Horn of Africa Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

Each year the Rift Valley Institute hosts a week-long intensive course on the Horn of Africa, in which I serve as Director of Studies. In addition to 6 days of lectures and breakout sessions on many aspects of the Horn, we also provide participants with a detailed course book with short essays on selected topics, as well as a bibliography for further reading.  Here, I share the short essay “The Year in Review” from our 2014 course book:

RVI Horn of Africa 2014 course

The Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

With the notable exception of the spike in Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya, the past twelve months have been relatively quiet across the Horn. The governments of three new leaders – Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, Somalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta –  survived their first full year of transition. The fact that politics in these governments has changed little suggests to some observers that the crises in all three of those states – enduring authoritarianism in Ethiopia, persistent state failure in Somalia, and unchecked corruption in Kenya – cannot be solved simply by replacing a head of state.

Most of the good news from the Horn over the past year has been economic.  Ethiopia’s continued rapid economic growth — at 7%, a bit slower in 2013 than in past years, but still ranking near the top of the list of the so-called “African Lions” – was welcome news.  Eritrea is projected to enjoy 8% growth rates in 2014, one of the highest in the world, thanks in large part to mining exports. Potential game-changing economic developments in the wider region – growing evidence of major oilfields, and the advancement of plans for major regional infrastructure projects like Ethiopia’s electric power grid and the LAPSSET (Lamu Port South Sudan Corridor) project which aspires to link south Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda to the Kenyan coast – offer additional reasons for hope.  Piracy off the Somali coast continued to decline, reducing risks to regional sea-borne commerce.  Fiber-optic cable was extended into new parts of the Horn, including war-torn Mogadishu, offering the promise of expedited information flows and new opportunities for businesses.  And in September 2013 the Somali Compact was announced, part of the “New Deal” between donors and the Somali government that included a $2.3 billion pledge to underwrite reconstruction and state-building.  China, Gulf states, and Turkey increased their investment portfolio in the region, reflecting a growing trend to look east for foreign investment and aid.    

But the generally positive economic news was offset by worrisome political trends.  Somalia’s post-transitional government has remained mired in political paralysis, has been hit by repeated Al-Shabaab bombings and assassinations, and has faced serious charges of corruption that immediately put a chill on the donor pledge for the New Deal. The progress of the AMISOM-led offensive that has pushed Al-Shabaab out of most towns in southern Somalia has been tarnished by the predatory behavior  of the Somali National Armed Forces occupying the new recovered zones, leading to local resistance and even pushing some communities back into Al-Shabaab’s arms. Eritreans continue to vote with their feet against the repressive Isaias regime, with thousands of citizens per month risking the harrowing overland journey out of Eritrea, where they face shocking abuses at the hands of human traffickers in Sudan and Egypt. In  Ethiopia, street protests by students as well as by Islamic groups have been met by mass arrests and police violence, and serve notice that beneath the country’s calm veneer lie mounting social and political tensions that have no means of expressing themselves in open political dialogue, and that will not be assuaged with news of high economic growth.  

Spillover from the crisis in South Sudan is an immediate regional security concern.  Al-Shabaab remains a top security threat in the region as well, and though its bloody internal battles in the summer of 2013 appeared to have weakened the group further, the consolidated hardline leadership which emerged from that purge has committed the group to unprecedented new levels of terrorism against civilian and international targets in both Somalia and Kenya. The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 shocked the world and underscored Kenya’s vulnerability to a group possessing a well-established network there.  Al-Shabaab also launched deadly terrorist attacks in Mogadishu against the UN and the Federal Government of Somalia, shaking confidence in Somalia.  Recent Kenyan government crack-downs on the large ethnic Somali population in Kenya in response to Al-Shabaab attacks have heightened communal and political tensions in Kenya and are the source of considerable controversy. Continuing turmoil in Somalia is likely to prevent repatriation of Kenya’s vast Somali refugee population, who may face still more years trapped in Dabaab refugee camps.

Regional affairs have grown more complex than ever, with states increasingly committing armed forces in cross-border operations that deeply entangle them in the politics of neighboring states. Nearly every government in the region – Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda – has peacekeeping forces inside Somalia, while Ethiopia and Uganda have troops inside South Sudan as well. There is no small irony in the fact that regional heads of state have been the most vociferous in invoking state sovereignty against what they see as intrusive meddling by Western governments and the International Criminal Court, yet have been deeply intrusive in one another’s political and security affairs.

The biggest storm on the horizon in the coming year may be yet another major humanitarian crisis. In what has become a depressingly familiar cycle, a combination of political failure, armed conflict, displacement, drought, lack of access, and donor fatigue is placing millions of people at risk of a major food crisis in South Sudan and southern Somalia. The good news about overall economic growth in the region will mean little if it co-exists with famine conditions. Weak regional states insisting on the right to be treated as sovereign authorities will have the chance to earn that sovereignty in the eyes of their own people by facilitating rather than impeding humanitarian response.


Want to know more about the Rift Valley Institute Horn of Africa course?

– Syllabus:  http://riftvalley.net/download/file/fid/3285

– Course page (with a video introduction): http://riftvalley.net/event/horn-africa-course-2014

– Application form: http://riftvalley.net/page/horn-africa-course-application-form

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