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Social differentiation of risk

Perceptions of the future in drought-prone Central Niger
Risque et différentiation sociale : perceptions de l’avenir en zone de sécheresse chronique (Niger Central)
Clare Oxby
p. 106-129


Cet aperçu de deux communes rurales à domination touarègue, situées en zone de transition pastorale-agricole dans les régions de Maradi et de Tahoua, montre que bien que tous partagent le discours d’un « danger naturel inévitable », les prises de risque face à la sécheresse sont fortement polarisées selon la position sociale. D’une part, la minorité touarègue dominante perçoit la sécheresse non seulement comme un danger pour ses troupeaux, mais aussi comme l’occasion d’accroître sa clientèle politique en canalisant les aides humanitaires vers ses partisans. D’autre part, la plupart des ménages, dont la viabilité économique est précaire, cultivent des liens sociaux avec les familles dominantes dans le but de sécuriser leur accès à l’eau, à la terre et à l’aide humanitaire ; leurs membres sont contraints à des migrations de plus en plus fréquentes et lointaines. Certains dirigeants, bien informés de la politique et de la pratique foncière nationale, cherchent un avenir meilleur en se focalisant sur la consolidation des droits fonciers des communautés à travers la promotion d’initiatives de sédentarisation et de privatisation des terres. Mais l’augmentation de la pression foncière qui en résulte dans les endroits clés pourrait involontairement exposer les habitants à des crises encore plus graves liées à des sécheresses futures.

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  • 1  The term “pastoralists” refers in this article to producers who rely on the husbandry and trade of (...)

1The concept of risk has often been linked with contemporary industrial societies, and transnational dimensions of risk have been explored in the context of a so-called “world risk society”, which opposes “risk donor countries” to “risk receiver countries” in a hierarchy of international inequalities in risks and threats (Beck 2009: 30). This view has a tendency to treat risk receiver countries as uniform socially undifferentiated blocks, a view that can be countered by the thriving social anthropological literature on risk and uncertainty in relation to different sections of global society including a range of African viewpoints, as the varied contributions to this volume testify. This article puts forward the case of the Tuareg of Central Niger, a social group with a heritage of nomadic livestock-keeping, and draws on a rich literature in relation to pastoralists1, in particular African pastoralists. This literature explores the way these minority livelihoods are uniquely adapted to some of the most risky and uncertain corners of our planet; and are facing particular stress in the face of demographic growth, land pressure and lack of effective political representation, all of which combine to create an unprecedented vulnerability to drought-triggered crisis (White 1997, Bollig and Göbel 1997, Bruijn and Dijk 1995 and 2005, Bollig 2006, Casimir 2008, Krätli and Schareika 2010).

2This literature has often treated pastoralists as one of the poorest and most suppressed sections of society, which suffers most when natural catastrophes occur, and several authors describe a process of pauperisation amongst them (White 1997, Bruijn and Dijk 1995). What is not so frequently explored, however, is the diversity of risk and uncertainty perception and experience between different members and sections within pastoralist society. This is partly because of the way pastoralist groups are often defined by their researchers using single ethnic and/or productive criteria, and partly because pastoralists are often assumed by outsiders to be egalitarian – evidence presented below demonstrates just how different Sahelian realities can be from these outsider assumptions.

3This article considers drought response strategies within two Tuareg communes in adjacent regions of Central Niger, both situated in the transition zone between dominant agricultural and dominant pastoral production techniques and lifestyles. In understanding the ever more frequent and severe drought-related crises, it points to the social differentiation within the communes, the social variation in response to drought, and in particular to the drought risk strategies of certain community leaders, which, though addressing the fundamental discrepancy between the lesser land rights of pastoralists in comparison with crop farmers, may unwittingly be contributing to longer term environmental degradation and therefore a worsening future impact of drought. Given that everyone, from environmental experts to the producers themselves, knows that the climate is too arid and variable in these Sahelian regions to support an unlimited growth of permanent rainfed agriculture, how do people who live in these areas of pioneer sedentarisation see their future?

Two case studies of Tuareg-dominated communes

Map 1 Caption

Map 1 Caption

Map of Niger showing location of Commune A and Commune G in relation to the 15th Parallel North.

  • 2  The data comes from repeated visits to what is now Gadabedji Commune: the first year long stay in (...)
  • 3  Though estimates at the Commune itself are much higher: 21 000 according to Amis de l’Azawagh 2011

4The two communes selected for study2 are named after the location of their respective administrative headquarters, which contain some permanent architectural features including the administrative office spaces, and the homes and storehouses of the leading families and their entourage. I shall call them here Commune G and Commune A (see Map 1). Commune G is the smaller of the two: in the 2001 census, it had a population of 3 818 persons, whereas Commune A had a population of 10 3583.

  • 4  Tamashek in Commune A, Tamajaq in Commune G. Both are forms of Berber, see Mezhoud et al. 2010.

5Although Communes A and G are on a similar latitude and only 100 kms apart if one travels by unpaved rural roads and tracks, they belong to different administrative Departments and Regions: Commune G of Dakoro Department is in Maradi Region; whereas Commune A of Abalak Department is in Tahoua Region; and the round trip by paved roads involves a journey of over 500 kms. The dominant Tuareg families of the two communes belonged to different tribal sections and confederations in the pre-colonial past and speak different dialects of the Tuareg language4: the selection of these two particular communes illustrates well the way the administration, from the colonial era onwards, subdivided the pastoral nomadic territory in its attempts to better control the populations living there (Claudot-Hawad 2006: 666).

  • 5  There are 265 communes throughout Niger: these include communes urbaines that are the subdivisions (...)
  • 6  In the northern/central pastoral zone of Niger, there are ethnically/tribally defined administrati (...)

6The commune was introduced in the early 2000s in the context of national decentralization measures5, following the French model of regionalisation (Walentowitz 2000: 6). Each commune is led by an elected maire (mayor) and conseillers (councillors). The new commune model is only gradually altering local patterns of political and administrative leadership, in that the units and leaders of the former administrative system have not been abolished: these leaders – known as chefs coutumiers or collectively as the chefferie traditionnelle (customary or traditional chiefs) – are still responsible for household tax collection (Mohamadou 2005: 23). In both communes under study there is thus a co-existence of two systems of local government, with a gradual transfer of power from the old to the new, but with a considerable amount of overlap since in both cases the maires are close relatives of the principal local customary chief, the chef de groupe (tribal group chief)6.

7Moreover members of these same families are in a strong position in the legislative elections for local members of parliament: the North of Dakoro Department constitutes a circonscription spéciale (special constituency) on account of the pastoralists living in this area, and this position has been occupied by one or other of the sons of the chef de groupe at Commune G – most recently, in March 2011, the son of a son – making this post look like an inherited title restricted to the local Tuareg noble elite. These related officials mediate between commune members and outsiders, including: neighbours belonging to other communes, for example over the use of water and pasture resources; government representatives, and externally funded NGOs.

Drought-linked crisis: talking about danger, keeping quiet about risk

  • 7  See, in relation to the Zinder region of Niger, Lovejoy and Baier 1975: 570; in relation to W Nige (...)

8The outsider term “drought” covers two different notions in the local languages of Central Niger: first, there is the ordinary term for the hot dry season preceding the rains: awellan (Tamashek) or rani (Hausa); in this sense, drought is thought of as a recurrent annual period characterised by hardship for people and livestock in anticipation of the rains. Second, there are the exceptional droughts, the severe and the prolonged ones: these are named and remembered according to some characteristic, for example: “year of the locusts”. The Tamashek term manna (prolonged drought with connotations of hunger, famine) is reserved for the severest droughts: for example 1973 is remembered as awatey wa-n manna (year of the famine, Bernus 1981: 24-25). Prolonged droughts and famines are historically documented in the Sahel region since the mid C19th, and the names given to them provide the chronological backbone of oral history7. In this article “drought” is used in this second sense of “prolonged drought”, “drought-linked crisis”.

9There is as yet no consensus among scientists about climate change in the Sahel: historical records show that bad years of particularly low and variable rainfall come in cycles, and it could be that we are currently witnessing a cycle of dry years begun in the early 1970s and especially evident up to the mid-1990s, which could be reversed in the future (Brooks 2004). Moreover satellite imagery shows that the increasing sparseness of vegetation in some locations co-exists with the “greening” of the Sahel in certain other locations away from the larger human settlements: this trend has been cautiously correlated with rural to urban migration and the avoidance of areas of political insecurity (Olsson 2008).

  • 8  See for example the study of long-term change in Maradi Department based on 4 villages case studie (...)
  • 9  According to CIA World Factbook demographic statistics, Niger has the highest birth rate in the wo (...)

10There is irrefutable evidence, however, for certain demographic and land use trends in Southern Central Niger which some researchers have described as “land saturation”8: increasing population growth rates particularly in the southern agricultural zone9; increasing population densities both in agricultural and pastoral regions, where land hungry cultivators push into former pasture land in search of cultivable land; the exhaustion of reserve supplies of free cultivable land; decreases in the surfaces used as grazing lands and the degradation of grazing resources; declining soil fertility and a loss of productivity in crop and livestock production. Whatever the long-term climate patterns might be, the human population has become much more vulnerable to drought-triggered crises such as that of 2005 and 2010, and such events can no longer be regarded as transitory emergencies but have become a permanent feature of mounting vulnerability and aid dependency (Baro and Deubel 2006: 529, Olivier de Sardan 2008: 31, and Rossi 2008).

  • 10  Although Tuareg individuals and groups vary in their Islamic knowledge and in the practice of rela (...)

11Nevertheless, there is a general persistence in expressing drought-related crises in climatic rather than demographic or land use terms, not only in the national and international media but also at the local level, where drought-linked dangers are spoken about as natural hazards: people complain consistently about the absence of rain, the lack of rain useful for crop cultivation, the lack of pasture, the exhaustion or even the death of livestock. Everyone knows that the reason why prolonged drought is felt to be so full of danger is because it causes human hardship; however, the details of who suffers, and why, are played down in the discourse. This is partly because the hierarchical social organisation characteristic of the Sahel and the Sahara puts individuals and groups in very different situations in the face of drought-linked danger, as we shall see below; however unjust this social inequality is felt to be, it is difficult to challenge openly in these areas characterised by tribal affiliation and weak state, where alternative life strategies are not always readily available. And partly because of religious ideology, in particular the strong notion of predetermination within Muslim societies: this pervades local philosophies of life, and upholds a consensus of silence over misfortune and what might otherwise be seen as social injustice10.

  • 11  Positive predictions are often considered a bad omen, whatever the religious context: in a non-Mus (...)
  • 12  Casciarri (2008) reports a similar situation in Southeastern Morocco, where the perception of drou (...)

12People endlessly discuss the climatic details of drought danger and uncertainty, but if one were to shift the conversation towards the likelihood of, for example, the current erratic rainfall resulting in suffering for certain people next April, a curtain comes down, the conversation comes to an abrupt end with references to the will of Allah. Predicting the future is seen as beyond the powers of human agency. It is even seen as a danger in itself, as it can attract misfortune: in this way one does not refer to the qualities of one’s children or one’s herd or this year’s pasture or some personally favorable election results, in case this brings about a disaster in the form of human or animal sickness or death, a plague of locusts eating up all the pasture, or a military coup bringing down the government one had supported11. In open conversation, therefore, people are united in representing drought-linked danger as natural, unpredictable and distanced from their own actions or their social institutions. However the actual strategies they use to cope with or avoid these dangers, their risk responses, are strongly linked to their position in society and differentiated accordingly12.

Pastoralism, inequality and the control of water

  • 13  The increasing social differentiation between Wodaabe pastoralists and their recently sedentarised (...)
  • 14  Pastoralists move in and out of herding, and sometimes in the pursuit of economic specialisation a (...)

13Society in Central Niger, like in much of the Sahel and the Sahara, is hierarchical in that there are marked differences in wealth, power and social status between different groups within society and this is reflected at the different levels of social interaction. The fact that the politically and economically dominant families in both communes are pastoralists, or come from a pastoralist heritage, challenges the link often made between pastoralism and egalitarianism. This link is based principally on East African data, where the term “egalitarian” is used in the sense of the distribution and transmission of livestock capital and political power. However such a link has been queried even in relation to East Africa by a recent comparative study of wealth transmission in pastoralist societies of East Africa, West Africa and Southwest Asia (Borgerhoff Mulder 2010), which argues that egalitarian ideologies coexist in many pastoralist societies with actual economic inequality linked to the transmission of wealth through kinship links. In the Sahel the Wodaabe are put forward as an example of egalitarian pastoralists; however despite their egalitarian ideology they also display substantial wealth inequalities, particularly when considering the families of administrative chiefs13. Furthermore, studies of pastoralists, by focusing on the economic specialisation, may exclude individuals or families who choose or are forced to adopt other ways of life, sometimes only temporarily, and may thus conceal inequalities14.

14In both communes there are important economic and status inequalities, especially between the dominant Tuareg families and the rest of the commune membership; and these coexists with an egalitarian kinship-based ideology that regulates the alliances and feuds between kinship sections within these dominant families, whether these belong to the same commune or to neighbouring communes with which they have close links. The inequalities are the legacy of the pre-colonial domination of local farming communities by well-armed and camel-riding Berber-speaking nomads, who extracted tribute in grain and in captured domestic and herd labour, in return for political protection against neighbouring nomads.

  • 15  This is the case with the Tamejirt of Central Niger (Brock 1986).
  • 16  Though this move did not necessarily mean an improvement in economic conditions. Rossi (2009: 198) (...)

15During the colonial period, some of the previously subservient groups within Tuareg society opted to live autonomously under their own leaders registered directly with the administration15. Others transferred their allegiance to Hausa leaders16: thus the communes to the immediate South of Commune G, Bader Goula, includes many people whose grandparents were, before the creation of Dakoro administrative post by the French colonial government in the 1940s, in a client relationship with the father of the present Group Chief; this administrative shift of ex-servile Tuareg groups to Hausa leaders has resulted in a gradual transfer of language and ethnic allegiance in these groups from Tuareg to Hausa. Yet other low status Tuareg families opted to remain registered administratively with their former patrons and today their descendants still live in the vicinity of their former patrons, as independent herders and farmers.

  • 17  In a land of low and irregular rainfall, control over water is crucial. During the short rainy sea (...)

16Although the Tuareg elite was decimated during wars against the colonial powers and the authority of the survivors was further limited during the colonial period, some descendants were prepared to collaborate with the representatives of the colonial and then independent governments. The continuing supremacy of some of these Tuareg families is assured through their ownership of wells17, their priority access to the grazing resources in the vicinity of these wells, and their ownership of the largest herds of camels, the breed of livestock most suited to these semi-arid lands. To this day their control is legitimated by cultural beliefs in a superior morality associated with noble descent and the concept of honour (Claudot-Hawad 1993: 14). Residence patterns reflect these cultural notions of descent; and solidarity between neighbouring descent groups is maintained over the generations by repeated marriages between members of the leading families, with cousin marriage remaining the strong preference to this day (Oxby 1986: 121, 2010 field notes).

  • 18  Oxby fieldnotes 1973, following a visit to boreholes N of Filingué, Niger, that were littered with (...)
  • 19  The successive attempts by colonial and independent governments to limit this spread by drawing up (...)

17The building of deeper open access wells and boreholes by the colonial and then independent has increasingly threatened the supremacy of the dominant Tuareg families and their control over the land. These improved water resources have over the decades enabled an uncontrolled influx of people and livestock into the pastoral zone, sometimes with disastrous effects. The severe drought of the early 1970s, for example, was associated with massive localised overgrazing around many of the new boreholes: the livestock had water but, in a year of bad pasture, nothing to eat – large numbers became trapped and succumbed18. These new open access water sources have also allowed southern farmers, combining seasonal millet cultivation with livestock-keeping, to try their luck in areas previously inaccessible to them: over the decades this has resulted in a gradual northwards spread of agriculture19. And they have enabled a growing number of Wodaabe households to settle along the same valleys as the leading families of Commune G, thus exacerbating the insufficiency of pasture resources, especially during times of prolonged drought.

18The 1993 Code Rural and the 2010 Code Pastoral have further threatened the supremacy of the leading families by limiting the decision-making powers of the chefs coutumiers in relation to new wells – and therefore to the grazing resources surrounding these wells – and by placing these with new commissions foncières (CoFo, territorial commissions) at the level of the departmental administration. Although the legislation provides for herders to be represented by delegates of their choice, the procedure whereby this is to be achieved is not spelled out. Progress with setting up these CoFo has been slow and their practical impact so far limited (Oxby 2011: 63).

19Despite such threats to their authority, certain Tuareg families maintain their supremacy in many of the pastoral lands of Central Niger including the two communes under study: their members still enjoy considerable control over natural resources especially water, own many of the largest camel herds, and monopolise the links between the local populations and the representatives of state authorities and international humanitarian organisations.

Internal differentiation within the communes

  • 20  The main inherited social status categories within Tuareg society are: imajeghen or warrior-nobles(...)
  • 21  The term taushet (pl. taushiten), often translated as tribe or tribal section, refers to named bil (...)
  • 22  Members of the leading families of Commune G contract repeated mariages with the Kel Gress of Keit (...)

20Both communes under study are Tuareg inasmuch as their leading families are identified by themselves, their supporters and neighbours as imajeghen20 (“nobles”) belonging to named taushiten21 (“tribes”) registered with the administration – Kel Ferwan in Commune G (Oxby 1996) and Aït Awari in Commune A (Walentowitz 2000) – and with close kinship to imajeghen in neighbouring taushiten 22.

21Taking the full membership into account, however, the communes constitute multi-occupational and multi-ethnic units of tax-paying households straddling the geographical transition zone between dominant pastoral and dominant agricultural production techniques and lifestyles. A 1973-4 survey of the same social and administrative unit (tribu later upgraded to groupe, see note 6) that is now registered as Commune G showed that of the total 400 household heads, only about a third lived in the pastoral zone from herding and associated occupations. Nearly half of the households registered with the chef were making their living in the adjacent agricultural zone, principally from farming with supplementary livestock keeping: and of these the majority were Hausa-speakers, whose parents had been in clientship relationships with the parents of the Kel Ferwan families. There were also a few Arab and Fulani households.

22Because of the variety of livelihoods, it is difficult to compare the wealth of the different households. Nevertheless, investment of surplus capital in livestock is common practice among all social groups in the region, and a broad distinction can be made between: first, a handful of large herd owners (over 200 camels) who are invariably nobles closely related to the local chefs coutumiers; second, a minority (68 out of 400) of medium sized herd owners, including nearly all of the remaining household heads of high descent status and also some of all the other descent statuses (see note 20); and third, the majority of households, of varying mother tongue and descent status but excluding Tamashek speakers of high descent status, who own either no livestock at all or a small number of mainly small stock, and struggle to make ends meet from a combination of farming, herding, craftwork, trade, small-scale income-raising opportunities and contract labour (Oxby 1986: 103). In the 1970s the wealthiest households included iklan who worked as domestic servants; indeed the occurrence of large camel herds was strongly correlated with the presence of this domestic source of herding labour (ibid., and Bernus 1974: 69).

  • 23  Although the suffering endured by some of these domestic servants is not to be underestimated and (...)

23By 2010 these low status families had become economically independent and labour relations had evolved as we shall see below. However most still lived alongside their former masters and mistresses or within a few kms23; and the same economic and political polarisation still applied: between a few large camel herders of noble descent including the administrative office holders and their close relatives; a minority of smaller herd owners of varying descent; and the majority of households within the commune, of varying ethnicity, whose members were making a living on the boundaries of viability from a combination of productive activities.

Transferring the impact of drought

24The historical work by Baier and Lovejoy on the economic integration of the Tuareg and Hausa ethnicities in the Zinder/Kano axis (now in E Niger and N Nigeria) gives insights into the drought response strategies of pre-colonial and early colonial Tuareg owners of trans-Saharan trading firms. These authors explain how the Tuareg-dominated system of social stratification became particularly important in times of drought, when nobles could expel household servants, call back animals loaned to dependent herders, confiscate the grain stocks of dependent farmers, and send their livestock to pasture in southern areas normally cultivated by these dependent farmers, thus forcing lower status groups to flee to the south. When the situation improved, there would be a gradual drift of people northwards into the pastoral zone again, and the nobles’ priority access to resources would ensure the perpetuation of the system. Thus lower status people bore the major share of the hardship associated with sudden environmental decline (Lovejoy and Baier 1975, Baier 1976, Starr 1987: 31).

  • 24  Created in 1991, “Timidria” (Tamashek for fraternity, solidarity) strives to eliminate all forms o (...)

25The colonial rulers, recognizing that the nobles’ position was closely linked to their control over labour, attempted to reduce this control through abolishing what they defined as “slavery” and severing tributary relations with farming communities. Since independence this policy has continued with the setting up of decentralised branch offices of the anti-slavery association “Timidria”24 throughout the pastoral zone.

  • 25  The deleterious consequences of such arrangements from the point of view of Wodaabe would-be indep (...)

26Given the crucial necessity of labour in caring for large herds divided by livestock species, the dominant families have responded by gradually turning to other sources of labour, in particular failed Wodaabe herders25. A variety of arrangements are used, combining cash payments, payments in livestock and use of milk. One popular arrangement is based on the Wodaabe practice of habbanaye (White 1997: 93, Boutrais 2009), whereby the herdsman receives the milk of lactating animals in his care, but the owner has the right to reclaim his livestock whenever he wants. The herdsman is not held responsible for the death of an animal in his care if he shows the carcass to its owner, however if he cannot produce the carcass, the owner may argue that the herder has sold the animal and may force the herder to repay its value. Herd owners in Commune G report an advantage in using Wodaabe labour, namely that they do not have to look after the families of the herdsmen as under the previous system of domestic herding labour. Yet they may still shift some of the impact of drought onto the small herd owners who care for their animals under such arrangements, by reclaiming animals when they are needed, and through the possibility of blaming the herder for animal losses and forcing him to make compensation payments (Starr 1987: 36).

27Given the social differentiation found within the communes, it is not unexpected to find a range of land use and drought crisis strategies amongst the membership. A strong contrast obtains between, on the one hand, the small minority of dominant Tuareg families and, on the other hand, the rest of the commune membership who negotiate land access, political representation and aid and development benefits through this elite. And a further difference can be made between members of these elite families, according to their policies and mediator roles: the more collaborative versus the more reformist. The following sections will examine these differences.

Drought crisis strategies of commune members: diversification, mobility and the consolidation of social networks

28The construction by government of certain open access wells since the 1960s has in theory provided the opportunity for herders to have access to water and pasture without referring to the influential families who own the private wells; but we saw above that uncontrolled open access to these wells has resulted in overgrazing and pasture shortage especially during drought years. Operating independently of the well-owning families may be facilitated during good years, when pasture is plentiful; but it can be difficult to maintain during drought years. Wealthy herd owners can lose a proportion of their herd during bad drought years without this impacting on their way of life: they can sell some animals to buy feed to save the others, and still remain with a viable herd. But for small herder owners near the subsistence mark, drought years can be quite catastrophic: even small losses of livestock can mean that the household is no longer self-sufficient, and individuals or families will have to leave their way of life in the pastoral zone in search of other income-generating activities elsewhere (Starr 1987: 44). One account of herders’ experiences during the bad 2005 drought cited examples of individuals committing suicide by throwing themselves into wells after all their livestock died (Moha 2008: 146, quoting the administrator of OXFAM GB). For small herd owners, heavy livestock losses bring an abrupt end to their chosen life as independent herder and the necessity of alternative employment, at least for some years: either as paid herdsmen or in alternative livelihood strategies such as farming or paid labour outside the livestock sector.

29Crop cultivation in these semi-arid areas is equally unreliable, and during drought years harvests may be nil, or sowing never attempted. The recuperation period, however, is usually quicker for a cultivator than a herder, since it may take only a couple of good harvests to re-establish a farmer, but several years are needed to build up a viable household herd.

  • 26  Khamed Attayoub, A. pers. comm. Oct. 2009. The different Tuareg concepts of travel are explained i (...)

30The main coping strategies that have evolved in response to the variable conditions typical of the Sahel are: economic diversification at the household level, mobility and migration of certain household members; and the cultivation of social networks, especially to well placed relatives, patrons and community leaders who may help in times of trouble. Since these strategies are also part of the normal adaptation to living in these semi-arid areas, it can be difficult for outsiders to distinguish the routine income diversification and mobility from the exceptional ones resorted to during times of crisis. These notions are clearly separated in the local languages, however: the Tuareg distinguish between tegheriz, exceptional travel or flight resorted to during times of drought or other emergency, and tezrek, routine travel undertaken by herding families and their herds when moving camp26. In July 2010 the Forest Reserve in Commune G was littered with the carcasses of livestock belonging to herders who had converged there in an unprecedented way at the height of the drought just a few weeks previously, apparently from as far away as Chad. This represented the exceptional mobility of people based far away, quite different from the routine mobility of local pastoralists.

  • 27  The fact that this was a well established ethnic specialisation and migration pattern even before (...)

31Exceptional mobility in response to drought is nothing new, and Lovejoy and Baier (1975: 577) give evidence of seasonal flows of the poorer inhabitants of the Sahel into the agricultural and urban settlements of what is now northern Nigeria, dating back to the mid C19th. During the disastrous drought of the early 1970s, Nigérien Tuareg flooded into northern Nigeria, where, helped by their bellicose appearance with turban and sword, many found employment as night-watchmen27; after the drought recovery, some stayed on, but many returned home.

32Rossi (2009: 183) analyses drought-related mobility for the Ader region of W Central Niger. She distinguishes between a short-term, hot/dry season response (in Hausa, cin rani) in which individuals remain closely integrated to their social networks in the Sahelian zone; and a longer-term, usually more distant, movement (bida) in which these wider social links may become gradually weaker or severed, and which focus on remittances to immediate family members.

  • 28  During the dry season many women from Commune G leave for the Gulbi-n-kaba valley in the central p (...)

33Mobility in connection with economic diversification at the household level represents a standard seasonal response in both communes under study, especially among the poorer households: some members remain at the normal dry season base, others go on short range seasonal migration in search of income-raising opportunities28 and yet others in longer range and more long-lasting migration especially to neighbouring coastal West African countries. The severe drought years are characterised by more household members having to leave, to more distant and to previously unknown destinations.

34The other crucial survival strategy employed by commune members is social in that they cultivate not only their close family links but also more distant relationships with better placed persons, whether resulting from kinship, co-residence, or even previous co-residence of forbears. These relationships include present and past links of dependence and protection to members of the wealthy commune leadership, which are activated in the hope of gaining territorial rights, work opportunities, access to humanitarian aid distributions, or maybe just a bowl of food. Because of the dangers associated with dry seasons and dry years, and because of the lack of government presence in the pastoral zone, poorer members of the communes are careful not to alienate the leading families, as they know their help may be needed in the future, as the following case illustrates.

As a young man M was the herdsman of the large cattle herd belonging to a member of the leading family at Commune G; he was paid in kind and gradually over the years he managed to accumulate just enough cows to enable him to be an independent herder. In July 2010 he told me that only two of his herd of over 20 cattle had survived the drought. But he and his family had always lived close by his former master as he knew that during difficult times, such as now, he could count on some help, for example a share of food aid or other benefits distributed via the local chefs.

35It is the absence of such social links to activate in times of need that leads to the most abject poverty. Gilliard (2005: 100, 246) describes a huge network of migratory movements centred on Niamey and southern Niger, which involves both short seasonal visits and longer lasting journeys to the coastal towns of West Africa and back. According to this author’s research in certain agricultural villages in southern Central Niger, the direst poverty is measured in social terms and is reserved for those individuals without social links: especially, those without close relatives, affines or descendants to support or help them. These people drift towards the towns, and thus the worst cases of poverty are associated not with rural but with urban areas. The necessity of social capital in making a good future, in addition to economic capital, is also a central argument of Roth in her contribution to this volume.

Drought crisis strategies of Tuareg leaders and their families: staying put and calling in their dues

36The privileged position of the leading families of the communes is maintained through their control of dry season water resources and surrounding pasture; through the relative immunity of large herds to drought, especially camels (the largest herds are in camels, and camels rarely succumb to drought, cattle suffer first); through the possibility of replenishing livestock herds with the income derived from administrative office; and through repeated endogamous marriage and the ensuing mutual support between relatives.

  • 29  The main reason given for the 1973 military coup which brought down the Diori government was the a (...)

37Not only are the dominant Tuareg families cushioned from the worst impact of drought, there are also ways in which they can even be seen to profit from drought, both materially and politically. The office-holding members of these families, who are the mediators with government and non-governmental organizations, look for any opportunities, during times of drought crisis, to be able to channel external benefits to their dependents and supporters in the commune at large. Since the aftermath of the drought of the early 1970s29, assessments of aid needs and distributions of aid in the pastoral zone have been carried out with the assistance of the chefferie traditionelle; since decentralisation, the maires have, officially at least, been the local coordinators of the distribution effort. Supplies of emergency food aid and animal feed are delivered to the care of these office-holders, who have considerable control over the distribution process and gain status and often political support in the process.

38Drought-related crises now present one of the main opportunities, in Niger’s pastoral zone, for pledges of government assistance and external aid and development funds, particularly when the crisis reaches the international media such as happened in July 2010: official visits are received with a great show of hospitality; and community leaders lobby hard through their personal networks to individual in positions of responsibility in government or non-governmental organizations in order to increasing their personal prestige and attract supporters.

At the height of the drought crisis in July 2010 in Commune G, one member of the chef de groupe’s family managed, through an ample use of his mobile phone, to change the route of an official visit coming to assess the local drought crisis situation, so that it took in some needy locations where his supporters were based; he also successfully took advantage of the crisis situation – made more urgent by the international media coverage – to renew certain other previous demands unrelated to the drought, in this case the delivery of an ambulance which, though pledged, had never been delivered to the local clinic but was being used elsewhere in the Department.

“Collaborative” leadership strategies: drought as opportunity not just danger

39A broad distinction can be made between “collaborative” leaders: those who work within the legal and administrative framework without challenging it; and “reformist” leaders: those who seek to challenge and reform the law. The former, though often well travelled within Niger and neighbouring countries, have little or no formal education, and restricted spoken and receptive skills in relation to the administrative language which is French: over the decades they have made a show of cooperating with the government in power, while setting their eyes on obtaining government salaried positions for themselves and benefits to channel to relatives and supporters.

40The collaborative approach is dominant in remoter Commune G: for example, it was common knowledge in August 2010 that supplementary livestock feed stockpiled in a local school building, supposedly for free distribution to deserving livestock-keepers badly affected by the drought, was being selectively distributed and sold by local community leaders. The following case shows how the bureaucratic procedures used by aid agencies, in distributing benefits to their supporters, can be manipulated by members of the leading families:

In August 2010 a meeting was convened at Commune G by a (non-Tamashek-speaking) representative of a leading international aid agency, to bring up to date a list of those eligible for food aid, in anticipation of a further distribution. A member of the Tuareg leading family, E (non literate in, and without understanding of, the administrative language French), who had called his relatives and supporters to attend the meeting, confirmed orally the many false and exaggerated claims on the written list, helped by his literate daughter. At one point she suggested to him in Tamashek that a name on the list should be changed to hide the fact that it was yet another close family member. E asked for this change, which was duly made. The meeting proceeded in an atmosphere of barely disguised derision on the part of middle-aged E towards the young representative of the aid agency, with E’s silent supporters looking on in conspiratory amusement.

41On the other hand, any government or NGO proposal which is felt by the local leadership to undermine their authority, though openly agreed with, may in practice be resisted or even sabotaged, as the following case illustrates. It concerns plans for the development of the Forest Reserve at Commune G, which constitutes a major local pasture resource particularly in drought years, and is therefore a considerable asset to the leading families who have their wells along the Reserve boundary.

A new NGO proposal for the Forest Reserve was being discussed in 2010: gazelles would be raised in a fenced part of the reserve, and some local households would benefit from the distribution of young males to fatten for sale. Community leaders were collaborating with this project, knowing that there would be certain benefits to be channelled to their supporters. The potential threat to their authority over the land neighbouring their wells was estimated to be minor and short-lived, since the scheme was only expected to live as long as the funding. If the project were to develop in a way deemed unfavourable to the local leadership, then, as I was told by a member of the leading family: “the fence might be found cut or recycled, and the gazelles might disappear – yes, having been enjoyed as roast venison!”

42Local community leaders are largely removed from decision-making relating to land near their privately owned wells – land which they consider they have priority access to – and more generally feel unrepresented by a government which, apart from a few token individuals, does not understand or value their language, culture or way of life. Moreover, strategies for developing local natural resources are based on an outsider understanding of drought as an exceptional climatic occurrence, in ignorance of local views about seasonal land use and climatic variability. It is therefore not surprising that some local leaders, in particular those who do not master French and therefore feel particularly excluded, try to benefit politically from any opportunity of receiving government and external aid.

“Reformist” leadership strategies: prioritising land rights not drought

43The “reformist” leaders are those who, because of more formal education, better command of the administrative language, prolonged experience of different lifestyles including living in Niamey or in Europe, or participating in the Tuareg resistance, have a more informed and questioning understanding of policies concerning their homelands, and are therefore in a better position to assess their local impact. The reformist faction is more influential in Commune A than Commune G: situated on the main road, its members have enjoyed more direct contact with Niamey, Agadez and further afield, notably Libya (Mohamadou 2005).

44In the light of the 1993 Code Rural which reaffirmed the lesser rights of pastoralists over their land when compared with crop farmers, the 2010 Code Pastoral which did little to challenge or reverse this, and more generally the failure of government to prevent the alienation of pastoral land for private and international development purposes, one line pursued by certain reformist leaders is to encourage the development of visible links between pastoralists and their homelands, so that it will be more difficult for newcomers to challenge or ignore their customary occupancy status. In practice, this means encouraging crop farming and the fencing of fields, water-harvesting and irrigation infrastructure, and permanent buildings such as homes, shelters and store-rooms (Oxby 2011: 69).

45Such a strategy, though understandable in terms of securing land rights for pastoralists, raises longer term environmental concerns. Given the land saturation problems referred to above, in particular the lack of land suitable for crop cultivation and the decline in soil fertility and agricultural productivity, how do local leaders and their subjects reconcile themselves with what from the outside seems like a doomed strategy heading for worse and worse drought crises with greater and greater risk of famine? The lack of environmental knowledge may be part of the story, especially when land previously used as for pasture is cropped for the first time – yet some individuals are clearly aware of the environmental dangers ahead: I was told, confidentially and assertively by an elder community member in August 2010 “the land won’t take it...”.

46From the point of view of reformist leaders, future environmental and drought-related dangers are felt to be overshadowed by political dangers following from the lack of political representation of pastoralists at the national level and the failure of government to halt the process of land alienation of pastoral land. Thus the way to combat future drought risk for local pastoralists is through struggling for political representation and land rights reforms in favour of pastoralists. And perhaps some take a cynical view of the worst case scenario: if these policies really result in future environmental disaster, then at least they should attract international attention and more aid...


47Drought – the prolonged lack of rain and its eager anticipation – is a recurrent topic of conversation in Niger amongst people of all social backgrounds, and the rhetoric about drought as a natural and therefore unavoidable experience is widely shared. The specific impact of drought on people, however, is not openly discussed: residents of Central Niger are well aware that drought represents a greater danger for some than for others, and that its impact varies according to one’s social position in the hierarchical social environment characteristic of the Sahel. Accordingly, different sections of society evolve different strategies in order to survive, cope with, plan against, and also do well out of drought.

48The administrative office holders and their families are cushioned to a certain extent by the government salaries they receive, and the large herds some of them have accumulated. Furthermore, for them, droughts bring not just danger but also new opportunities for increasing personal prestige and political support through their mediator roles in relation to humanitarian aid and its distribution. Other dangers are seen as more threatening than drought, in particular the failure of government to represent the interests of pastoralists and defend their land rights; accordingly, they focus their strategies for future planning on such issues; and, with the scope of maximising their own political influence through increasing the numbers of their supporters, accept the installation of newcomers in their homelands with little regard to the carrying capacity of the land.

  • 30  Bollig and Göbel (1997: 17) report comparable instances of what they describe as “transferring ris (...)
  • 31  Similarly, Casciarri’s Southeastern Moroccan data shows that, while the state water policies affir (...)

49But what of the longer term impact of these strategies? While the leading families sit through the drought in their sedentarised bases, the greatest impact of drought-linked crisis is borne by households living around the threshold of economic viability, members of which are forced into ever greater mobility and migration in search of complementary or alternative sources of income. The worst drought-linked danger – namely the inability of households to make ends meet in their usual living places – is thus transferred from one section of society to another30, from a relatively privileged office-holding minority to a relatively voiceless majority. And any blame or responsibility is squarely and conveniently put on natural phenomena and climate change31.

50Some migrants find alternative futures elsewhere, but most return to their usual homes after the drought, through lack of better alternatives. It is through their leaders that families have access to water, land and drought relief in the form of stockpiled human and animal food. If leaders advise sedentarisation in association with crop cultivation, in order to increase the chances of secure access to water and land in the future, then this is what many families will do, even if common sense tells them that the land cannot take this kind of intensive use for long, and more and more frequent droughts will surely result. The future may be unmentionable, but no one can imagine it in these semi-arid grasslands without the leading families, related to each other through a web of kinship and tribal allegiance, in relation to which individuals maximise their own personal links and, in association with other household members, make and remake their personal life choices.

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1  The term “pastoralists” refers in this article to producers who rely on the husbandry and trade of domestic livestock for a major part of their livelihood, and thus includes those, sometimes referred to as “agro-pastoralists”, who supplement livestock-keeping with crop cultivation.

2  The data comes from repeated visits to what is now Gadabedji Commune: the first year long stay in 1973-4 produced qualitative interview material and social and economic surveys (see 1978 PhD, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Oxby 1986, 1996); the most recent visit was in June-July 2010. This was supplemented by data obtained during an August 2010 stay in Akoubounou Commune. In both these locations, in the respective departmental and regional capitals, and in the national capital Niamey, qualitative interviews were carried out and extensive field notes were recorded, upon which the present article is based. A separate article focuses on recent changes in land use and land law (Oxby 2011). The 2010 fieldwork was financially supported by the Insitute of Anthropology, University of Bern. Gratitude is expressed to Prof. Edouard Conte, Dr Saskia Walentowitz, Hada Kinni and Abdoulmohamine Khamed Attayoub.

3  Though estimates at the Commune itself are much higher: 21 000 according to Amis de l’Azawagh 2011.

4  Tamashek in Commune A, Tamajaq in Commune G. Both are forms of Berber, see Mezhoud et al. 2010.

5  There are 265 communes throughout Niger: these include communes urbaines that are the subdivisions of major cities, and communes rurales throughout the agricultural and livestock-keeping parts of the rest of country. Both communes under study are communes rurales.

6  In the northern/central pastoral zone of Niger, there are ethnically/tribally defined administrative units called groupes or groupements nomades, led by chefs de groupe and under them the various chefs de tribu; in the southern agricultural zone, territorially defined units called cantons led by chefs de canton and under them the various chefs de village (Oxby 2011: 58).

7  See, in relation to the Zinder region of Niger, Lovejoy and Baier 1975: 570; in relation to W Niger and Ahaggar, Bernus 1981: 25.

8  See for example the study of long-term change in Maradi Department based on 4 villages case studies, one of which was situated in what is now the Commune to the immediate South of Commune G (Mortimore et al. 2001). See Rey 1989 re Dakoro Department and Oumarou (2011: 10) re Bermo Commune in Northern Dakoro Department.

9  According to CIA World Factbook demographic statistics, Niger has the highest birth rate in the world at 51.6 births/1000 (2010 est.), with a population growth rate of 3.643 % (2011 est.).

10  Although Tuareg individuals and groups vary in their Islamic knowledge and in the practice of related rituals, nearly all consider themselves as Muslims and share certain cultural features linked to Islam such as the division of daily time, the annual calendar, and a philosophy of life in which the concept of predetermination is all-pervasive.

11  Positive predictions are often considered a bad omen, whatever the religious context: in a non-Muslim Cameroonian context Johnson-Hanks (2005: 369), who talks about “intentional action” (rather than risk-taking) in a context of “uncertainty”, describes a similar reluctance to predict futures in relation to Beti women’s reproductive planning. In a commentary on Johnson-Hanks’ paper (ibid: 381), Sara Randall mentions, in a Muslim Malian Tuareg context, the strong social sanctions against challenging divine will with respect to future births.

12  Casciarri (2008) reports a similar situation in Southeastern Morocco, where the perception of drought as “natural disaster” is widely shared even though the strategies adopted to cope with it vary according to social context.

13  The increasing social differentiation between Wodaabe pastoralists and their recently sedentarised administrative representatives is evident, for example, in the development of Bermo administrative post in the North of Dakoro Department following its creation in the mid-1980s (Oumarou 2011).

14  Pastoralists move in and out of herding, and sometimes in the pursuit of economic specialisation adopt a different ethnicity: this can have the effect of maintaining the egalitarian ideology and further concealing actual social inequalities (see Bruijn and van Dijk 1995 and, in relation to East African pastoralists, Borgerhoff Mulder 2010: 46 quoting Sobania 1994 and Waller 1999).

15  This is the case with the Tamejirt of Central Niger (Brock 1986).

16  Though this move did not necessarily mean an improvement in economic conditions. Rossi (2009: 198) gives an example from the Ader region of Central Niger where, in the early years of the C20th, the colonial government engineered the transfer of low status Buzaye (Hausa for Tamashek iklan, see note 20) from Tuareg to Hausa leaders: this transfer involved paying generally more tribute than before, and it was exacted with greater rigour.

17  In a land of low and irregular rainfall, control over water is crucial. During the short rainy season ponds form in the valleys and access to grazing is open to all. However during the long dry season people and herds depend on privately owned wells, which are dug and maintained by Hausa specialists on contract to the well owner.

18  Oxby fieldnotes 1973, following a visit to boreholes N of Filingué, Niger, that were littered with cattle carcasses. See also Bayer 1976: 9 and Bernus 1981: 426.

19  The successive attempts by colonial and independent governments to limit this spread by drawing up official “northern limits of cultivation”, along with the lack of implementation on the ground, are discussed in Oxby 2011: 63.

20  The main inherited social status categories within Tuareg society are: imajeghen or warrior-nobles; imghad or tributary vassals; ineslemen or Islamic specialists; ineden or blacksmith-musicians; ighawelen or emancipated servants; and iklan or domestic servants (see Oxby 1986: 102).

21  The term taushet (pl. taushiten), often translated as tribe or tribal section, refers to named bilateral descent groups (Oxby 1986: 111, 1996: 181) with distant unilineal ancestors: in the case of Commune G, matrilineal ancestresses (ibid. PhD 1978: 221); in the case of Commune A, whose forbears were Islamic specialists, patrilineal ancestors.

22  Members of the leading families of Commune G contract repeated mariages with the Kel Gress of Keita to the SW in Tahoua Region and the Kel Ferwan of Aderbissinat to the NE in Agadez Region: for example Fatima, the daughter of the chef de groupe in Commune G, who is Kel Ferwan through her father and Kel Gress through her mother, is married to the Kel Ferwan chef de groupe at Aderbissinat (Oxby 1996: 179).

23  Although the suffering endured by some of these domestic servants is not to be underestimated and includes many instances of enforced work-related mobility and separation from immediate family (see Kadir 2010: 162ff, who cites several inhabitants of Commune G), it has to be put in the context of alternatives available at the time. In 2010 I asked one of the Chef de Groupe’s elderly ex-domestic servants why she and some of her descendants were still living close by her ex-master, and she responded: “Clare, where else would I live? I have lived here all my life.”

24  Created in 1991, “Timidria” (Tamashek for fraternity, solidarity) strives to eliminate all forms of slavery and discrimination in particular forced labour as defined according to ILO conventions (Abdelkader Galy 2010: 131ff).

25  The deleterious consequences of such arrangements from the point of view of Wodaabe would-be independent herders is documented by White (1997: 98).

26  Khamed Attayoub, A. pers. comm. Oct. 2009. The different Tuareg concepts of travel are explained in Khamed Attayoub 2002: 161ff.

27  The fact that this was a well established ethnic specialisation and migration pattern even before the 1970s drought is recorded by Armstrong (1968).

28  During the dry season many women from Commune G leave for the Gulbi-n-kaba valley in the central part of Maradi Region, where they engage in small-scale trading activities in connection with the leaves of the doum palm: these are cut, dried and then woven into mats and other objects.

29  The main reason given for the 1973 military coup which brought down the Diori government was the alleged widespread corruption in connection with the distribution of food aid: people had to come to departmental centres to collect their share, and at the height of the drought this resulted in riots.

30  Bollig and Göbel (1997: 17) report comparable instances of what they describe as “transferring risk” from one pastoral household to another through institutionalised social inequality, e.g. Wiessner’s work on the San and Kgalagadi’s asymetrical social relationships with their Tswana overlords.

31  Similarly, Casciarri’s Southeastern Moroccan data shows that, while the state water policies affirm the inevitability of drought, it is the poor who suffers its worst consequences (Casimir 2008: 33 referring to Casciarri).

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Légende Map of Niger showing location of Commune A and Commune G in relation to the 15th Parallel North.
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Clare Oxby

Dr., Independent Scholar, Oxford, United Kingdom

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