Untamed Sahara: Origin of the Herdsmen Crisis

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History tells us that the Sahara once had a very different environment. We are told that the drylands showed signs of pastoralism, large settlements, herding and pottery in Libya and Algeria dating back to 7000BC. For centuries, trans-Saharan traders voyaged in both directions between the Mediterranean countries and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Economies were being formed, people made a living until the effects of desertification and global warming changed everything.

Now, those changes brought on by desertification and global warming have destroyed lives and properties in many regions. It becomes paramount to clearly state again at this point something I have campaigned for over the past six decades that the development and security of the continent of Africa will continue to suffer until the Sahara, which is the biggest desert in the world, is tamed.

In the 1960s, when the Sahara occupied only about a fifth of the land area of Africa, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made the famous declaration that the continent of Africa will remain in darkness until the trans-Saharan highway is built. This never happened and, today, the desert has expanded and occupies over a third of the land area of Africa.

It is interesting to note that Africa is the only continent in the world where you cannot move goods and services by road or by train from south to north or from east to west because of the Sahara. Our counterparts made the move since between 1960 and now to tame their deserts, leaving us behind in the advancement of civilization.

A good example is the Negev Desert that was not only tamed but the whole of Israel was recovered from it. The father of Israel at that time, Ben Gurion, started by moving scientists to the desert and lived in the desert with the scientists while taming the desert. Eventually, the Ben Gurion University was built where he lived. Ben Gurion later went on to become the Prime Minister of Israel.

In the USA, the Nevada and Arizona deserts gave birth to Las Vegas. The taming of these deserts was done in order to prevent the deserts not only from merging but from expanding. Las Vegas now boasts of a developed, thriving and modern city free from the woes of desertification.

In China, the Gobi Desert was the second largest in the world, after the Sahara. Today, not only has it been tamed, railways, roads, and communities have been built through and in this desert. Massive agricultural developments have taken place in the Gobi Desert and the population of the territory has grown from a few thousand to a few million in the last 40 years. The Chinese Academy of Science – where I did my study tour in 2002 – is responsible for the tremendous transformation of the Gobi Desert.

With many African countries becoming independent from their colonial masters, it was desirous to continue the age-old trade between the emerging economies. It was realised that, with the industrial revolution, faster and bigger trading could be achieved if a road/rail link was established between the Mediterranean countries and the rest of Africa. So, following the statement by Nkrumah in 1964, African heads of state, under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity (now known as the African Union), started preliminary discussions that would lead towards establishing a structure for taming and bridging the Sahara.

Thus was born the trans-Saharan highway, a transnational highway project to pave, improve and ease border formalities on an existing trade route across the Sahara Desert. It runs between North Africa, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea in the north, and West Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the south; from Algiers in Algeria to Lagos in Nigeria. 

Unfortunately, the heads of state that originated the desert-taming project were not able to see this plan to completion due to the various successful coup attempts on almost all their lives while in office. Moreover, many experts say, irrespective of the coups, the project was doomed to fail due to poor planning.

The era of the military cast a dark cloud on the structure established by the former heads of state because bridging the Sahara was not a priority for the new military leaders.

As the end of the military era drew to a close, the climate debate started. It was at this point that many interested organisations like Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE) joined the discussion. We were in attendance at the first climate change convention in Brazil and also at subsequent conventions that recognised the effect global warming was having on the desert and the rest of our environment. This was what inspired the theme of my second expedition into the desert which was “desertification is global warming and global warming is climate change.”

When the convention to combat desertification was inaugurated, FADE made a representation at the convention and was subsequently accredited by the convention. Those were exciting times as we all looked forward to a bright future that would right the wrongs of the past due to the course we were setting in the present. Unfortunately for Africa, that bright future hasn’t come as expected.

During my second expedition, I found out that most of the countries bordering the Sahara were looking up to Nigeria to take a leading role in the fight against desertification. External Affairs ensured that I was received by our Nigerian ambassadors to those countries and those ambassadors ensured that I interacted with the major stakeholders at press conferences. That was when I found out that they looked up to Nigeria for direction. The reason they looked up to Nigeria was because it was in Lagos, in 1964, that the protocol was first established. There is also the fact that we had the resources, both human and natural resources, that would lead to the execution of such a monumental project.

It is difficult to understand why bridging the Sahara isn’t at the forefront of many African nations’ development plans, especially Nigeria. We are already experiencing the effects of not taming the Sahara, from the herders/farmers’ clashes to the frequent deaths of our countrymen making illegal journeys across the desert to Europe. Following FADE’s accreditation by UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), we realised the magnitude of the whole project of bridging the Sahara and approached a well-disciplined professional body like the Nigerian Society of Engineers and the Federation of African Engineers to pioneer and take this agenda to perpetuity.

Although the project has not taken off as planned, the potential was enormous. A bridged Sahara, and by this, I mean developing a proper road network in the desert, will open up the desert to enable the easy movement of goods, trade, and services across the continent. It will create employment, education, and industry for millions of Africans that border the Sahara through many countries. It will also green a good part of the Sahara and provide grazing fields for the development of animal husbandry.

Cultural practices in Africa make people congregate around places with good roads, agricultural lands, water and perhaps electricity. If the road networks are built and maintained, people will move around in search of trade. When they do, they will stop around in places for a brief stay, which will attract others willing to provide certain services that may be required. That is basically the process whereby settlements and communities are created.

Migration will reduce greatly as it will make monitoring of the desert a lot easier for countries. Countries could set up a joint task force that would guard the Sahara. This would go a long way in stemming conflict/wars and the security risk that follows.

To further improve life, a vegetative cover will be required. This will protect the roads from the severe effects of the desert sandstorms. With the vegetation in the desert, there will be a change in rainfall patterns. Put simply, the rains will begin to fall in the desert with the greening of the land once again. There will also be need to supply water for the different projects that will lead to the availability of potable water to millions of people in the Sahel.

Finally, the greening will stop the encroachment, especially if done right with the necessary land reclamation techniques employed. An obvious benefit is the recovery of landmass that has been encroached upon by the untamed desert for agricultural and grazing purposes. This will also help boost countries’ economies as farmers that may have migrated due to loss of fertile land will return with hopes of experiencing higher yields. Inevitably, the threat to food security will be minimized and poverty will be reduced.

Our governments paying lip service to combat environmental degradation will only further destroy our fertile lands. What is required now is action albeit one that has taken a long time to come. Like the popular ancient native American quote says, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

The admonition is that we leave behind a world our children won’t curse us for.


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