Growing up in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, I had gotten used to a weather pattern that could be harsh and unforgiving. It is either extremely hot and sunny, or very dry and cold. The only time that we enjoy moderate weather is during the rainy season. Even that starts with in a difficult way: a violent sandstorm comes in from the North around the month of May, then a brief spatter of rainfall which just ends up raising the temperature by releasing the heat from the ground. After 3 to 4 repetitions of this, we then have regular rains from late June to Mid-September, and then it ceases.
But as time has gone on, the sandstorms have become more violent and longer lasting. The rains no longer start till as late as the end of July, and end suddenly at the start of September. Maiduguri has moved from being a town at the fringes of Nigeria’s Sahel region to a town at the fringes of the Sahara.
It doesn’t require rocket science to understand this phenomenon. It is desert encroachment. Sand dunes are gradually becoming commonplace as the vegetation disappears. This is not a story confined to the Borno State, it extends all over Nigeria. Thick Guinea savannah has turned into shrub land, and our rainforests are gradually vanishing. This has in turn affected weather patterns, agriculture, lifestyle and wildlife. For example, wild animals such as lions and leopards in the Yankari Game Reserve, Bauchi are now few and far between, as they have moved further inland in order to find a suitable habitat.
While the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) recommends a forest cover of 25% per country, Nigeria’s forest cover stands at 12% and only 3% of its primary forest remains. Trees are continually cut down to provide fuel wood, especially in the face of the rising cost and unavailability of kerosene and cooking gas; and also for furniture. Afforestation programmes are non-existent and no new trees are being planted. Existing forest reserves are poorly protected.
What is even worse is that there is no visible policy implemented by government at any level to reverse this trend and prevent any further depletion of our forests. A proposed Green Belt project that will stretch across the entire Northern frontier has been mooted by the Federal Government since the mid-90s. Despite tons of proposals by consultants, action on it has not been taken neither does it seem that it will be taken soon. State governments seem totally oblivious to the environmental degradation that deforestation is causing and costing them. In this age where the entire world is rising up to the threat of climate change, we are unable to deal with our own persistent environmental demons.
But how hard is it to create solutions to this problem? A good way to start is at the Federal level, make sure petroleum products, whose unavailability and cost make people turn to firewood to be easily available and at the approved price. Kerosene should be available at any time and at the subsidized price. Beyond that, there should be programmes that will promote the adoption of alternative cooking means, such as smokeless ovens, and if possible, subsidies should be provided. There is also a need for people to realize that cooking gas or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is much cheaper than kerosene, and also cleaner. That will be the responsibility of the LPG companies to do an aggressive sensitization.
States need to also have strong environmental laws, and also enforce it. Not only that, the burden of afforestation should rest squarely on their shoulders. A good idea is to tie environmental programmes into economic ambitions. For example, trees such as Gum Arabic which do well in arid and desert regions are also cash trees. The economic potential of the tree is so strong that it is the second highest revenue-earner in Sudan, after petroleum. Another tree that can do excellently in the arid regions is the Neem (Azadirachta Indica) tree. The products from this tree is said to have earned the country of Morocco about $80m in 2007. However, Kebbi State which has six times the number of Neem trees Morocco has does not earn a single naira from it. That is potentially $500m in revenues lost yearly. If Northern states make it a point to plant such trees and create value chains from them, they will not only be fighting desertification, but also be creating employment opportunities and generating revenue.
Let us not wait until we are overwhelmed by desertification and only a brown landscape remains across the country. It is time to act.