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A brief history of Northern elders

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WEEKEND with Ibraheem Sulaiman

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Lake Chad tells the story of the Nigerian Predicament, it tells the story of the ongoing  Northern Nigerian Tragedy. The Lake Chad Basin is the largest area of inland drainage basin in Africa, covering an area of about 2,500,000 km2, that is about 8% of the surface area of the African continent. The basin is shared between the countries of Algeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria and Libya. It constitutes a strategic source of freshwater for the countries, which is central to the livelihoods of the people in the basin. It is strategic for global biodiversity, being the home to 120 species of fish, supporting 372 bird species, as well as a good variety of animal and plant life. Most important of all, it is home to a large human population, rich in diversity, rich in history and rich in culture; and it is able in the best of times to supply them with all the necessary means of livelihood as thriving communities of farmers, fishermen, herders, traders and scholars. 
In 1963, Lake Chad covered an area of 25000 square kilometers, but today it covers a mere 3000 square kilometers, or even much less. It has also lost about 95% of its water. The lake affects the livelihood of about twenty two million people, who depend on it for fresh water, farming, fishing, grazing and sundry other economic activities. Since 1963 or so the countries in the Chad Basin, especially Nigeria which has the largest stake, have watched the steady decline of Lake Chad caused mostly by human factors, paying little regard to its strategic value, treating it as though its indispensable life-sustaining resources are infinite, not finite, and engaging in salvage operations at the wrong times in the wrong places. Andrew Bomford gives a typical example of the treatment meted out to the lake on a routine basis. A power project was undertaken in New Marte, Chad, to provide electricity to pump water to irrigate 165,000 hectares or 668 square kilometers of farmland. Hundreds of kilometers of canals were built but the canals were not lined and the water just drained away into the desert. Only a third of the land was ever irrigated. But in the end the southern part of the Lake dried up, and now the canals and the land are barren. The power station stands there, says Bomford, as a silent museum of 1970s technology.
The forty years or more of continuous, uninterrupted decline has taken its toll, the fear now is that Lake Chad may inevitably vanish and become history. The decline has resulted in dwindling access to water for the population, widespread crop failures, livestock deaths, collapsed fisheries, collapsed wetland services, biodiversity loss and decreased viability of biological resources. More importantly the decline has led to food insecurity, continuing decline in the health status of the people and sustained degradation of living standards. The people of the Lake Chad area are now adjudged as the poorest in Nigeria, poor not because they are lazy but because their source of sustenance and livelihood has been snatched from them, through a systematic failure of governmental policy and strategy.
Experts attribute the travails of Lake Chad largely to failure of government. The decline is, after all, avoidable and reversible. In their Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis of the Lake Chad Basin prepared for The Lake Chad Basin Commission, Dr. Hassan Haruna Bdliya and Dr. Martin Bloxom observe as follows: 'In all the member countries there is clear evidence that the governments of the day make very minimal investments in the biological resources management and environmental protection sector. In Nigeria, for example, the budgetary outlay for the Federal Ministry of Environment, which is eloquently charged with the responsibility for protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development, has since its creation in 1999 never reached 10% of what is allocated for the army. This is hard to explain, as the regions economy is dependent on the exploitation of natural resources, whether through agricultural production or direct harvesting of resources. The most probable reason is the preoccupation of the governments with short term concerns, which is driven mainly by a low level of environmental awareness and education, as well as survival instincts in an unstable economy and political setting. There is no pressure on the governments of the day for investments and services that can underpin sustainable development.'
In all these years every one in the North remains silent, unperturbed! The Lake Chad tragedy, however, pales into insignificance when compared to the ongoing, relentless desertification of a very extensive part of Northern Nigeria. Desertification is defined by the United Nations as a process of land degradation in arid, semi arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. Desertification is a global phenomenon which poses grave dangers to human populations. Its ultimate consequences are summed up by the UN in a terse, dramatic sentence: 'The Roman Empire's bread basket in North Africa, which once contained 600 cities, is now a desert.'  The UN explains some aspects of human activities which contribute to desertification as follows. 'Over-cultivation exhausts the soil. Overgrazing removes vegetation that protects soil erosion. Trees that bind the soil together are cut for lumber or firewood for heating and cooking. Poorly drained irrigation turns crop land salty, desertifying 500,000 hectares annually, about the same amount of soil that is newly irrigated annually.' The UN adds further: 'Life on earth depends on the layer of soil that is the source of the nutrients for plants, crops, forests, animals and people. Without it, ultimately none can survive. Although topsoil takes a long time to build up, if mistreated, it can vanish in a few seasons due to erosion by wind and water.'
Desertification can be contained, even reversed if the necessary measures are taken on a sustained basis. But what is the situation in Nigeria? The Nigerian Voice wrote on December 21, 2010, giving a typical example of the way in which Nigeria fights what amounts to one of the gravest threats to its existence:
'In December 2008, during the presidency of President Umar Musa Yar Adua, the Federal Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a German field engineering company, Hagen and Co Engineering Services GbR through her Nigerian affiliate for the implementation of a 1.5 Billion Euro Green Wall Sahara Shelter Belt project that had been initiated by Obasanjo's administration, but kept in the cooler for reasons that would not stress an Obasanjo keen watcher to put his fingers on. The MoU represented the best any government with the slightest interest of the suffering but voiceless Northern Nigerian farmers would embrace with both arms, as Yar Adua did.
'Three months, six months, almost two years later, the Hagen Desert Farming Project which sets out to empower farmers in desert encroached Nigeria not only to plant trees but to improve on their standard of living at no cost to any level of government, is yet to take off. Governors of Northern Nigerian states whose states economies stand to benefit from the project, are said to have done nothing to create the necessary enabling environment for the project to take off. At a National Conference organized by the Leadership Group of Newspapers in April 2009, with the aptly selected theme: 'Beyond Oil', the project was stridently put before governors and Northern politicians and traditional leaders who attended the conference. Almost one years after the conference, target state governments are still 'searching' for solutions to the rampaging desert without asking a single question about the Hagen Desert Farming Project. Indeed these are strange times as far as desertification and its control are concerned.'
Again silence everywhere! Meanwhile the combined effects of the vanishing Lake Chad and the advancing desertification could turn the vast lands which today serve as a base for extensive agriculture, fishing, grazing, human habitation and human activity into a dessert, wiping out the many cities and cultures and histories which make the region powerful, unassailable, unique. The people would scatter in different directions in search of farmlands, food, water and shelter. The Quran tells us what happens when a people, through failure of vision, loss of vitality, or systemic abuse of God's bounty, finally lose the command over their physical environment. They perish.

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