How Climate Change Helps Fuel Nigeria’s Instability

As Nigerian army officials ramp up their search for the hundreds of children kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, a tragic spotlight has been placed on Nigeria as a hub for unprecedented, unspeakable violence.

But while Boko Haram’s actions have mostly been attributed to terrorism and extreme jihadist ideology, the reasons behind why those ideologies have been allowed to thrive in Nigeria have been largely overlooked. According to many experts, one of those reasons may be the increasing physical effects of climate change, which have driven poverty, hunger, and infuriating inequality in the country.

“Instability in Nigeria … has been growing steadily over the last decade — and one reason is climate change,” Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, wrote in the Guardian on Friday, citing a 2009 study from the UK Department for International Development warning of climate change’s contribution to desertification, water shortages, and mounting crop failures.

Some speculate that Boko Haram’s presence in Northern Nigeria was driven by an agricultural crisis in other African countries in 2004 and 2005, which caused a number of people to migrate to the less-affected Nigeria. In the 2012 book “Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict,” author Jon Barnett writes the “climate shock”-caused crisis fueled the emergence of a “religion messiah” that served to “promise the poor, down-trodden masses an El Dorado.


“The Boko Haram uprising occurred at this time and from the same notorious cause,” Barnett wrote, adding that the crisis forced competition for scarce resources that ultimately played a major role in conflict dynamics because it engendered inequality, “a major source of conflict in countries such as Nigeria.”

The fact that anthropogenic global warming increases violence, especially in already conflict-prone and hunger-stricken countries, is no secret. Indeed, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report said climate change would “prolong existing, and create new, poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger,” thereby “increas[ing] risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence.” Experts have pointed to climate change as a factor in the violent conflict in Syria, for example.

The IPCC has in the past identified Nigeria as a climate change “hot spot” that is more likely to see major shifts in weather — more heat, less rain, and therefore increased desertification — in the twenty-first century. This, according to a 2011 report on Nigerian conflict for the U.S. Institute of Peace, creates “economic, social, and psychic stresses” that contributes to violent unrest, especially in Nigeria’s more-affected younger population.

“Evidence in and outside Nigeria suggests that alienated young people who lack resources and economic opportunity are more likely to join rebellions,” the report reads. “In the dusty streets of Borno’s state capital, for instance, the violent anti-establishment Islamic group Boko Haram attracts rafts of jobless young men, as do the Delta’s many militias and groups.”

The country’s overall poor responses to the increasing effects of climate change on their land could affect how Nigerians view the “credibility, stability, and relevance” of their leaders and public institutions, the report said, which could “help stoke violent rebellions in some areas,” a trend already seen with Boko Haram.


“In the increasingly parched, violent northeast, members of groups like Boko Haram explain their acts by voicing disgust with government,” the report said.

While climate change in Nigeria may intensify violent conflict from groups like Boko Haram, it is also important to note that Boko Haram’s violence in turn may make the country more vulnerable. According to a 2012 report from Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, Nigeria’s already downtrodden farmers are being threatened by Boko Haram attacks, and are moving away from the area as a result.

“More than 65 percent of such farmers have already migrated to the southern parts of Nigeria, fearing that the insecurity to both lives and property, including their farmlands and livestock, continues to persist,” the report said. “Nigeria may face famine by the end of this year because most of the small-scale farmers and big-time farmers in the North are threatened by the Boko Haram attacks.”

It would be incorrect and irresponsible to say Boko Haram specifically commits its crimes because of climate change (the Islam-oriented group’s name translates to “Western education is sinful,” a far cry from a climate-oriented motive) or that climate change is the sole reason why Boko Haram is allowed to thrive. But in terms of risk, anthropogenic global warming is more of a magnifier than a creator. It’s not necessarily something that causes extreme events, but something that can fuel the intensity of those events, in many cases to the point of pushing them from “bad” to “very bad.” Perhaps, even without the effects climate change, unprecedented and unspeakable violence in Nigeria from Boko Haram would still prosper. That, however, is the uncertainty that climate change — and all change — brings.