Dustbowls in Nigeria - you have been warned

Leaders of the world’s seven most industrialised countries as well as Russia, are due next week to consider aid to Africa, but are unlikely to make it any time soon to Maiduguri, a dusty Nigerian city on the edge of the Sahara desert.

But should they seek a prime example of what not to do, this sun-scorched state capital on the borders of Chad, Niger and Cameroon might be just the place to visit.

Running for 38km from Monguno to Ngala, an hour’s drive east of Maiduguri, is a huge canal built for the South Chad Irrigation Project.

At a cost of millions of dollars, paid for jointly by the Nigerian government and the World Bank, it was built in the 1970s to use the waters of Lake Chad to irrigate a vast area of farmland.

In anticipation of the riches the fertile ground would produce, long irrigation ditches were dug and great tracts of land were cleared of trees and scrub.

Unfortunately, ever since, and even before, plans for the canal were hatched the lake has been in retreat. The canal has never been filled with water and the cleared land is a dustbowl.

Where once fishermen boated to the gates of Maiduguri, today, after many decades of slow retreat and two decades of sharp drought, plus the diversion of tributary rivers in Cameroon, the lake itself no longer reaches into Nigeria, leaving only areas of marsh within the country’s borders.

Contingency plans to pump water from the lake uphill into the canal have failed and the canal today holds wind-blown sand and a few puddles of tepid marsh water.

“It was really a disaster. It was most unfortunate.
It cost millions and left the area much worse off than before,” Professor William Richards, a visiting professor of arid zone agriculture at Maiduguri University, said in April.

“If it had worked, it would have been marvellous. But it failed. It failed completely,” he said.

When they meet in Kananaskis, Canada, on Wednesday and Thursday, G8 members George Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and others, are to hold talks with a number of African leaders, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo among them.

Besides obvious issues of terrorism and the outlook for an economic recovery, they will consider an initiative known as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) that offers pledges of good governance and sound economic policies in return for more development aid.

Its goals include an average growth rate of more than 7% a year for the next 15 years and compliance with international targets on poverty reduction, health, education, sustainable development and the empowerment of women.

A major feature of plan is that it is the first genuinely put together in Africa.

“NEPAD is a programme designed, conceived, planned by African leaders at the highest political level, for the first time, and meant to be executed by Africans, involving all Africans,” Obasanjo, one of the authors of the plan, told Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien several months ago.

Development experts hope, however, that it will not involve funding requests for more white elephant projects such as the Lake Chad canal.

Instead, they look to different kinds of projects such as one taking place around Gashua, a small town in Yobe State, a few hours drive northwest of Maiduguri and close to the border with Niger.

Started in 1991, the North East Arid Zone Development Project (NEAZDP) was funded by the European Union until 1996, when the EU stopped aid programmes in Nigeria, and is today funded mainly by the Nigerian government.

Working across half of Yobe State, it involves community members to develop education levels and access to healthcare, improve awareness of new agricultural techniques and stem environmental degradation.

“What we have learnt over the past years is that development that works is not about education or good government alone, it is everything. It needs a holistic approach,” Obasanjo told Chretien.

“That is what we are doing here, at a grass-roots level, and it is working,” said a NEAZDP programme official, Abba Abubakar-Gana.

“With more funding we could spread this programme into more of the state and really bring about some development.” - AFP

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