“And so, we National Socialists consciously draw a line beneath the foreign policy tendency of our pre–War period. We take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the East. At long last, we break off the colonial and commercial policy of the pre–War period and shift to the soil policy of the future.”
Adolph Hitler, Mein Kamf.
World War Two lasted six years, starting with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1938. Up to 85 million people died in the conflict, with the brunt of European deaths being borne by Russia, majorly civilians. In the Pacific theatre, the Japanese cracked down on China and killed up to 20 million people, mainly civilians. Africa was not left out of this mess. Britain conscripted 600,000 African colonial troops. The French recruited 200,000 Africans, the famous Senegalese Tirailleurs, of which over 10% were killed in action. Primary point: Nigerians were dragged into this war eighty years ago in which many were killed and a lot of young men remain unaccounted for. My larger point is to state the reason why these millions of humans died and to tie it in with Nigeria’s modern concerns about Boko Haram and the farmer-herdsman crisis. This human catastrophe was the effect of a single idea that the Germans had, the idea of lebensraum, as perfected by the Hilter regime.
The kernel of lebensraum was that, as a result of increasing population and industrial overcapacity, Germany needed a “vital living space” where it could grow agricultural crops for its own consumption and sell its manufactures. The only way to expand was eastwards. Thus, Hitler’s annexation of Austria, the dismembering of Czechoslovakia and then Lithuania, and eventually Poland. It was easy, as a corollary to this need for land and market, for related ideas of racial hierarchy to be promoted. Here we find the sub-humanization of the Gypsies, Africans, the Slavs and better known, Europe’s Jews, of which an estimated 6,000,000 were killed at death camps at Auschwitz, Treblika, Belzac, and other places. The eugenics-based racism of the Nazi’s was reasonable within an economic imperative. The rest of the war, including the actions of Axis powers Japan and Italy, and the deaths from the conflict, can be traced to variations of this idea of lebensraum interpreted in various ways—Italy gobbling up Ethiopia, Japan’s earlier invasion of Manchuria and China for example. All because these countries needed a bigger garden.
What does this have to do with Nigeria, beyond our nameless dead? What does this have to do with Boko Haram, for example, or with the conflict in central Nigeria and parts of the northwest between sedentary farmers and pastoralist herdsmen? While it may be convenient to see WWII as a fight between good and evil for which the good Allies won over the evil Axis powers; while it is convenient to centralize the killing of Jews and the birth of the Bretton Woods institutions and the basis of America’s global power, these are in fact secondary effects. At heart, WWII was a resource-based conflict. Only through the primary socio-economic lens of access to food and access to market do we see how a single small idea, lebensraum, led to the world losing 3% of its population in a short six-year period, as well as the committing of great moral crimes of which Auschwitz and the rape of Nanking are known to all.
The key resources in 1940’s Europe was land—for agriculture, for the extracting of crude oil which continues to power everything from machines to edible pharmaceutical plastics—and water, to deploy navies, patrol seas, project military ability and protect trade. In the 2020’s, it is data, but only to an unrepresentative slice of the Nigerian population—the middleclass and the elite. For the average Nigerian, most of whom are illiterate, poor, miseducated, superstitious, and thoroughly pre-modern, as a result of six decades of state failure to develop the country evenly and holistically, land and water remain THE resources. In defending “their” land and water, these more representative Nigerians, the oppressed “masses”, are not much different in what they are willing to do from the Nazi’s where criminal laws are lax or politicized. What’s more, these fighters have tools of the organization of atrocity such as modern information technology, which vastly scales and escalates violence.
At the centre of the security problems of Nigeria is not in fact the Boko Haram member or pastoralist herdsmen fighting sedentary farmers, nor is it the “Muslim north” versus the “largely Christian and animist south” caught in a lockstep. The real problem has two parts—the continuing desiccation of the Sahara and the reality of our overpopulation. As the Sahara grows hotter and gobbles up more hectares of land to its south, it affects Nigeria’s lifelines. I mean the river Niger and the Lake Chad. Nigeria, the biggest country in West Africa, is essentially the drainage basin of these two water bodies. Every single river, by the banks of which all farmers plant crops or herdsman roam cattle for foliage, finds its source in one of these two water bodies. The disruption of the seasons makes a mess of timetables, and the dependence of even more people on these finite resources lies at the heart of our major conflicts. In the northeast, the existence of extensive un-governed spaces, multidimensional poverty and groups from as far afield as Ghana and the Central African Republic, first made the area receptive to the violent extremism of Boko Haram crisis entrepreneurs. This was at a time when the lake has been steadily evaporating due to the same climate cause of the Sahara’s southwards motion. We can appreciate that control of land and water is the motherlode of our major security challenges.
Now, putting it all together. We cannot stop people fighting over resources, nor can we stop people giving birth to so many children. What we can do, what the Nigerian State has failed to do, is to manage finite resources—the River Niger, the Chad—in a way that allows optimal access for all groups that need it in order to minimize competition and the possibility of conflict. Related to this: improved economic opportunity and activity always leads to lower birthrates. So, improve them.
When I speak of state failure, I corelate the reality of conflict between farmers and herdsmen, for example, to the existence of river basin development agencies in Nigeria since the early 1970’s, set up to manage water and land resources in an equitable manner. It started with the establishment of the Sokoto River basin authority, which includes Zamfara, one of the nodes of this farmer-herdsman conflict, and another for the Chad basin, epicenter of Boko Haram. Why have these river basin authorities not been held accountable to their mandates? What has in fact happened is the proliferation of bureaucracies where there now exist at least twelve river basin authorities that are semi-autonomous. I remember pitching a web service at the Ministry of Agriculture when Obadiah Ando was minister and being told the ministry had very limited control of the RBDAs. The intrenational Lake Chad Basin Development Commission (LCBC) has also failed, for complex reasons that I cannot go into now. The effect of this monumental failures to manage and administer resources is the corpses of countless Nigerians killed in Zamfara and the northeast, and in the villages razed in Plateau and Benue and elsewhere.
What is funny about lebensraum now is how misguided it was. In the decades following the end of WWII, the notion that one needed expansive land to grow crops was exploded by the arrival of new scientific innovations in agriculture. The State of Israel, a complicated creation of genocidal effects of lebensraum, is a shining example of such science. Nor is the idea that markets are physical spaces for trade in goods as true as Hitler believed it was in 1938. The size of the German economy at present is about $4 trillion, with a population of about 90 million people. Germany’s landmass is 357,386 km2. Hong Kong’s economy is one tenth Germany’s ($490 bn) but it has about 8% of German’s population and is all of only 1,106 km2. The idea of lebensraum, which I hasten to add was not an exclusively German one, one that spawned racism, genocide and a war over resources that claimed 3% of the world’s population, was based on a premise that was overthrown by better science. Resources can always be more efficiently managed. Coming back home: Surely, we do not need to record the death of 5.7 million Nigerians (3% of 2020 population figures) for what we must do to be clear?
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]