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Niger Delta: Climate change and internal security operations

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Picture: Michel Isamuna / Unsplash / November 29, 2022 – Climate change is already compounding the level of competition for resources, resulting in conflicts in some parts of Nigeria such as in coastal communities, the writer says.

By Freedom C Onuoha

The manifestation of climate change is driving dramatic shocks that exacerbate migration, disasters, and conflicts. Climate change is already adding a complex dimension to the humanitarian, security and natural resource challenges that confront communities and states. Hence, climate change is often described as a “threat multiplier” because it exacerbates the risk factors that already give rise to conflict and instability.

Its manifestation and impact are evident in Nigeria, which is among the top 10 of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries. Population growth, rising urbanisation and persistent environmental degradation are intensifying competition over scarce resources such as land, water and fisheries in Nigeria.

Climate change is already compounding the level of competition for resources, resulting in conflicts in some parts of the country such as in coastal communities. The default response of the Nigerian government to violent conflict is the deployment of internal security operations (ISO). This approach sometimes ends up complicating the security situation, resulting in human rights violations especially as the military usually takes the lead.

Yet, conflicts in coastal communities are further expected to intensify against the backdrop of global climate change. Therefore, understanding how climate change contributes to conflicts in coastal communities in the Niger Delta region and proactively retooling ISO to become more effective in managing conflicts will be crucial in promoting human security in an era of extreme weather events.

Climate Change and Conflict in Coastal Communities

Climate change is exacerbating the existing physical, ecological, and socio-economic stresses on Nigeria’s coastal communities. These impacts lead to the degradation of coastal ecosystems, loss of livelihoods and sometimes result in conflicts in some affected areas. Climate change exacerbates root causes of conflict in Nigeria, manifesting through diverse pathways, of which three are evident in coastal communities.

Distress Displacement: Climate change has increased the intensity of flooding, leading to the submergence of coastal communities in Nigeria. It is predicted that a 0.2-meter rise in sea level would lead to the displacement of about 200 villages in the Niger Delta region, while a projected sea level rise of more than 1 meter could flood much of the Niger Delta and force up to 80 percent of its population to higher ground.

Distress displacement due to flooding is already forcing people to the hinterland where they end up putting pressure on scarce resources like land and heightening conflict risks in receiving communities. Environmentalists have warned that “displacement as a result of flooding would lead to a resource struggle between communities and thus breed conflict in the Niger Delta”.

Resource Depletion: Climate change also contributes to conflict in coastal communities by reducing the availability of marine resources on which many people depend. Sea level rise, changes in water temperature and erosion are triggering the migration of fish stocks, and affecting the ability of the coastal population to fish. Violent spats over fishing grounds are not new in coastal communities of West Africa, but as sea levels rise due to climate change, such altercations will multiply, provoking further conflict.

The rise in sea level has resulted in loss of fishing ground and conflict over fishing areas such as the Igbetaewoama community in Bayelsa State. In the face of depleting fisheries, fisherfolk in coastal communities of the Niger Delta are adopting different coping strategies such as the use of longer and wider fishing nets.

Eco-Migration: Climate change-induced migration has also increased the incidents of violent conflicts, especially over land and water in coastal communities. The clashes are common between pastoralists and farmers. Nigeria is plagued by incessant deadly clashes between herders and farmers, which was previously concentrated in the northcentral zone or middle-belt region but has progressively spread down to the south.

Desertification and drought induced by climate change are undermining livelihood sustainability in northern Nigeria, forcing Fulani pastoralists to migrate southwards in search of greener pastures where they end up competing for available scarce resources with their host communities.

Eco-migration and resultant competition have led to violent clashes in some coastal communities of Bayelsa, Delta, and Cross River states, among others. For example, clashes between farmers and herders in Okordia and Zarama communities of Bayelsa state in March 2023 claimed three lives. A similar clash in April 2017 in the Obio Usiere community of Cross River State resulted in the death of over 10 persons.

Reimagining Internal Security Operations

Military-led ISO has become a prominent tool by successive governments to contain various security challenges across Nigeria. ISO are those acts carried out by the domestic security agents such as the Police, Customs Services, Immigration Services, and others for the purpose of containing domestic threats to the security of the country.

Deployment for such security operations may range from police to paramilitary forces, and in exceptional circumstances, the military itself. Nigeria’s model of ISO is such that the Nigerian Police Force, on paper, is the lead agency in dealing with any security challenge. However, deployment of military troops for sundry internal security purposes has become ubiquitous, to such an extent that it is now a reflex action for governments in response to most violent security threats. Inevitably, friction, tension and human rights abuses have ensued.

As the country grapples with conflict risks related to climate change, it is imperative that Nigeria’s political, military and security leaders begin to reimagine and retool the framework of ISO to become fit-for-purpose. The first consideration is to recalibrate the framework to strengthen police capacity and properly reposition it as the lead agency for internal security.

The second consideration is to prioritise joint training and retraining of mid-level officers of military, paramilitary, security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to instil a joint orientation, which is essential to effectively respond to complex situations triggered by extreme weather events. This should be matched with a robust rule of engagement that serves political, operational and ethical purposes, while primarily making it possible to achieve mission objectives without undermining human rights or compromising the security of deployed forces.

Recurrent incidents of human rights violations by security forces also demand that respecting, protecting and promoting human rights must be given the highest priority attention in policies and practices regarding ISO. Crucially, observance of human rights increases the public’s confidence and trust in security forces, which is critical to peacebuilding and conflict management.

The review of the code of conduct of the diverse defence, security and law enforcement agencies involved in ISO is required to better align them to the imperative and environment of new joint operations imposed by climate risks. Added to this is the imperative of mainstreaming gender into a reformed ISO framework to increase public trust, improve operational effectiveness, and enhance mission success.

Climate change is indeed a threat multiplier that is already increasing the potential for conflicts across coastal communities in Nigeria. As climate change intensifies, it engenders displacement, resource scarcity, and migration.

Effective response to conflicts induced by climate change demands for a robust framework of conflict and security management. Now is the time for Nigeria to begin to reimagine and retool its ISO framework to be nimble in disrupting cycles of violence, resolving conflicts and building resilience in coastal communities.

Freedom C Onuoha is a Professor in the Department of Political Science of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

This article was first published on ACCORD