Sahelian Nomads

Alternative names: Tuareg, Fulani and various tribal names
Location: across the desert and semi-desert areas of West Africa
Population: 4 million (est.)
% of population: 13% (est.) of population of six Sahelian countries
Religion: Islam
Language: various

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 kilometers through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 centimetre annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, the best known of which are the Tuareg, a Berber-speaking nomadic group of stock breeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years, and the Fulani, who are pastoralists.

The river valleys are occupied for the most part by agriculturalists who have historically traded with the Tuareg, providing corn, gold and slaves in exchange for meat, milk, salt and dates. There is difficulty in estimating the number of nomads inhabiting this region. The total population of these countries is about 31 million but many of these are the agriculturalist peoples living in more fertile irrigated areas. One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.

The nomadic economy

The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated. Nomads also gnze their herds on the stubble of harvested fields and are hunter-gatherers as necessity and opportunity dictate. As the dry season progresses the Tuareg diet depends increasingly upon grain and dates and as the season becomes cooler and wetter milk and meat become the staples. In bad years when the rains fail the Tuareg resort to reserves and loans.

Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.

Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities. Natural checks on population growth were removed and deforestation, overgrazing and insufficient fallowing of cropland gradually followed.

The 1968-1973 drought

Between 1968 and 1973 there was a major drought which caused a high death toll among the nomadic herds (estimates vary from 25%-80% of total numbers). There is evidence to suggest that people died both in the bush and in refugee camps but there are no reliable figures to indicate how many people in all were affected. There was an alarming degree of confusion and contradiction in this matter displayed by government spokesmen and aid agencies, with for example, the Director-General of the UN Agriculture and Food Organization (FAO) announcing that “millions of people are dying” in the Sahel, and an FAO magazine stating that “there’s not much famine”. The director of the EC’s operations in Niger stated that “no-one will die of starvation in Niger” but a 1974 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated that 100,000 had already died and that millions still faced famine.

While the six Sahelian countries clearly suffered an economic disaster of huge proportions, the effects were not felt equally by all citizens but were borne largely by the nomadic cattle-raisers, many of whom lost most of their herds. As the drought worsened the nomads were also obliged to sell more and more animals to buy grain. Aid agencies treated the problem as one of food shortage and provided 250,000 tons of grain. It later transpired that grain was not in short supply but that some governments magnified the effects of the drought in order to obtain grain donations.

In 1974 there were reports that the Malian government was beginning to withhold food from Tuareg nomads in its refugee camps. This may have been a continuation of a dispute begun in the early 1960s, when the Tuareg living in Mali had attempted to ally themselves to Algeria but had been defeated in a violent civil war. The Malian Defence Minister now accused neighbouring governments of harbouring Malian nomads in order to obtain more drought relief. Preparations for war between Mali and Upper Volta began and a national levy on the population of Upper Volta followed. Upper Volta citizens became hostile to the Tuareg nomads who were harassed, beaten and imprisoned by local administrators. One group of Tuareg refugees living in Algeria were returned to Mali at the request of the Malian government.

The rains of 1974 reached record levels and crops were good in that year. The majority of those who survived the drought returned to pastoralism, although with much smaller herds. A few who had been settled in experimental stations remained to raise stock and grow crops. A third group remained in a state of dependency however. In Mauritania over 100,000 refugees settled outside the coastal city of Nouakchott and by the mid 1980s there had been a complete reversal of the situation of 20 years earlier — when three-quarters of children had been born in the desert — to one in which three-quarters were born in the capital. There is little employment for these people and already a second generation has been born, but with no animals to depend on and famine relief continuing there is little incentive for them to return to a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence.

The Sahelian countries began to implement development plans put forward by the UN Office for Sahelian Relief Operations (OSRO) and USAID. Some of these schemes have proved impractical, however, and have had to be abandoned, and the problems involved in maintaining the delicate ecological balance in this region have not been seriously addressed.

The drought of 1984 onwards

The 1968-73 drought was followed by a period of good rainfall and the numbers of livestock in many areas returned to pre-drought levels. However further drought threatened from 1984, after the rains failed in 1983, and governments again appealed for food aid. Between 1975 and 1980 over $7,000 million in aid had been committed to the region by the Club de Sahel of western nations, but much was inappropriate and in any case desertification had continued for a number of complex reasons. By 1984 nomads were again threatened, along with agriculturalist peoples. However unlike the previous drought there was now no market for cattle and thus nomads could not even sell their assets in order to survive. By mid-1985 aid workers stated that tens of thousands of Tuareg and Tamashek nomads were starving to death in the remote interior of Mali. An estimated 40%-80% of livestock was lost, the grain harvest had failed and millions of people were reported to have moved into already over-exploited agricultural areas or into towns where there was still no work available. Some national borders were closed to nomads. Traditionally Tuareg structures began to break down as men left to work in the cities of the south and villages were populated only by women and children.

Once again emergency aid flooded in and experimental agricultural projects started in several refugee settlements; unless they take into account the true needs of the nomads these can only serve to upset still further the delicate ecological balance in the Sahel, causing problems of over-population, over-grazing and deforestation. Most aid however did not go to increase food production; one analysis stated that one third of aid went on food imports from abroad, one third to infrastructure and only 4% to grow rainfed crops and 1.5% on tree-planting and soil and water conservation. Drought continued into 1985 and although the situation has since improved somewhat there are also new problems including plagues of locusts, increased fuel needs in the cities and threats to wildlife from big game hunters. Most Sahelian countries have adopted World Bank “restructuring programs” which have cut public spending and helped to further impoverish dependent peoples. Gradually nomadic strategies for dealing with the ecology are being destroyed and the problem of desertification is becoming more severe.

(See also Chad; Mauritania; Western Saharans)