Skip to main content

Historical case studies of famines and migrations in the West African Sahel and their possible relevance now and in the future

Abstract

Case studies of three famines that occurred in rural northwest Nigeria during the latter half of the twentieth century are presented. Research found that continuum models and entitlement theory did not adequately conceptualize famine-related migration, though they may be more accurate now and in the future. Projects examining the climate-migration nexus should consider the possibility that famines and large-scale migrations from the Sahel will occur as a consequence of both heavy, poorly timed rainfall and intense droughts. The savanna’s historical function as a refuge for stressed Sahelian people continued into the 1980s, but research is urgently needed to determine whether that is still true.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Notes

  1. Harnischfeger’s (2004) article is to date the most comprehensive review of conflict in the Nigerian savanna. In 2014, Google Scholar showed that it had been cited only once. In that article, Harnischfeger cited a work by James (n.d., though evidently between 1996, when Zamfara state was created, and 2004) in which are listed more than 20 farming “colonies” that had been established in the savanna by Hausa “famine migrants” from the Sahel. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that sectarian violence had claimed the lives of about 14,000 people in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” (savanna) since 1999 (Reported on the Voice of America’s Web site, April 17, 2013). The figure on fatalities may also include urban violence.

  2. See Schapendonk and Steel (2014) for a biographical approach to investigating migration from Nigeria and Sudan to EU countries.

References

  • Abdu, P. (1976). Drought-caused migration around Illela. BA thesis in geography. Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University.

  • Aliyu, M. (1976). Modification of agricultural techniques in response to drought, Illela, Sokoto. BA thesis in geography. Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University.

  • Barrios, S., Bertinelli, L., & Strobl, E. (2006). Climate change and rural–urban migration: The case of Sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Urban Economics, 60, 357–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Black, R., Kniveton, D., Skeldon, R, Coppard, D., Murata, A., & Schmidt-Verkerk, K. (2008). Demographics and climate change: Future trends and their policy implications for migration, Working paper T-27. Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalization and Poverty.

  • Boureima, A. (1993). Ecologie et histoire: Concepts et conceptions traditionnels sur les sécheresses, famines, et épidémies du Sahel. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 27(2), 260–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Breman, H., Rob Groot, J., & van Keulen, H. (2001). Resource limitations in Sahelian agriculture. Global Environmental Change, 11, 59–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, L. (2011). World on the edge. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, M. (2006). Assessing natural resource management challenges in Senegal using data from participatory rural appraisals and remote sensing. World Development, 34, 751–767.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, M. (2008). Famine early warning systems and remote sensing data. Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burton, I., Kates, R., & White, G. (1978). The environment as hazard. New York: Oxford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Campbell, D. (1977). Strategies for coping with droughts in the Sahel: A study of recent population movements in the Department of Maradi, Niger, Ph.D. dissertation in geography. Clark University.

  • Campbell, D. (1981). Soils, water resources, and land use in the Mandara Mountains of Northern Cameroon (Michigan State University/USAID Mandara Mountains Research Report #14).

  • Christian Aid. (2007). Human tide: The real migration crisis. London: Christian Aid.

    Google Scholar 

  • Corbett, J. (1988). Famine and household coping strategies. World Development, 16, 1099–1112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Crombé, X. (2009). Building the case for emergency: MSF and the malnutrition factor. In X. Crombé & J. H. Jézéquel (Eds.), A not-so natural disaster: Niger 2005 (pp. 59–81). New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Derrick, J. (1984). West Africa’s worst year of famine. African Affairs, 83, 281–299.

    Google Scholar 

  • De Waal, A. (1989). Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984–1985. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Faulkingham, R., & Thorbahn, P. (1975). Population dynamics and drought: A village in Niger. Population Studies, 29, 463–477.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fensholt, R., Rasmussen, K., Kaspersen, P., Huber, S., Horion, S., & Swinnen, E. (2013). Assessing land degradation/recovery in the African Sahel from long-term earth observation based primary productivity and precipitation relationships. Remote Sensing, 5, 664–686.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fuglestad, F. (1983). A history of Niger 1850–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gemenne, F. (2011). Why the numbers don’t add up: A review of estimates and predictions of people displaced by environmental changes. Global Environmental Change, 215, S41–S49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giannini, A., Biasutti, M., & Verstraete, M. (2008). A climate model-based review of drought in the Sahel: Desertification, the re-greening and climate change. Global and Planetary Change, 64, 119–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gray, L. (1999). Is land being degraded? A multi-scale investigation of landscape change in southwestern Burkina Faso. Land Degradation and Development, 10, 329–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gray, L. (2005). What kind of intensification? Agricultural practice, soil fertility and socioeconomic differentiation in rural Burkina Faso. The Geographical Journal, 171, 70–83.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hampshire, K., Casiday, R., Kilpatrick, K., & Panter-Brick, C. (2008). The social context of childcare practices and child malnutrition in Niger’s recent food crisis. Disasters, 33, 132–151.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hampshire, K., Panter-Brick, C., Kilpatrick, K., & Casiday, R. (2009). Saving lives, preserving livelihoods: Understanding risk, decision-making and child health in a food crisis. Social Science and Medicine, 68, 758–765.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harnischfeger, J. (2004). Sharia and control over territory: Conflicts between settlers and ‘indigenes’ in Nigeria. African Affairs, 103, 431–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hein, L., de Ridder, N., Hiernaux, P., Leemans, R., de Wit, A., & de Schaepman, M. (2011). Desertification in the Sahel: Towards better accounting for ecosystem dynamics in the interpretation of remote sensing images. Journal of Arid Environments, 75, 1164–1172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henry, S., Piché, V., Ouedraogo, D., & Lambin, E. (2004a). Descriptive analysis of the individual migratory pathways according to environmental typologies. Population and Environment, 25, 397–422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henry, S., Schoumaker, B., & Beauchemin, C. (2004b). The impact of rainfall on the first out-migration: A multi-level event-history analysis in Burkina Faso. Population and Environment, 25, 423–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hill, P. (1972). Rural Hausa: A village and a setting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, I., Gerling, D., Kyiogwom, U., & Mané-Bielfgeldt, A. (2001). Farmers’ management strategies to maintain soil fertility in a remote area in northwest Nigeria. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 86, 263–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • James, I. (1987). Human mobility in the lake chad basin. Annals of Borno (Maiduguri), 4, 57–67.

    Google Scholar 

  • James, I. (n.d.). External factors as catalytic agents for the shifting demographic patterns in the Middle Belt. In I. James (Ed.), The settler phenomenon in the middle belt and the problem of national integration in Nigeria (pp. 29–61). Jos: Midland Press.

  • Koning, N., & Smaling, E. (2005). Environmental crisis or ‘lie of the land’? The debate on soil degradation in Africa. Land Use Policy, 22, 3–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Laya, D. (1974). La sécheresse: Interviews d’agriculteurs et éléveurs. Niamey: CNRSH.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lennihan, L. (1987). Agricultural wage labor in Nigeria. In M. Watts (Ed.), State, oil, and agriculture in Nigeria (pp. 248–267). Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California.

    Google Scholar 

  • Liu, J., Fritz, S., van Wesenbeeck, C., Fuchs, M., You, L., Obersteiner, M., & Yang, H. (2008). A spatially explicit assessment of current and future hotspots of hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa in the context of global change. Global and Planetary Change, 64, 222–235.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lovejoy, P., & Baier, S. (1975). The desert-side economy of the Central Sudan. International Journal of African Historical Studies, 8, 557–581.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Luxereau, A., & Roussel, B. (1997). Changements écologiques et sociaux au Niger. Paris: L’Harmattan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mortimore, M. (1989). Adapting to drought: Farmers, famines, and desertification in West Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mortimore, M., & Adams, W. (1999). Working the Sahel: Environment and society in Northern Nigeria. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mortimore, M., & Turner, B. (2005). Does the Sahelian smallholder’s management of woodland, farm trees, rangeland support the hypothesis of human-induced desertification? Journal of Arid Environments, 63, 567–595.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mounkaïla, H. (2002). De la migration circulaire à l’abandon du territoire local dans le Zarmaganda (Niger). Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 18, 1–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mousseau, F., & Mittal, A. (2006). Sahel: Prisoner of starvation? A case study of the 2005 food crisis in Niger. Oakland: The Oakland Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Myers, N. (1997). Environmental refugees. Population and Environment, 19, 167–182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Myers, N. (2002). Environmental refugees: A growing phenomenon of the 21st century. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B, 357, 609–613.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Oguntoyinbo, J. (1981). Climatic variability and food crop production in West Africa. GeoJournal, 5, 139–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. (2007). Analyse Rétrospective de la crise alimentaire au Niger en 2005, Document de Travail 45, Département de Résearch, Agence Française de Développement (50 pp).

  • Ouedraogo, I., Savadogo, P., Tigabu, M., Cole, R., Oden, P., & Ouadba, J.-M. (2009). Is rural migration a threat to environmental sustainability in southern Burkina Faso? Land Degradation and Development, 20, 217–230.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ouedraogo, I., Savadogo, P., Tigabu, M., Cole, R., Oden, P., & Ouadba, J.-M. (2011). Trajectory analysis of forest cover change in the tropical dry forest of Burkina Faso, West Africa. Landscape Research, 36, 303–320.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Paré, L., & Tallet, B. (1999). D’un espace ouvert à un espace saturé: Dynamique foncière démographique dans le département de Kouka (Burkina Faso). Espace, Populations, Societes, 1, 83–93.

  • Paré, S., Soderberg, U., Sandewall, M., & Ouadba, J.-M. (2008). Land use analysis from spatial and field data capture in southern Burkina Faso, West Africa. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 127, 277–285.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prothero, R. (1957). Migratory labor from North-Western Nigeria. Africa, 27, 251–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prothero, R. (1962). Some observations of desiccation in North-Western Nigeria. Erdkunde, 16, 111–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rain, D. (1999). Eaters of the dry season: Circular labor migration in the West African Sahel. Boulder: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salama, P., Assefa, F., Talley, L., Spiegel, P., Van der Veen, A., & Gotway, C. (2001). Malnutrition, measles, mortality, and humanitarian response during a famine in Ethiopia. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 563–571.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schapendonk, J., & Steel, G. (2014). Following migrant trajectories: The im/mobility of Sub-Saharan Africans en route to the European Union. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104, 262–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stone Environmental. (2001). Atlas Préliminaire de la Pauvreté/Vulnérabilité, République du Niger. US Agency for International Development.

    Google Scholar 

  • Swinton, S. (1988). Drought survival tactics of subsistence farmers in Niger. Human Ecology, 16, 123–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tarhule, A. (2005). Damaging rainfall: The other Sahel hazards. Climatic Change, 72, 355–377.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Timberlake, L. (1985). Africa in crisis: The causes, the cures of environmental Bankruptcy. London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Udo, R. (1971). Food deficit areas of Nigeria. Geographical Review, 61, 415–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van Apeldoorn, G. (1981). Perspectives on drought and famine in Nigeria. London: Allen and Unwin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van der Geest, K. (2011). North-South migration in Ghana: What role for the environment? International Migration, 49, e69–e94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van der Geest, K., Vrieling, A., & Dietz, T. (2010). Migration and environment in Ghana: A cross-district analysis of human mobility and vegetation dynamics. Environment & Urbanization, 22, 107–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vrieling, A., de Leeuw, J., & Said, M. (2013). Length of growing period over Africa: Variability and trends from 30 years of NDVI time series. Remote Sensing, 5, 982–1000.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Walker, P. (1989). Famine early warning systems: Victims and destitution. London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Warner, K. C., de Ehrharat, A., Sherbinin, S. Adamo., & Chai-Onn, T. (2009). In search of shelter: Mapping the effects of climate change on human migration and displacement, CARE/CIESIN/UNHCR/UNU-EHS/World Bank. Geneva: UN University, Institute for Environment and Human Security.

    Google Scholar 

  • Warren, A. (2002). Land degradation is contextual. Land Degradation and Development, 13, 449–459.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Warren, A., & Olsson, L. (2003). Desertification: Loss of credibility despite the evidence. Annals of Arid Zone, 42, 271–287.

    Google Scholar 

  • Watts, M. (1979). A silent revolution: The changing character of food production and the nature of famine in Northern Nigeria, Ph.D. dissertation in geography, University of Michigan.

  • Watts, M. (1983). Silent violence: Food, famine, and peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wessels, K., van den Bergh, F., & Scholes, R. (2012). Limits to detectability of land degradation by trend analysis of vegetation index data. Remote Sensing of Environment, 125, 10–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wood, J., & Knight, C. (1975). Cross-cultural perspectives on human adjustments to arid margins. In J. Newman (Ed.), Drought, Famine, and Population Movements in Africa (pp. 75–126). Syracuse: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

    Google Scholar 

Relevant documents at the Nigerian National Archives, Kaduna

  • NAK SOKPROF. 283. 376B. Anti-Locust Campaign (2), Supply of Arsenite and Antidote for (1931–1932).

  • NAK SOKPROF. 1177 5590. Experimental Unit Farm at Tarike, Gwadabawa District (2) Gwadabawa Demonstration Farm (1940–1952).

  • NAK SOKPROF. 457. 1964. Rainfall and Crop Prospects (2), Meteorological Observations (1950–1954).

  • NAK SOKPROF. 1778. 8059. Settlements in Southern Sokoto, Proposals for (1952–1955).

  • NAK SOKPROF. 1790. 8142/S.1. Departmental and Divisional Annual Reports, 1953.

  • NAK SOKPROF. 1843. 8318. Sokoto Province: Annual Report 1954.

Download references

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to David Helgren and Evelyn Ravuri for very helpful comments on earlier versions of the article. The criticisms of Population and Environment’s editor and five anonymous reviewers were extremely valuable; one reviewer offered especially detailed and insightful comments. Fieldwork was supported by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation award and by awards from Michigan State University. The author is indebted to Dr. Mohammed Iliya and his colleagues in the Department of Geography, Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto, for making research in northern Nigeria possible.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John Grolle.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Grolle, J. Historical case studies of famines and migrations in the West African Sahel and their possible relevance now and in the future. Popul Environ 37, 181–206 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-015-0237-4

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-015-0237-4

Keywords

  • Famine
  • Migration
  • Sahel
  • Savanna
  • Climate change