African coups: climate change is the hidden force undermining governments

Eleanor Sa-Carneiro

Climate change combined with population growth has been the catalyst for a series of coups and political unrest across Africa, according to Nick Westcott a former British diplomat who served in six nations on the continent.

“The impact of climate change and demographic change on these countries, particularly across the Sahel” are the underlying causes of the coups as well as the civil conflict breaking out both in Sudan and Ethiopia, Westcott, now a professor of global diplomacy at SOAS University, London, told Qonversations.

The impact of a warming planet, which has made food cultivation more challenging owing to increased instances of severe weather, has put stress on countries benefiting from a population boom, he observed.

Population surge

Sahel countries have amongst the fastest rates of demographic growth in the world. The growth of Africa’s population in the 20th and 21st centuries “has been one of the great development successes of the world” as the continent was underpopulated due to limited agricultural resources and limited demographic growth, fallen to disease and poor infrastructure. Around 1900, it amounted to approximately 200 million. Since independence in the 1960s, the count grew from 400 million to 1.2 billion.

One result has been a rise in migration towards countries with more consistent economic growth and demand for labour.

Westcott points out that mass displacement of peoples is nothing new – “It’s what a large part of human history has been about” – but it is accompanied by a range of tensions. The solution, according to Westcott, is support for African development and to accelerate economic growth as has happened in parts of Asia and Latin America.

Climate stress

The belt that crosses Africa, from West Africa’s Senegal to East Africa’s Somalia, is also at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, more than any other region in Africa. The effects have at times been devastating, with extreme phenomenon of floods and heatwaves accompanied by a general trend of reduced rainfall and desertification.

As conditions worsen, people grow increasingly tired of the democratic system that has proven faulty in some cases but thirdly Westcott argues, African governments and their institutions are too weak and centralised to withstand contest. In countries where power also lies in the regions, such as Nigeria, “It would be much harder for a military then to exert that kind of control over the whole country” he explains.

Social unrest

Asked about social media’s role in the series of coups, Westcott maintains its importance shouldn’t be exaggerated given the rural population being largely unreachable. Populist rhetoric blaming outside influence is more effective in the capitals where a smaller group are open to manipulation, “Anti-French propaganda sells well,” he notes.

Whether certain coups were enabled by other causes such as personal rivalry, corruption, or outside influences, Westcott concedes that “governments have a challenge, whatever kind of government they are”. The same factors that have prompted the coups, also create conditions favouring insurrections by jihadist or other ideological movements.

Nick Westcott was the UK ambassador in Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. He also served as managing director for Africa in the European Union’s External Action Service and is author of Imperialism and Development: the East African Groundnut scheme and its legacy.

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