Why climate change is causing conflict in Africa

Dr Olayinka Ajala’s ground-breaking research reveals why climate change, not greed, is fuelling spiralling violence and deaths in Nigeria.


Dr Olayinka Ajala

Host: Hello. I’m Dee Grismond and today I’m joined in the studio by Dr Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer in politics and international relations here at Leeds Beckett University. His groundbreaking research reveals why climate change and not greed, is fuelling spiralling violence and deaths in Nigeria. Welcome to the studio Dr Olayinka Ajala. So firstly, can you tell me a little bit more about your research which looks into the causes of conflicts in Nigeria.

Dr Ajala: In the last couple of years, I've been looking at how issues relating to human security, poverty, deprivation, resulting in conflicts across Africa. So I have been looking at themes relating to also the impact of climate change on conflict and I'm looking at the nexus between human security, poverty, climate change. And how these things explain insecurity and conflict in Africa.

Dee: So can you tell me why your research findings were so surprising?

Dr Ajala: Well, it's amazing how there are some underlying issues that have not been identified in terms of conflicts in Africa. So we have things like how climate change or the changes in climate have actually impacted on migration. Especially when you look at the nomadic communities and pastoralists, how the vagaries of the climate have impacted on their movement and how these are resulted in pollution with sedentary farmers. Now, these have resulted in violent conflicts across over ten countries in Africa.

Dee: And during your research you spoke to a diverse group of people. Can you tell me a little bit about how their views on what was causing the conflict was different?

Dr Ajala: Absolutely. Dependent on the type of conflict you are looking at. So, for instance, the conflict relating to climate change between farmers and pastoralists is one form of conflict. There's another one relating to resources. That's another form of conflict. So depending on who you speak to they always have diverse explanations, different explanations based on their knowledge or even based on their circumstances, and situations.

Dee: And what do you think needs to change in Nigeria to address the problems of climate change?

Dr Ajala: Well, we need to understand what exactly are the determinants and how these issues are impacting on agricultural productivity.

When you consider the fact that over 60% of Africans directly or indirectly depend on farming in one form of farming or the other for their sources of livelihood, this invariably tells us that any changes in climate over a period of time would impact on the livelihood of these people. And if they are unable to get alternative sources of livelihood, there will be an increasing competition between different groups and this increased competition invariably leads to conflict.

Dee: Climate can be contentious in certain parts of the world. Do you think climate change is accepted in Africa?

Dr Ajala: Well, the key issue is that even the people that are directly involved, they know that something is changing, but they don't know it is climate change.

So, for instance, if you speak to a farmer, he would, or she would tell you that there have been changes in farming timetables. Those who are able to plant over two or three seasons cannot do that any further. They have to wait for just one season because of changes in the timing and the quantity of rainfall. And if you think about the fact that many of these people depend on rain fed agriculture or they depend on the rainfall for them to plant, then it would impact on their livelihood.

So for those people, they know something is changing, but they don't know it's climate change. For people that are more educated, they are now understanding the impacts of climate change. But the problem still remains that it's not been linked to conflicts. Which is one of the things that I am trying to do in my research in order not just to understand the changes in the climates, but also to understand how these explain increased conflicts on the African continent.

Dee: In your research you say that conflict is linked to human security and sustainability. Could you explain this a little bit more for me?

Dr Ajala: Yeah. When we talk about sustainability, the key issue is that every human being would want to have a livelihood and when that livelihood becomes unsustainable, then this impacts on their human security. Talking about human security, we are talking about things like access to food, access to water, access to basic amenities of life. These are the things that make people secure.

So when their livelihoods become insecure, then the human security is at stake. And this then impacts on the way they react at the end of the day. So there is a link between sustainable livelihood and human security.

Dee: So I guess what your research is saying, is that if people’s human security is at risk, then the likelihood of conflict is increased?

Dr Ajala: Yeah, absolutely. When people think the human security is at risk, then they would react. And this reaction could be violent because they would naturally look for alternative means of livelihood. If they are not offered alternative means of livelihood, then there is the possibility that they would then look for this livelihood themselves, which could then result in increased competition. And a key determinant of conflict is competition. Either competition for water or competition for land, competition for scarce resources would naturally result in conflict.

Dee: Can you tell me a little bit more about how oil production in Nigeria is contributing to water pollution in the area?

Dr Ajala: Yeah, absolutely. So that was actually my PhD research.

So for my PhD research, I set out to look at the determinants of conflict in resource endowed communities. So when you look at a lot of the literature, the theories out there, a lot of it points to greed being a determining factor which explain the outbreak of violence in resource endowed communities. So my research at that point was to look at whether there are other issues, and I discovered that it's actually not greed.

It's sometimes due to human security because in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the same with other regions of the world, that are resource endowed. Ecuador is another very good example. What happens is environmental pollution due to uncontrolled exploitation of resources often pollutes the environment. And then this then impacts on the sources of livelihood of the people, because most of the time these people depend either on farming or fishing for sustainable livelihood.

But when oil exploitation and exploration impacts on these sources of livelihood, people will then react. And this reaction again could be violent.

Dee: So do you think that it is the companies that are going into oil production in this area that need to come up with solutions? Or do you think that it needs to come from a higher government level?

Dr Ajala: Well, it's both. It's a combination of both. It is the responsibility of the company to make sure that they engage in best practises in order to reduce the impact of the activities on the environment and also on the governments of these countries, especially in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

In this case, the government of Nigeria, it's their responsibility to make sure that the policies that have been enacted to curb the excesses of the multinational corporations are implemented to reduce the impact on the communities where these oil exploration takes place.


Dee: And now we are back in the studio with Dr Olayinka Ajala, talking about the reasons behind the conflict in Nigeria. The media narrative around the conflict in Nigeria always sites greed as one of the major factors. But do you think this is just oversimplifying the situation?

Dr Ajala: Well, partly it's an easy way, but also a theory comes from the research done by some researchers at the University of Oxford called Collier and Hoffler. So they came up around 1999-2000 and they did a research, a quantitative analysis exploring over 60 countries that are resource endowed. So they then concluded that greed was a determining factor when explaining conflict in resource and out community.

So what I did in the research I carried out was to either confirm or refute this theory to see whether or not greed was an underlying factor. And what I found was that it's difficult to generalise because different countries or different regions of the world that are resource endowed have different inherent capacities or different attributes, which makes a generalisation difficult.

But we need to explore resource conflicts on the case-by-case basis in order to understand the underlying factors, the culture and the attributes and ideologies of the people, in order to understand the core or the key determining factors for each case study.

Dee: You spoke in that answer a bit about resource endowed regions. Can you explain what you mean about this?

Dr Ajala: Yeah. These are regions or communities that have natural resources. They are endowed with natural resources. So in some instances it could be oil and gas, it could be gold, it could be diamond, but resource endowed communities are communities, regions or places where there is the availability of natural resources.

Dee: And do you find that these areas are more open to exploitation in the developing world?

Dr Ajala: Well, Africa is a very rich and blessed continent, if you put it that way, because I think there is hardly any country in Africa that doesn't have one form of natural resource or the other.

A lot of people have looked at it to say, well, the availability of resources resulted in conflicts, and is is a curse rather than a blessing to Africa. But I think the problem is not actually the availability of these resources. It’s the management and governance of these resources that have resulted in conflicts on the African continent.

Dee: Thank you so much for talking about your research – it sounds incredibly interesting. And can you tell me now, how do you involve your students in this research?

Dr Ajala: At Leeds Beckett University, one of the things we pride ourselves in doing is that we engage in research led teaching. So our students, we will bring our research into our teaching. So you have a direct exposure or direct understanding of the research projects that we carry out. And also, you will also have the opportunity to read these articles. You have the people publishing these articles, teaching you and giving you direct insights into the work we do. So you have the privilege of not only reading and understanding the types of research that we engage in, but also to ask questions and also be a part of the community to engage in such research projects yourself.

Dee: And what do you think that students find so attractive about studying politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University?

Dr Ajala: Well, over the last couple of years, our student satisfaction rates have been really high when you look at the reviews from the Students’ Union campaigns. So students satisfaction is really high. And also we make sure that our teaching and research are fused together to give you a better understanding of politics and international relations.

Dee: Politics and International Relations is such an interesting subject. What do you think students enjoy most about studying it?

Dr Ajala: Well, you will have the opportunity to engage with day-to-day issues happening around the world. Politics and international relations are really interesting fields because they are practical, they are things that you can engage in. You can relate to it. If you put on your radio or your TV today, you will hear something that might be discussed in the class the following day because we are talking about current events. We have a means of actually linking historical content to current issues and this is one of the key interesting things.

Oh, these are the interesting things about politics and international relations, a combination of both historical content and empirical issues or analysis.

Dee: You seem so passionate about your subject, but can you tell me how did you get interested in this area of research?

Dr Ajala: Well, I've been teaching politics on international relations for about eight years now. I have a first degree in agriculture extension. A lot of people when they ask me what my four degrees and I tell them is agriculture extension. The next question is how did you get into politics?

So what happened was when I was doing my first degree, doing my first degree, I volunteered for an NGO in Nigeria. And I discovered that one of the key problems in the world is poverty. And development. So at that point, I wanted to do a degree in international development.

So I came to the UK and then I studied globalisation and development at an Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. So it was during this period that then realised that one of the pains to development is conflict. So I then went on to study a degree in conflict resolution politics, studying conflict resolution. So that is how I moved on.

But I still do a lot of work that's agriculture related because there is no way you can talk about conflicts and developments in developing countries that you were not talking about agriculture being the main source of livelihood. So I'm able to bring in all these experiences and knowledge over the years into my teaching and it's been really enjoyable in the last eight years.

Dee: And how do you think having a degree helped you when going over to Africa to talk about conflict?

Dr Ajala: Yeah, it gives me an understanding of where the people are coming from because I spent five years studying agricultural extension and part of the studying was I had to live in the communities. My dissertation was exploring rural-urban migration in this community. So I have a thorough understanding of the underlying issues. So when I am in the community and they are telling me about agricultural productivity, maybe livestock production, or cultivations or farming timetable, I understand the details of these. So do you. This gives me a unique opportunity to be able to then link and connect these ages together and look at the role politics play in exploring or in determining the outcome of some of these things at the grassroots level.

Dee: Thank you for joining me today in the studio Dr Olayinka Ajala. That was a really interesting discussion about your research into the conflicts in Nigeria and the reasons behind them Thanks once again.

As a lecturer in Politics and International Relations, he shares his latest research with his students. Alongside his teaching, Olayinka carries out extensive research with communities in Africa. He shares his expertise of issues created by regional conflict with organisations such as the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the Government of Belgium. His interview with the BBC World Service cemented his place as a leading commentator on politics and sustainability in Africa.

Distributing resources and greed

Olayinka has explored the distribution of resources and how this can lead to conflict, focusing on the Niger Delta in Nigeria. It’s one of the largest oil gas deposits in the world, with a population of around 30 million people.

“Conflict has ravaged the region for 30 years and I wanted to examine the factors contributing to this,” explained Olayinka. Having carried out an extensive review of existing research, he found researchers and commentators “tended to conclude that the reason for conflict was greed – that people wanted the resources for themselves.”

Why climate change is causing conflict in Africa Dr Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University, shares his ground-breaking research into why climate change is causing conflict in Africa and explains how this feeds into his teaching so that students can relate what they are learning to current world issues.

Unexpected findings

But Olayinka wanted to take a closer look for himself, “I carried out an eight-week ethnography (a type of research study which explores cultures), visiting the area and speaking to different groups. These included government officials, employees of multinational companies and NGOs.”

Olayinka’s results were surprising, “I found that greed is not the reason for conflict. The real reasons are linked to human security and sustainability. Before oil exploration, the predominant occupation of the region was farming and fishing, but now the water is polluted and oil spills ruin the farmland,” he explains.

The multinational companies have to change their practices. They need to develop the region in a more sustainable way that allows the region to regenerate and future generations to benefit from oil deposits in the region.

Changing relationships

Olayinka’s research also explores a rising form of conflict caused by the changing relationship between farmers and pastoralists (people who own herding livestock including cattle, goats, sheep). “These two groups worked side-by-side, with the animals grazing on the land after the farmers had harvested it.”

But this relationship has changed, “Friction started when the population began to grow, and climate change started to affect the farming timetable. The way pastoralism has been practised in the past is no longer sustainable in the present.

The conflict between pastoralists and farmers, caused by climate change, is one of the biggest conflicts in parts of Africa, claiming more lives than terrorism.” In a six month 2018 study by International Crisis Group, 1,300 people were killed in violence between Nigerian herders and farmers.

“Climate change is becoming one of the main reasons for conflict – competition for resources and lack of sustainable practices.”

Linking our research and teaching

As a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, the highest recognition for teaching quality a UK university lecturer can reach, Olayinka knows a thing or two about delivering outstanding teaching. “At Leeds Beckett, we engage in research-led teaching. This means that I try as much as possible to bring elements of my research work into the lecture theatre.”

“For example, in our International Peace Keeping module I help students to look at what peace keeping approaches would be effective and I show them recent research I’ve carried out.”

Students also have the chance to get involved with research on campus as part of the Active Citizenship module, “I had a second-year student help me review the literature on pastoralist conflict. It’s important for them to get first-hand experience of how research projects are carried out.”

Boosting our students’ employability is a top priority too. Lecturers including Olayinka design assessments to reflect this, “We give the students experience of writing reports, instead of just essays and exams. They have to write a report for organisations such as Amnesty International or Red Cross. It brings their knowledge into the day-to-day running of these types of organisations.”

Our Politics and International Relations Festival

There’s one event that Olayinka always looks forward to, “Every year, we have a Politics and International Relations Festival. All of the staff present their recent research – we cover everything from American politics to nuclear weapons.”

If you’re thinking of joining us, the team would love to see you there, “It’s open to everyone – prospective students can come along and get a flavour of what research-led teaching really is.”

Africa Daily | Why are farmers and herders fighting in Nigeria?

Hear Olayinka's interview on BBC World Service.

Visit and listen on BBC World Service

Dr Olayinka Ajala

Senior Lecturer / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Dr Olayinka Ajala is an internationally recognised researcher working on exploring the dynamics of violent conflicts and climate change in West Africa and the Sahel. His areas of interests include insurgencies, terrorism, resource conflicts and internal displacement in the region.

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