Violence Fueled by Africa’s Environmental Dilemma

The severe environmental situation discussed in the previous blog is playing a role in the instigation of violence across Africa. The decline in biological diversity and agricultural production due to depleting aquatic and land habitats and fertile lands, respectively, has influenced Africans to take matters into their own hands to try and rectify the situation. A growing number of people choose to relocate to safer areas in order to attempt to escape the deteriorating conditions. Others turn to armed conflict to feed themselves, gain wealth and resources, or express frustrations with their government’s lack of aid.

The inability of African governments to fully adapt to and mitigate environmental degradation (failing states) has resulted in increased violent behavior and instability on the continent. Food insecurity reflected in rising food prices and a lack of food aid being delivered to those that truly need it, causes citizens to grow increasingly aggravated with leaders who don’t do enough to solve these problems. Some communities take it upon themselves to form factions and rebel groups to address these frustrations in various ways. A number of these organizations simply steal food aid or other resources that will enable them to acquire sustenance because they have

Food aid being delivered to a refugee camp

no other means to feed themselves or make money. Other groups use famine victims to collect food aid and make a profit. In Somalia, armed factions accomplish this by taking control of refugee camps or places where there is a continued supply of humanitarian food assistance and withholding aid from the refugees to feed themselves or resell. The innocent people are prevented from leaving the area to ensure that food aid continues to be delivered.

Sometimes, these groups turn into militias driven by a political goal. They have a certain politically charged message that they rally around and want to accomplish (i.e. want for a change in government policy or autonomy). In Nigeria, controversies over oil resource access and use and subsequent environmental pollution have been a major factor in the increasing formations of local armed groups, especially among the Ogoni and Ijaw indigenous peoples. This has resulted in the militarization of the local socio-economy, including increasingly violent competition over economic infrastructure and resources and non-polluted habitat areas.

An armed group of Somali rebels

Such political desires (e.g. sole control over the oil industry) influences the militias to commit acts that further complicate food security. Aid groups have been banned from operating in certain areas controlled by these groups because of different ideological views. Other factions kidnap foreign aid workers for ransom or to internationally publicize their political intentions. Both of these examples impede humanitarian aid from getting to those that really need it, frustrating more innocent people and increasingly influencing them to use dire means to acquire sustenance.

These types of actions force the government to engage groups in order to stop any threats to their country. But in order to effectively battle the various armed groups and end their reign of devastation, the governments need a budget to support their mission. More often than not, this requires shifting already scarce resources and money away from humanitarian and environmental projects. This leads to the weakening of the country’s critical development programs which attempt to successfully combat environmentally caused socio-economic problems. When violent conflict between the governments and militias occur, each side attempts to recruit new members to boost their numbers and chances of beating each other. This action takes away productive labor from individual households, further hindering the ability of common people to find a peaceful solution to environmentally-induced dilemmas.

A refugee camp in Chad

Food and physical insecurity influences many Africans to flee their homes in order to try to find better living conditions elsewhere. Kenya currently houses more than half of the estimated 680,000 Somalis who have fled to neighboring countries. These refugees, many of them women and children, face many dangers during their journey to relocate. They travel on their own with little resources to prepare them for the often-times long and difficult trek. Many are already weak and malnourished before the start of the journey and not all survive the trip. Gender-based violence is common during these migrations. Some women have to participate in “survival sex” in order to attain food, shelter, or transportation needed to complete their relocation to a safer region. Many women stay silent about attacks from fear that their families, communities, and culture will reject them or simply because they feel ashamed or afraid to talk about their experience. Even after arriving at refugee camps, violent attacks are still common.

Human trafficking is a problem as well. Traffickers and smugglers prey on refugees since they make easy targets because of their vulnerable situation. They are able to trick refugees with the simple but false promise of a better life elsewhere and end up selling many of them into forced labor or prostitution. Smuggling and trafficking networks also tend to have links to political and government officials in some manner in order to successfully conduct their “business.” This level of corruption makes it hard to curb this issue, even if the government in question passes strict legislation or steps up law enforcement efforts.

Many refugees that are able to successfully make the journey without being attacked or sold into slavery face another dilemma: illegal immigration. In order to escape the insecurities and conflict of their home countries, refugees are forced to illegally cross borders in search of a safer and better life. This causes diplomatic and military border issues between many African countries. Refugee migration into other parts of the continent tends to spread the pressure on resources of that region and results in conflict spreading into other areas as well. This conflict is influenced by the prevalence of arms ownership along border areas. Due to the rural and remote nature of these territories, it is regarded as necessary to own firearms for the protection of oneself and their community and livelihood. The recent Libyan civil war has increased the number of arms being smuggled and traded all over the continent and on the black-market, allowing certain refugees to acquire weapons as well.

Even after a refugee successfully completes the tough challenge of surviving the migration process, there is no guarantee that their destination will be safer and more secure than their home country. Sometimes, it is beyond the capacity of the host country to provide basic assistance for immigrants because they may already be overwhelmed by large numbers of refugees or their own conflicts and dilemmas.

– Sasha Schukin, Undergraduate Intern

** The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not represent the Scripps Institution of Oceanography or the University of California San Diego. **

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