Climate and Conflict in the Sahel: A Rule of Law Perspective

22 March 2021   ·   Marco Lankhorst

The Sahel faces one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises, as rising insecurity intersects with climate change. Resulting competition over land and natural resources exacerbates violence across the region. Efficient, accountable and inclusive institutions, especially for land governance and dispute resolution, are key to improving stability in the Sahel.

The causes of instability in the Sahel are multi-dimensional. Serious developmental challenges – including poverty, lack of economic opportunities, corruption, and inequality – intersect with major governance deficits. Across the region, states struggle to offer security and provide basic services. Demographic pressure, ethnic rifts, climate change and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic add further pressure. Crucially, competition over land and natural resources is an important driver of violence and instability in the region.

Population Growth and Climate Change Fuel Disputes Over Land and Natural Resources

The prevalence of such disputes should not come as a surprise. The majority of the population in Sahel countries depends on agriculture or livestock rearing. Agriculture is restricted to the Inner Niger Delta and to narrow strips of rainfed land in the southern Sahel. Sustained population growth has increased competition over this limited stock of arable land and has led farmers to expand into marginal lands, traditionally used for grazing, and to close off cattle migration corridors. This results in increasing conflict between farmers and herders, but also within these communities.

Disputes over land usually start off between individuals but regularly escalate into violent conflict between communities. The examples that the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) comes across in supporting criminal justice systems in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are numerous. IDLO has been working with local justice coordination mechanisms in the region since 2015, assisting local partners in making these systems more effective and accountable. As part of this work, IDLO recently conducted an assessment in Niger’s Tahoua region. This showed that land conflicts resulted in between 5 and 20 deaths on at least eight different occasions in recent years.

Climate change in the Sahel will substantially exacerbate the drivers of conflict over land and natural resources. The region is set to experience even higher temperatures, less predictable rainfall patterns, and more frequent droughts. A 1.5 °C rise in temperature is estimated to reduce regional yields by as much as 40%. Forage and fodder production will also suffer, with similar implications for livestock mobility and productivity. Together, these factors will threaten the livelihoods and food security of a significant part of the population.

Land Governance and Dispute Resolution Mechanisms Must Be Strengthened

The rule of law is critical to ensuring that countries’ climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies are fair, just, and inclusive. Whilst exceptions exist, the rule of law is under significant pressure throughout the Sahel and action on a wide range of fronts is needed to strengthen it. This includes action to promote legal and policy reform, build more transparent and accountable institutions, foster inclusive decision making, and empower justice seekers.

To mitigate the impact of climate change specifically on conflict, weaknesses in land governance systems and dispute resolution mechanisms must be addressed. These weaknesses, observed across the region, are caused by ineffective land laws and policies and a lack of land administration capacity. In addition, traditional and religious authorities involved in regulating access to land and managing disputes often rely on distinct and diverging normative frameworks. The resulting absence of clear, commonly accepted and effectively enforced rules leads to significant levels of uncertainty about who owns or has access to a given piece of land (tenure insecurity).

To address these problems, governments in the region and their development partners should prioritize the following actions.

1. Scale-up Support for the Implementation of Legal Reforms

Burkina Faso’s 2009 Rural Land Tenure Law is one of the region’s most innovative land reform initiatives. It offers mechanisms for recording and securing statutory and customary land rights and decentralizes land management. Yet, ten years after their adoption, these reforms have only been implemented to a limited extent. Likewise, Mali’s 2017 Agricultural Land Law recognizes and seeks to strengthen customary land rights, including for women, and is meant to improve and decentralize land management. However, local land committees – the key mechanism foreseen to implement the law – are yet to be established in most of the country, as is the case with similar committees foreseen in Niger’s Rural Code. Implementation of these laws and related policies could substantially reduce the scope for climate-induced conflict. Efforts by development partners to support the roll-out of these laws remain too small and lack strategic focus.

2. Overcome Barriers to Justice for Women and Girls

As the Sahel is among the most gender-unequal regions of the world, it is important to consider the impact of climate change on women. Women represent the majority of the agricultural labor force in the Sahel and are likely to suffer most from climatic changes, particularly in terms of their food security. Gender discrimination and exclusion from decision-making limit women’s access to resources and reduce their ability to cope with changing conditions. Secure land rights for women are key to realizing their right to food and achieving food security.

Certain laws and policies, including those referred to above, create some scope for women to hold and exercise such rights, but implementation remains a major problem. Reform of inheritance laws is a key avenue to improving women’s tenure security, but throughout the region, governments and their development partners tend to avoid this sensitive subject matter.

3. Improve Coordination of Support to Dispute Resolution at the Community Level

To mitigate the impact of climate change, preventing disputes from growing in scale and escalating into violence is vital. This requires strengthened capacities for dispute resolution. Community-based mechanisms are key here, as they offer the greatest promise of nipping land problems in the bud. Here, too, existing initiatives tend to be fragmented. International partners should more systematically back initiatives that combine grassroots support with national-level efforts to institutionalize coordination, monitoring and learning. As the functioning of community-based mechanisms is often hampered by problems of legitimacy, overlapping mandates, and a tendency for forum shopping, international partners should insist that such initiatives be underpinned by carefully developed and realistic theories of change.

4. Strengthen Civil Courts and Foster Links Between State and Informal Justice Actors

Improved tenure security also depends on better functioning civil justice systems. Unless they are accepted by all parties, decisions on disputes over land rendered by local actors can only be enforced when they are endorsed by a court. In this regard, development partners in the region should focus on three issues. First, on fostering linkages and communication between state and informal justice actors, through coordination mechanisms such as the ones IDLO supports in the context of criminal justice. Second, on removing barriers to access for justice seekers, through awareness raising and provision of legal aid services by paralegals or law clinics. Third, on improving performance of civil courts by improving case flow management, reducing backlogs and operationalizing control mechanisms against prosecutorial and judicial corruption.

Rechtsstaatsförderung Sahel Climate

Marco Lankhorst

Dr. Marco Lankhorst is Advisor, Program Development and Strategic Initiatives at the International Development Law Organization (IDLO). @IDLO