Conflict in Africa’s Sahel Needs a New Description

The Sahel region stretches from Senegal in the west through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea. Arabic, Islamic and nomadic cultures from the north meet traditional cultures from the south.

According to reports, around 11,276 people have been murdered in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2012. In the first six months of 2022 alone, about 2,057 people had been killed in the three countries.

Thomas Stubbs and Olumba E. Ezenwa write for The Conversation that the conflicts between herders and farmers over water and grazing opportunities have been going on for decades. But they intensified during and after the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s when nomadic Fulani herders moved into communities where they had not grazed their animals previously.

Using terms like “land-use conflicts” makes it sound like disputes are only caused by competition over agricultural resources. The relevance of land goes beyond being a means of survival. It is a symbolic religious tool that links the past, present and future in most African communities. Land is used for burial and the dead are revered ancestors.

Conflicts over land in Mali and Ghana have been called “ethnic violence”. Such labels imply that the ethnic composition of the disputing parties may be the source of conflict. That a conflict is fought between two distinct ethnic groups does not always imply that ethnic diversity is at its root. The terms used may be hindering understanding of the causes.

There is a proposal that the term “eco-violence” should be used instead. It is neutral and takes the focus off the identities of the conflicting parties and what they do.

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