20 March 2018

Nigeria: Can We Save Lake Chad?

I have always marvelled at the lack of awareness by many in this country on the strategic importance of Lake Chad and what it means for the livelihood and sustenance to millions of our countrymen. When the conference on Saving the Lake Chad was taking place late in February many were wondering what the problem was. But when they realized that the conference was receiving lavish press and rare privilege of having the presence of the President as well as the Vice President in quick succession they then knew that something big was really happening. In fact people realized that it was even a bigger issue when many other Presidents started arriving for the conference. By the time the conference ended, Presidents Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, Idriss Deby Itno of Chad, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Faustin-Archange Touadera of Central Africa had graced the occasion and participated in the discussions.

Besides the fight on corruption, perhaps the effort to save Lake Chad would be one area where praise must be given to President Buhari for being consistent. Right from 2015 on assumption of office, Buhari has been a persistent advocate for taking measures to save the lake. In all the international trips he undertook immediately after taking office as President the issue of Boko Haram and saving the lake were consistently pronounced in his statements. And whenever foreign dignitaries visited Nigeria and called on him, he made the same plea.

A good example is the visit of the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to Nigeria in 2016, where President Buhari seized the opportunity to make a case for the preservation of the lake. As reported, the President was said to have led seven Ministers to the meeting with the UNESCO Director-General where he pleaded for the involvement of the United Nations and the world powers to save the lake otherwise 'the migration crisis and the socio-security issues that accompany them will worsen and reverberate in far-flung corners of the world'.

When readers look at the map of Africa, the lake would be found centrally placed. What would not be immediately apparent would be the fine lines criss-crossing over the surface of the lake as national boundaries sharing it between Nigeria, Cameroun, Chad and Republic of Niger. As divided by the colonialists then, Chad has the largest chunk of over 40%, the remainder was apportioned to the other three countries with Cameroun having the least share of less than 10%.

The lake is historically one of the largest lakes in Africa and said to be the sixth in the world in the old days. In its heydays Lake Chad had provided water for millions in the communities surrounding it for the benefit of both man and animal. Placed in a semi-arid area straddling the North, Central and West Africa, the Lake Chad became a veritable source of livelihood and a hub of economic activity for the citizens who were principally fishermen, farmers, herdsmen and traders who came from all over West Africa. There was contentment, prosperity, progress and stability in the region.

Then disaster struck. A lake that covered over 25,000 square miles in the first half of the previous century gradually shrank to less than 10% of its size with major consequences for the teeming citizens living on it. The lake began to shrink in the late 1960s and the cycles of drought of the 1970s and 80s worsened matters. As water became scarce in this environment that could be inhospitable even at best of times it generated poverty and conflict. When the dryness continued both farmers and herders were compelled to move southwards in search for greener pastures where inevitably they ended up competing for the same resources with the host communities. And it is possible that this explains part of the genesis of the conflicts between herders and farming communities not only in the north-east of Nigeria but also in the middle-belt of the country.

The environmental degradation broke up families and communities. The weak, old and sick got left behind, while the young and strong moved elsewhere to inextricably earn a living in very low paying jobs. If a census is taken in Nigeria of those who were stuck in lowest paying jobs over the last many years, you would find that a good percentage would be coming from the states surrounding the Lake Chad.

The land surrounding Lake Chad inevitably became prone to diseases and disasters. There was lack of education, lack of infrastructure and lack of investment. To date the area is always rated very low in developmental indices. The governments, both the state and local, became overwhelmed and found it impossible to meet the yearnings of the citizens. People became prey to extremists' ideologies, complete with their violent ways and means. The misguided ideologues then began to cause mayhem with consequences not only for the locality but for the nation and international community as well.

The grim condition of the lake had always been in the front-burner of all the governments of the region. The Nigerian government had probably been the most active by the provision of modern infrastructure in the region. Its side of the region was opened up with beautiful macadamised roads. By the close of the 1970s you could travel without any hassle from Maiduguri to Baga on the shores of the lake through Monguno and Kukawa and also to Gamboru Ngala through Dikwa. Another road picked up from Dikwa to New Marte to Monguno.

The Federal Government then established the Chad Basin Development Authority (CBDA) hoping to develop the land around the basin for irrigation of a whopping 67,000 hectares for the cultivation of mainly rice and wheat. Lake Chad Research Institute was also created out of CBDA to provide ancillary services. On the whole various efforts were made to obviate the social and economic problems wrought by the receding lake but the condition the country found itself from the 1990s dried up government investments in the region. Most of the infrastructure provided broke down and could not be redeemed for years.

The twin approach of fighting the insurgency in the region as well as taking concrete measures to save the lake itself is a worthwhile effort. The conference on saving the lake that held in Abuja a few days ago must be a step in the right direction particularly on the decision to adopt the option of recharging the lake by means of water transfer from the Congo. What is instructive about the efforts to save the lake is that the matter has now gone international bearing in mind the many countries that were brought together at the conference hall. Besides the heavy presence of the affected African countries and the overwhelming presence of United Nation organs, there was also a conspicuous presence of the Chinese, the Italians and the French. One hopes that our government will put structures on the ground to implement the decisions reached at the conference. We should continue to engage the International donors to redeem their pledges as well as our West African counterparts to fulfil their obligations.

Nigeria

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