The Impact of Conflict and Instability on Agriculture in Mali and Nigeria

Agriculture is an important sector in West Africa. For example, in Mali 73 percent and in Nigeria 23 percent of the labor force works in agriculture (for comparison, in the United States only about 1 percent of the labor force works in agriculture). However, recent conflicts and political instability threaten this vital part of these countries’ economies. Both Mali and Nigeria hold great potential to increase agricultural productivity in their northern regions, but severe episodes of conflict in these areas have compounded the already existing challenges to production, e.g., low rainfall, poor soils and lack of access to credit and services. 

In 2012, Mali experienced the dual trauma of a military coup and an occupation of the north by nationalist and jihadist forces.  Since then, order has been restored, but peace negotiations between Mali and Tuareg nationalists are ongoing. Unfortunately, Mali’s northern region produces a majority of the livestock for the entire country, and farmers grow rice, millet, wheat and sorghum along the banks of the Niger River—meaning that the conflict has greatly hurt food security.

Nigeria’s northeastern corner (in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa states) has faced the bulk of attacks by Boko Haram militants since 2009, and the violence is ongoing and spreading to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. In Nigeria, 50 percent of crops and 47 percent of livestock consumed by the south were produced in northern states.

Early this year, researchers at the Africa Growth Initiative surveyed farmers in Mali (in Gao and Timbuktu) and Nigeria (in Borno state). The goal of the study was to determine the characteristics of each conflict scenario, gain an understanding of how conflict impacts various segments of agricultural value chains, and identify value chain segments where farmers are resilient to conflict. Ultimately, the Africa Growth Initiative wanted to know how donors and investors could maintain support for Mali’s and Nigeria’s agriculture sectors.

The findings of the conflict analysis and farmer surveys were compiled in a Brookings Africa Growth Initiative working paper available here

What Are the Common Challenges Facing Farmers in Conflict Zones?

Although each country faces different contexts, types of conflict, and different potential trajectories for the future, AGI’s research found that there are a number of challenges common to both countries. One of the biggest challenges faced by the crop, livestock and agricultural services value chains in these two conflict scenarios was a reduction in human mobility. The agriculture sector requires farm laborers to travel to fields where they are exposed to attacks by insurgents—be they militants, nationalists or jihadists. Markets where agricultural products are bought and sold are also targets due to the amount of money and appropriable products exchanging hands. Livestock markets such as cattle or camel markets are particularly under threat of attack because the unit cost per animal is very high.

However, some farmers were able to maintain their agricultural investments demonstrating some resilience to the conflict situations. Interestingly, the fisheries sectors in both countries were more resilient than other types of agricultural production. In Mali in particular, the insurgents were afraid to approach the Niger River where fishing takes place because, it was said, they feared drowning. In Mali, the farmers also negotiated for their safety with the insurgents. Farmers actually paid insurgents for safe bus transport to fields.  In Nigeria some farmers moved their livestock within their compounds very near their houses and crop farmers diversified into animal rearing as well.

The study findings suggest that one option for donors in those conflict-affected regions is to invest in conflict-resilient agricultural production, such as small ruminants and fisheries, and help maintain the inputs and services—such as vaccines, agricultural extension and financial services—required for production.