Last week, I talked about exploration and the billionaires’ race to space. I also shared a little of my own adventure as an explorer across the Sahara Desert. While exciting, exploration ultimately is to make life better, to find out what else may be out there and how we as a species can benefit from it. This was my goal after my first expedition; I could not stop thinking about the desert and the vast opportunities that could be gotten from it.

I had asked a question in my last article and I am yet to get a concrete response. Why are we Africans exploration-shy? Why are our leaders reluctant to bet on our scientists and explorers? If we keep on copying and being risk-averse to research, we will never develop, and never catch up with advanced nations.

Nigeria is not exactly set to join the space race but then we have a lot to still explore right on earth and next to us. How about we start with the Sahara? It currently stands as a world of its own, full of undiscovered treasure. History tells us that the Sahara once had a very different environment. We are told that the dry lands showed signs of pastoralism, large settlements, herding and pottery in Libya and Algeria, dating back to 7000BC. For centuries, trans-Saharan traders voyaged in both directions between the Mediterranean countries and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Economies were being formed, people made a living until the effects of desertification and global warming changed everything.

Now, those changes brought on by desertification and global warming have destroyed lives and properties in many regions.

In the 1960s, when the Sahara occupied only about a fifth of the land area of Africa, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made the famous declaration that the continent of Africa will remain in darkness until the trans-Saharan highway is built. This never happened and, today, the desert has expanded and occupies over a third of the land area of Africa.

It is interesting to note that Africa is the only continent in the world where you cannot move goods and services by road or by train from south to north or from east to west, because of the Sahara. Our counterparts made the move since between 1960 and now to tame their deserts, leaving us behind in the advancement of civilization.

With many African countries becoming independent from their colonial masters, it was desirous to continue the age-old trade between the emerging economies. It was realised that, with the industrial revolution, faster and bigger trading could be achieved if a road/rail link were established between the Mediterranean countries and the rest of Africa. So, following the statement by Nkrumah in 1964, African heads of state, under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity (now known as the African Union), started preliminary discussions that would lead towards establishing a structure for taming and bridging the Sahara.

Thus was born the Trans-Saharan highway, a transnational highway project to pave, improve and ease border formalities on an existing trade route across the Sahara Desert. It runs between North Africa, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea in the north, and West Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the south; from Algiers in Algeria to Lagos in Nigeria. 

Unfortunately, the heads of state that originated the desert-taming project were not able to see the plan to completion due to the various successful coup attempts on almost all their lives while in office, although many experts say, irrespective of the coups, the project was already doomed to fail due to poor planning.

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During my second expedition, I found out that most of the countries bordering the Sahara were looking up to Nigeria to take a leadership role in the fight against desertification. The reason they looked up to Nigeria was because it was in Lagos, in 1964, that the protocol was first established. There is also the fact that we had the resources, both human and natural resources, that will lead to the execution of such a monumental project.

It is difficult to understand why bridging the Sahara is not at the forefront of many African nations’ development plans, especially Nigeria. We are already experiencing the effects of not taming the Sahara, from the herder/farmer clashes to the frequent deaths of our countrymen making illegal journeys across the desert to Europe.

A bridged Sahara and by this I mean developing a proper road network in the desert, will open up the desert to enable the easy movement of goods, trade and services across the continent. It will create employment, education and industry for millions of Africans that border the Sahara through many countries. It will also green a good part of the Sahara and provide grazing fields for the development of animal husbandry.

Cultural practices in Africa make people congregate around places with good roads, agricultural lands, water and, perhaps, electricity. If the road networks are built and maintained, people will move around in search of trade. When they do, they will stop around in places for a brief stay, which will attract others willing to provide certain services that may be required. That is basically the process whereby settlements and communities are created.

Migration will reduce greatly, as it will make monitoring of the desert a lot easier for countries. Countries could set up a joint task force to guard the Sahara. This will go a long way in stemming conflict/wars and the security risk that follows.

To further improve life, vegetative cover will be required. This will protect the roads from the severe effects of the desert sand storms. With the vegetation in the desert, there will be a change in rainfall patterns. Put simply, the rains will begin to fall in the desert with the greening of the land once again. There will also be need to supply water for the different projects, which will lead to availability of potable water to millions of people in the Sahel.

We could harness power from the resources available and generate enough electricity to serve multiple African nations and even export to Europe.

Finally, the greening will stop the encroachment, especially if done right with the necessary land reclamation techniques employed. An obvious benefit is the recovery of land that has been encroached upon by the untamed desert for agricultural and grazing purposes. This will also help boost countries’ economies as farmers that may have migrated due to loss of the fertile lands will return with hopes of experiencing higher yields. Inevitably, the threat to food security will be minimised and poverty will be reduced.

Our governments paying lip service to combating environmental degradation will only further destroy our fertile lands. What is required now is action, albeit one that has taken a long time to come. We can’t possibly dream of joining in the space race when we are unable to tame the Sahara.