Community voices are crucial in peacebuilding and climate conflict prevention

Local adaptation, social solidarity, climate migration and early prevention are some of the main issues Ngozi Amu talked about in her conversation with Orla Haughey.

Ngozi Amu, a staff member of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), is currently on sabbatical with the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) in Sweden to conduct research on climate change, peace and security. She was interviewed by Orla Haughey, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation Intern and Master’s student in Peace and Conflict Studies at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Ms. Amu gave the interview in her personal capacity.

Peacemaking in West Africa and the Sahel

The conversation with Ngozi Amu kicked off with her telling us more about the scope of her work at the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), a Security Council-mandated regional political office based in Dakar, Senegal, which covers 17 countries. ‘Of course, when you work for the UN, it’s all about the mandate that is given to you [and at] UNOWAS, the mandate is about peacemaking and conflict prevention.’

Under the umbrella of peacemaking and conflict prevention, UNOWAS works with the UN family, regional bodies and many other partners to support governments in the region to promote democracy and political dialogue with a strong focus on human rights and women’s inclusion. ‘Unfortunately, the region in the last decade has experienced this overwhelming problem of terrorism,’ says Ngozi Amu. The Libyan crisis in 2011 sparked this negative trend, which has since expanded across the Sahel and even towards coastal West Africa. ‘It is heart breaking,’ continues Ngozi Amu, ‘and as often is the case, civilians are the biggest victims of the deadly violence.’

To grapple with these challenges, UNOWAS is working with all its partners to identify entry points for conflict prevention and resolution. The UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and Youth Peace and Security (YPS) agendas are important frameworks in this regard. According to UN Women, women and girls are often the most affected by conflict, including sexual and gender-based violence. Yet, they are often undervalued in formal peace processes. More work to empower women’s voices is therefore essential. ‘The same goes for the youth’, says Ngozi Amu, noting that more than 60% of the population in West Africa are under the age of 24, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The focus on evidence-based research is essential, so that we actually hear from people who are affected by climate change on how they see the problem, and how it can be resolved in their own opinion… and in terms of partnerships, it just cannot be over emphasised, the importance of pushing the limits to avoid duplication and build alliances and solidarity.

Climate change, peace and security

Support to women and youth is also a key element of UNOWAS’ work on climate change, peace and security. In 2020, the Security Council requested the Office to ‘take into consideration the adverse implications of climate change, energy poverty, ecological changes and natural disaster on the region,’ and to ‘assist governments and the UN system to undertake risk assessments and risk management strategies relating to these factors.’ Ngozi Amu has been the focal point for this work at UNOWAS. ‘There is no direct link between climate change and security,’ she emphasises, ‘but what we’ve seen is that climate change, because of the weather shocks it provokes, amplifies the hardship of farmers, pastoralists, fishermen and other groups who depend on water and land for survival; this in turn can lead to resource competition and conflict.”

‘Human security’ is often used as a concept for addressing the climate, peace and security nexus. According to the UN, human security is ‘an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people’ (General Assembly resolution 66/290).

Call to action and multiple responses

UNOWAS’ collaborative work with the UN system, national governments, regional entities and civil society groups led to the endorsement last year of a Call to Action on Climate Change, Peace and Security in West Africa and the Sahel. This was followed by two side events at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) to galvanise support for the Call’s implementation in three areas. Namely more evidence-based research, broader partnerships and increased financing for climate adaptation.

Ngozi Amu explains: ‘the focus on evidence-based research is essential, so that we actually hear from people who are affected by climate change on how they see the problem, and how it can be resolved in their own opinion… and in terms of partnerships, it just cannot be over emphasised, the importance of pushing the limits to avoid duplication and build alliances and solidarity.’

Picture from UNOWAS’ hosting with the whole UN system in West Africa and the Sahel of a COP27 side event on climate change, peace and security in West Africa and the Sahel – ‘our first participation in a COP’.

She continues: ‘when it comes to financing for climate adaptation, this was a big theme at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, and the idea that developing countries – often the biggest victims of climate change but not the biggest emitters – should receive support from developed countries to do climate adaptation.’ COP27 attained success in this regard with the decision to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, which is currently being conceptualised ahead of COP28 in Dubai.

There’s no better region in the world than the Sahel in terms of sunshine. It’s just an enormous opportunity for green energy.

Ngozi Amu is keen to underscore that while the challenges seem daunting, there is so much good work taking place in West Africa and the Sahel to respond to them. Much of it is happening at the local level. In October 2022, UNOWAS organised a workshop on youth empowerment for climate action and peace with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (AU –GGWI).

Among the projects showcased were a solar panel start-up in central Burkina Faso; a smart agriculture project for women in Senegal and an innovative approach to producing floor tiles from recycled materials in Sierra Leone. What do these projects have to do with peace? ‘Job creation is part of the peacebuilding process,’ says Ngozi Amu. ‘When people can feed their families, there is motivation and less tensions, and if you can create jobs in such a way that it also promotes climate adaptation, then it’s a win-win situation,’ she adds.

Ngozi Amu thinks that the UN system and donors are doing amazing things to support governments in these efforts, but that much more coordinated support and a longer-term vision are needed on climate adaptation. She gives an example from one of UNOWAS’ climate security risk assessment in the Sahel where women in one community had received a donor-funded solar powered refrigerator for storing milk to sell it fresh during the hot season. But the refrigerator had stopped working, and the women had not learned how to service it. Ngozi Amu says that examples like this should not be generalised. Yet, they nevertheless serve as lessons, especially as demand for solar fridges in the Sahel likely to rise with the mounting temperatures.

Climate migration and terrorism

The mounting temperatures, however, is a mixed bag. ‘There’s no better region in the world than the Sahel in terms of sunshine. It’s just an enormous opportunity for green energy,’ says Ngozi AMU. But she is also aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) statistics and the fear among climate scientists that many areas will become too hot for existing forms of outdoor farming and herding, the main source of income for the majority of the population. Women are disproportionally affected in this regard. According to UN Women, women’s contribution to agriculture – if the whole value chain is considered – amounts to 80% in West Africa.

‘The question is, if it becomes too hot for people to live and work in a place, where will they go and how will they be received,’ says Ngozi Amu and continues: ‘rural-urban migration is not new, but if it takes place at larger scale and becomes more impulsive, it will need to be managed to avoid the type of resource competition and tensions we’ve seen between farmers and herders in the region.’

UN focus group discussion with Malian refugees in the M’bera refugee camp in Bassikounou, Mauritania.

The World Bank released a report in 2021, Groundswell Report, on the climate-migration nexus, which also include a mapping of this phenomenon in West Africa. The report warned that there could be over 30 million climate migrants in West Africa by 2030, if no measures are put in place to address the drivers. According to Ngozi Amu, the impact of climate change on migration in the Sahel and West Africa is an area that is gaining a lot of attention, but it cannot be looked at in a vacuum without acknowledging the persistent dire security environment. ‘Yes, climate change is likely to trigger more migration, but today terrorism and violent extremism are the major drivers,’ says Ngozi Amu, referring back to her reflections at the beginning of the interview. The UN registered about 2 million internally displaced people in Burkina Faso last year, double the amount compared with 2019. People are fleeing terrorist attacks, and land and water resources are increasingly under the control of terrorist groups.

Social solidarity and early prevention

Despite the negative terrorism trend in the region, Ngozi Amu believes that addressing the climate, peace and security nexus presents opportunities for conflict prevention, especially in places that are not conflict-affected. She refers to the climate security risk assessments conducted by the UN system in West Africa and the Sahel and points out one observation made about the impact of resource scarcity on social cohesion. ‘We heard communities say that there was less sharing of food and shores today than before, that there were tensions over the use of things like the water pump, and that families who used to provide a safety net for others in need could not be relied on anymore. In other communities we heard that traditional instances that used to settle disputes had changed or were not effective,’ she said.

For Ngozi Amu, paying attention to these social solidarity vulnerabilities is where conflict prevention can be most effective because you can address the problems before they become too big. She emphasises that such early prevention efforts are best carried out by local and national actors supported by the UN system and other partners in-country but that UNOWAS, as a regional political office, has an important role to play connecting this work, including national climate adaptation plans and conflict prevention strategies, with regional and international frameworks and policies, and to promote cross border learning.

Ngozi Amu’s sabbatical leave with the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) focuses on how the UN’s ongoing work to build peace and promote climate action in West Africa and the Sahel could be strengthened through greater access to climate data, tools and information. Her report is to be finalised this summer.