Blame Governments, Not the Environment: How Political Failures Worsen the Effects of Climate Change in West Africa

With seven coups since 2020, West Africa is drawing global attention as a hotspot for conflict and a critical locus of discourse on climate security. Rising temperatures and scarce rainfall have amplified the dangerous effects of weak governance, ethnic rivalries, lack of economic opportunities, and violent extremism in the region.

Government policy failures in the region have accentuated inequalities that worsen the effects of climate change. The recent spate of coups indicates a deepening governance and security crisis in the Sahel. This political instability makes it difficult for West African countries to respond to increasing violence and humanitarian crises amplified by a changing environment. With the effects of climate change growing more acute, it is essential that West African governments improve their practices and capacities.

Lack of Resources

Since the 1970s, the Lake Chad Basin has suffered from frequent droughts and gradual desertification. The Sahara has steadily advanced into Nigeria and caused the desertification of an estimated 351,000 hectares of land annually. Mali, too, has seen a mean annual temperature rise of 0.7 degrees Celsius since 1960 while rainfall has steadily decreased. Water scarcity has devastated livestock populations and forced hundreds of thousands of herders to give up their traditional lifestyles. 

West Africa depends on agriculture for nearly 50% of its economic activity, making the region sensitive to interactions between the physical effects of climate change and existing social, economic, and political vulnerabilities. Africa has less arable land than any other region, and its limited agricultural capacity is becoming increasingly scarce due to rising temperatures and decreased rainfall.

Ethnic Conflict and Religious Extremism

Government weakness and mismanagement of scarcity are fueling violence as the concentration of resources in limited areas creates conflict between settled and nomadic groups. West African governments are unable or unwilling to adequately and fairly apportion resources and resolve resource conflicts when they arise. This is due to the lack of state capacity in large swaths of the region and rampant clientelism where the state does exert influence.

The patterns of conflict in Mali demonstrate how ethnic and religious factors and government failures can interact with climate change to amplify disputes. The Malian state is absent from large swaths of the country. The military junta, installed in 2021, controls only 15% of its territory. Disputes over rights to land usage have led to conflict between tribes, either because the government is incapable of mediating competing claims or, when such mediation does occur, political officials unduly favor certain ethnic groups. Even worse, non-state actors have replaced governance vacuums in large swaths of the country. Katiba Macina in Mali, for example, has established agricultural projects and built wells to appeal to disenfranchised populations. 

Resource distribution throughout West Africa is largely shaped by clientelist relationships with ethnic groups who have links to the political elite while politically marginalized groups are excluded from key resources. Livelihood sources in West Africa are associated with ethnicity. For example, in Mali, the Fulani and Tuareg tribes commonly herd while the Songhai and Bambara practice agriculture. These tribes represent only a small part of the complex tapestry of ethnic groups spread across West Africa, but they are representative of the types of conflict that emerge when distinct tribes interact and compete with one another.

Prolonged dry seasons, irregular rainfall, and shorter wet seasons disrupt traditional migratory patterns and create competition between herders and farmers over grazing land and scarce water sources. In the absence of governmental dispute mechanisms, ethnic militias have proliferated to address these conflicts, leading to horrific cycles of retaliatory mass killings

Ethnic militias also coexist and compete with Salafi-jihadist groups in West Africa for influence. Meanwhile, violent extremist groups in the region, formed along ethnic lines, exploit state vacuums to recruit, operate more freely, and exercise control over civilian populations. As habitable land shrinks and West African states fail to mediate resource disputes, the Salafi-jihadist movement’s role in providing basic needs and protection to victims of resource competition has given these terrorist organizations an air of legitimacy and overwhelmed any misgivings local populations may have about their extremist ideology.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, the systematic marginalization of Fulani communities, coupled with weak security and justice sectors, has generated conditions that Salafi-jihadist groups are well-positioned to exploit. Fulani communities facing the threat of potential genocide from rival ethnic groups or security forces have few alternatives and little capacity to resist Salafi-jihadi groups. Similar dynamics have unfolded in other countries throughout the region.


To address the direct and proximate impacts of climate change, effective and equitable political responses are critical. Any successful climate response first requires tackling the fundamental causes of instability by improving infrastructure and government access to remote communities, developing job opportunities and safety nets, improving government accountability throughout the region, and addressing the exclusion of certain ethnic groups from political and economic opportunities.

The weakness of most West African states means they are likely incapable of enacting these changes alone. In some cases, such as the pro-Russian military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, international support to improve governance and climate change adaptation will be challenging. On the other hand, some West African leaders are actively seeking to collaborate with the United States and other international partners to address the crises of governance and the amplifying effects of climate change. Ultimately, state fragility throughout West Africa indicates that the mobilization of the international community will play a critical role in determining whether the region descends further into chaos or adapts to the impacts of climate change successfully.

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