By Zahra Nasser
Desertification is, without a doubt, one of the most pernicious ecological scourges plaguing Nigeria’s extreme northern states. It is especially acute in Borno, Yobe, Sokoto, Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Zamfara, and Katsina states, and threatens to steal the future of millions of people in these states—and beyond. Lately, many northern states have transcended the predictable platitudes about the need to halt the menacing, inexorable march of the desert, and are actually matching their official pronouncements with concrete action.
Yobe State is one of such states. It has come to terms with the enormity of the environmental challenge that desertification poses to the lives of its citizens. In a recent interview, the state’s environment commissioner, Wakil Ahmed Sarki, speaking on behalf of the state government, captured it so well when he called attention to the fact that the sheer ferocity of the encroachment of the desert is forcing a southward migration of the people of his state. “We cannot hope to achieve much development if the environment is holding us down,” he told journalists recently during a press conference to sensitize the nation on the dangers of desertification.”The long-term plan is for us to be able to fashion out a standard framework consisting of solutions, rules and an economic agenda tied to the environment because the effect is that once we are able to stop desert encroachment, we are certain that we would see a period of economic boom and the North will be able to go back and take its rightful place in the league of states when it comes to contribution to national growth.”
It is this consideration that inspired the Yobe State government, through its environment ministry, to lead a coalition of 11 frontline states that are the hardest hit by desert encroachment. Part of the raison d’être of the informal coalition is to harmonise all the environmental laws of 11 states that are endangered by the relentless advance of the Sahara desert. “We want to have uniform laws and be able to push for legislation that would recognise the fact that we have these problems and accord us with some status of environmentally challenged,” the commissioner said.
One of the immediate aftermaths of this resolution is that a climate change bill is currently under consideration in the National Assembly. The bill, among other things, seeks the establishment of a National Climate Change Commission that will mainstream desertification and other environmental issues in national policy priorities. It is easy to question the utility of such a commission but, as Governor Gaidam’s environment commissioner has said, northern states may be the direct victims of desert encroachment, but the south is certain to grapple with the auxiliary consequences of the North’s climatic misfortunes should the scourge of desert encroachment be left unchecked.”It is easy for someone to see the bill as not necessary because they are not adversely affected by climate change but l think that is an error… because the migration that is happening to us presently, where thousands of our young people are moving to the South, is also taking a toll on the [South’s] resources,” he said.
In the meantime, the Yobe State government, through its concerted advocacy efforts, has caused the federal government to approve palliative measures to halt the onslaught of the desert in Yobe and other frontline states this year. Such measures includecollaboration with the Federal Ministry of Environment to find alternative sources of energy, the establishment of an integrated model village development programme, the fixation of sand dunes andthe establishment of rangeland in affected areas, the introduction of rain water harvesting, and other kinds of afforestation programmes.
Governor Ibrahim Gaidam’s administration has not only provided exemplary leadership in fighting desertification by bringing national attention to it and leading a coalition of governors to tackle it regionally, it has fought—and continues to fight— desertification locally within the limits of its resources. It has also pioneered novel ways of tackling an old scourge, as you will see shortly.
Over the years,the Gaidam administration has investedin traditional anti-desertification projects such as securing sand dunes, developing shelter belts, and reactivating oasesin areas of the state that are heavily affected by the malicious intrusion of the desert. Other measures the state has invested in include various drought amelioration projects such as Cactus Opuntia plantation and the traditional tree planting campaign.
Another area the state has paid tremendous attention to is the sensitization of the local populace about the present and clear dangers of desertification, and how ordinary people can contribute to the fight against it. Radio programmes are sponsored in local languages to promote sustainable ways of using natural resources. This is an addition to a programme the state has initiated to bring together environmental stakeholders, such as the Wood Sellers’ Association, and get them involved in productive, mutually beneficial conversations about the environment and how to save it from ruination resulting from human activity.
One of the byproducts of this effort is the growing consciousness among environmental users that there is virtue in replenishing the vegetation by planting trees. Obviously, however, these praiseworthy efforts haven’t yielded all the results the government had thought they would, so it has decided to expand the battlefront and intellectualize the fight against desertification.
For instance, the Yobe governor approved the establishment of Nigeria’s first ever Desert Research Centre in Yobe State University to, as one writer recently pointed out,”conduct research in and proffer solutions to the problems of desertification in the country.” One of the important hallmarks of the centre is its extensive international reach. A recent article about the laudable improvements in Yobe State University pointed out that the governor”strengthened the scholarly capabilities of the [Desert Research Centre] by establishing academic affiliations with high-profile Egyptian university professors and academics who have researched and published on desertification in the Middle East and North Africa.”
This is clearly a judicious and far-sighted approach to understanding and finding solutions to the ever-present and ever-worsening problem of desert encroachment in our country, especially because the traditional means of tackling desertification have not made radical differences. Scholarly investigation into the phenomenon of desertification is sure to yield a wealth of information and contrasts of contexts to draw from for our benefit.
How have Middle Eastern and North African countries been able to contain and cope with desertification? How has Israel managed to halt the march of its Negev Desert? Only a Desert Research Centre of the kind established in Yobe State University can answer these questions in a systematic and useful way. It is hoped that this centre will become a beacon of hope in the fight against desertification in northern Nigeria.
Governor Gaidam realized early enough that the fight against desertification isn’t a local fight. That was why his administration led a coalition of 11 frontline states to form a collective voice. But he also soon realized that the fight isn’t regional either. As such, he sought—and is still seeking—federal attention to a problem he says has the potential to consume us all. Now, with the establishment of Nigeria’s first, internationally affiliated Desert Research Centre in Yobe State University, the governor has shown that desertification in Nigeria can also benefit from an international solution.
Given this governor’s relentless and valiant fight against desertification, I can’t think of a worthier epithet for him than “Nigeria’s desert warrior.”
NASSER, an environmental activists, lives in Abuja