July this year resulted in a rapid rise in disappearances, abductions, torture and arrests – these have not yet been captured in the data below, but the graph still paints a terrifying picture of the militarised regime’s willingness to exercise repression to prevent any accountability. With elections set for 2023, we can either expect to see further violence escalation or an indefinite postponement of elections altogether.


A similar pattern emerges from Angola, with violence against citizens increasing again in the aftermath of the 2017 elections that saw Lourenco come to power through a rigged election. Unlike Magufuli’s CCM, though, the MPLA chose a winning figure of nearer to 60% than 80%.


For all one might say about the Trumpian episode in US politics and its dangerous flirtation with autocracy, the fact is that the vote matters in the US and Trump is out (or at least probably will be with Republicans now also losing patience with his intransigence). Americans have exercised their voice. Moreover, no matter whether one resonates with Kamala Harris’s political views, it is a significant feat that an African-American woman has ascended to the White House (and the first woman vice-president in US history) despite so much underlying racial tension in the country.

It is easy to be despondent about the deep structural divides that threaten to disrupt the US democratic equilibrium, but the fact that it has stood firm should encourage us to war against the proliferating autocratic threats to democracy in many African countries. Of course, the continent is not without hope, and the general trend is arguably positive. But it would be amiss of us to ignore the warning signs in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Ethiopia (in which the risk of a full-blown civil war escalates daily), the DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique. Mozambique, in the context of poor governance, deep local grievances and a poverty trap, is fertile soil for the rise of violent extremism. It’s an explosive cocktail that risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.


One recent light in these otherwise dark trajectories, though, is Malawi. Small and poor, for sure, the country is wracked by a history of corruption and extensive poverty. Nonetheless, when Lazarus Chakwera came to power earlier in 2020, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, he showed that it is possible for the judiciary to stand firm against an incumbent executive bent on staying in power and for the people to vote that president out in an election re-run. This should be celebrated loudly, if cautiously, and remind us that it all starts with governance.

As Dr Grieve Chelwa has quipped, SCOTUS might do well to cite the Malawian court case should Trump successfully get to the Supreme Court over his allegation that the US election results were rigged. We should never give up in our quest to build governance institutions that prevent the abuse of power and give the people a voice.


Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

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.


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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:

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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.


Threatened to extinction

Cameroon: culture clash

Urbanisation and acculturation in Cameroon are eroding traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem

Aerial view of the Mount Cameroon National Park in the south west region of Cameroon, 2019. The forest at the foot of the mountain plays host to African elephants traditionally conserved by the Bakweri people but are now under threat Photo: Muleng Timngum

Armand Boui has a problem. The 57-year-old native of Mongonam in the Kadey Division of Cameroon – part of the species-rich Congo Basin – is jobless. He wasn’t always unemployed, and he is not at peace with himself. Boui is an herbalist and intercessor between the community’s people and their ancestors. But about 10 years ago, he watched helplessly as wildlife poaching and a gold rush led to the desecration of a sacred forest – the source of his spiritual powers. “The forest was invaded by strangers, and even our own [people]. The traditional authorities of the village couldn’t help.

Subsequently, my potions and incarnations gradually became ineffective,” Boui said. People stopped patronising him and, suddenly, he was left without his social role – or a job. “The spirits were no longer finding favour in me. I guess they moved away due to the invasion. It is an unfortunate situation,” Boui told Africa in Fact. He sometimes wonders what his late father would think. His father, from whom he inherited the therapeutic and sacral role, had asked him to hand over the “special gift” to the next generation.

In Cameroon, many natural  sites and biodiversity hotspots play host to totems, especially in the form of animals, which are revered for their traditional sacredness. The totem animals, such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, were formerly protected by traditional belief systems, but are now endangered species. In recent times a cocktail of factors, including acculturation and rapid urbanisation, has disrupted traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem.

Boui’s predicament is not unique. Studies carried out  in  different  parts  of Cameroon show that fast-eroding cultural norms and taboos are playing negatively against wildlife conservation. Fewer than 10 Bakweri (people of the Sawa ethnic group who speak the Mokpwe language) villages out of about 100 located near the Mount Cameroon National Park still have functional secret societies, according to a 2004 report by researcher Lyombe Eko. In general, the aim of traditional secret societies is to safeguard their communities from evil.

The secret societies he identified as still active in these villages were the Maale, whose totem is the African elephant, and the Nganya, with the warthog as their totem. Members of both groups claimed that their respective totem animals were present in the forest; they were protected and could not be killed for merely economic reasons. These traditional belief systems played an important role in wildlife conservation in the past, according to Chief Dr Ndome Samuel, traditional ruler of Kake II Bokoko in the South West region of Cameroon, in a pronouncement.

But European missionaries – including Baptists, Catholics and Presbyterians – dissuaded the locals from the practices, promising hell for adherents who didn’t repent. Many abandoned the culture. Religion and colonisation – related factors of acculturation – have had a devastating impact on traditional ecological governance systems, says Nnah Ndobe Samuel, a Yaounde-based socio- economist. He argues that irreversible damage to Cameroon’s rich and abundant ecosystems, related biodiversity, cultures and traditions could occur if their influence is not checked.

Skinned porcupines at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

“Approaches by corporate conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London, the African Wildlife Foundation, etc,  are too scientific and colonial. They do not take into consideration the specificities of local people,” Ndobe told Africa in Fact. He noted that most of their approach often results in a hunting market, to the advantage of hunters from the West.

Colonialism turned many things upside down, according to Ndobe. Its influence touched everything. French colonialists in Cameroon, for example, forced traditional rulers to wear uniforms, abandoning their rainforest design attire and amulets. Urbanisation has also taken its toll on traditional best practices related to conservation. Cameroon has an urbanisation rate of 56% per cent, according to United Nations (UN) data; making it one of the most urbanised countries on the continent by sub- Saharan standards.

In absolute terms, more than half of the country’s 25 million people now live in urban areas, with the UN forecasting 70% by 2050. This rising rate of urbanisation involves significant challenges for humans. But the future for animals is bleak. As pressure increases on land for construction, agriculture and other economics activities, their natural habitats are destroyed. Also, over the years, state legislation intended to protect and manage wildlife has often failed to recognise and provide for local communities.

These influences are difficult to counter, says Ndobe, who does much of his work in the Kupe Muanenguba area. As an example, he cites the efforts of the Baka pygmies in the east of Cameroon to resist acculturation through voluntary isolation. “The modern conservation system doesn’t consider them. [The] pygmies are chased out of their natural habitats when government creates reserves or grants logging concessions,” Ndobe says. About 20 years ago, the government started  granting  logging concessions to mostly Chinese and European companies.

Many of Cameroon’s 75,000 hunter-gatherer pygmies were forced to leave the forests and found themselves living sedentary lifestyles by roadsides. The Baka pygmies in particular have protested against their eviction from ancestral forests, where they traditionally harvested wild fruits and hunted game for subsistence. Their survival, and the destruction of their culture, are at stake. In 2017, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of indigenous people, accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of violating international guidelines in Cameroon by backing the creation of three national parks on Baka land without their consent.

The group said that the WWF had funded eco-guards who allegedly tortured and killed Baka pygmies with impunity in anti-poaching operations. The WWF, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, has denied the accusations, but the Swiss government has said it will look into the issue. Experts highlight other factors that hamper the survival of traditional conservation systems. These include paradigm shifts in lifestyles and attitudes, poor transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations, the decline of traditional institutions and the rise of individualism, among others.

Dead pythons on display at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. The snakes are harvested from protected areas across the forest east region of Cameroon, part of the species-rich Congo Basin Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Yet experts and civil society activists agree that integrating cultural norms and taboo – which are rooted in traditional belief systems – into forestry and wildlife laws and conservation programmes could help to galvanise locals into conserving natural resources, thereby contributing to resourceful nation building. With regard to conservation, traditional belief systems ought to be incorporated into law enforcement mechanisms, they say.

“If this is done, it will encourage the spirit of stakeholders (local people), recognise and promote a sense of ownership and belonging,” says Dr Nkwatoh A Fuashi, Senior Environment and Natural   Management Adviser for the Environment and Community Development Association (ECoDAs) and a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, University of Buea, an advocate of incorporating traditional belief systems in conservation laws in Africa. “This has been neglected by the international conventions that are the genesis of our present national laws on the conservation of resources.”

This may be particularly true of the Congo Basin, where some traditional practices do survive. In Nigeria’s Gashaka-Gunti National Park, primates are “naturally protected”, Fuashi says, because members of the local community view them as part of the human species, so that killing them would be similar to killing a human. Practices such as this should be incorporated into conservation mechanisms, he argues.

Though efforts have previously been made to get local communities involved in conservation programmes, they have largely been informed by economic motives, frequently under outsider direction. Moreover, Asian demand for certain species, such as pangolins and rhinoceros, facilitated by widespread corruption, has fuelled poaching. Communities take steps to prevent such species extinctions when they attach cultural significance to them, according to Dr Marius Talla, an expert in governance and anti-corruption at consultancy firm Cabinet Mamy Raboana.

“If [wildlife extinction] happened, their customs, and therefore their lives, would be over. We saw it with the pygmies of east Cameroon,” Talla says. Talla believes there will be better conservation results if traditional conservation best practices are made law and there is effective reduction of corruption in the chain of suppression of wildlife offences. “All other measures will only be complementary,” he says.

In 2015, custodians of traditions from six African countries, including Cameroon, jointly petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to give legal recognition to  sacred natural sites and territories and their associated customary governance systems. In their joint statement, they asked the Commission to encourage member countries to observe the ideals of  its  charter  –  “giving   precedence  to indigenous African culture and customary governance systems over the colonial systems that dominated the continent for so long.”

In practice, however, these processes must be negotiated at regional and country levels, and  can  therefore  take a long time, says Ndobe. Hope, and continued advocacy of the approach, are essential.


Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian print and multimedia journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism (local category). He works for independent regional and international outlets, including for Quartz, Thompson Reuters Foundation News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.