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From southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya, scenes of euphoria broke out after the swearing in of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s new prime minister on 2 April 2018, when the incumbent Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned unexpectedly. Abiy came to power as the country faced civil unrest, particularly in the Oromia region. In his maiden speech, Abiy promised sweeping changes, from judicial reforms, to the establishment of high-level structured bilateral cooperation with Kenya to the signing of a peace accord with Eritrea to end 20 years of a frozen conflict. Eighteen years after its closure, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was reopened and siblings were reunited with parents and grandparents for the first time in almost a decade. Phone links were re-established.

A New Dawn

A new era seemed to have emerged in the Horn of Africa’s most populous country and largest economy following decades of civil wars, drought and famine. Ethiopian youths had high expectations of an improved economy and better working conditions under Abiy’s leadership. In particular, for the larger Oromo population, which had never had one of its own as head of government, the coronation of Abiy was laden with tremendous hope for this historically marginalized majority group. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize after the peace settlement with Eritrea, electrifying the country and the region. Yet amid all the positive reforms, tensions were brewing within and outside Abiy’s administration as the northern Tigrinya region went to the polls against the federal government’s directives. Dissenting Oromo voices and opposition leaders were detained. Vocal local musician Hachalu Handessa was assassinated in broad daylight.

All these events happened in the blink of an eye, jeopardizing the developments initiated by Abiy in fewer than two years. Slightly over one year into the conflict with Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) insurgents, the intensifying hostility between the federal government forces and the Tigrinya political leadership has produced a dire humanitarian crisis, from malnutrition and food insecurity, the displacement of populations, disease outbreaks to restrictions in the delivery of food aid. The current volatile situation in Ethiopia will have a devastating ripple effect on the neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya, which borders Ethiopia to the south.

The spillover 

From the Italo-Ethiopia war, through the persecution of the TPLF to Ethiopia’s security operation in early 2018 targeting civilians, the ensuing refugee crises have been felt in the Moyale region of Marsabit County. The movement of people from Ethiopia to the Kenyan side of the border takes different forms, from human trafficking, displacement of people due to ethnic conflict or targeted government operations, to “flushing out” of local militia affiliated to Oromo in Ethiopia. The Moyale-Nairobi road has been the route for human trafficking and a smuggling hotspot for those seeking “greener pastures” abroad and those running away from political persecution.

Of the other countries that share a border with Ethiopia, the influx of refugees into Sudan has been the largest, with arrivals into countries like Somalia being modest. Conversely, with the escalation of ethnic fighting and the federal government fighting different factions in new fronts, the situation is fluid, and there is the possibility of people fleeing to Kenya to escape the growing conflicts. Northern Kenya already hosts two of the world’s largest refugee settlements, Kakuma to the northwest and Dadaab to the northeast. A protracted and bloody ethnic conflict causing a steady flow of displaced populations would likely have severe impacts on Marsabit County. The porous borders with Kenya would enable displaced populations to cross into Moyale Sub-County, putting pressure on a region that is already facing drought and resource problems. An influx of refugees from Ethiopia could increase pressure on the county’s scarce resources and provoke a humanitarian crisis that local authorities are not equipped to handle. This would put colossal pressure on public utilities like hospitals, increase food insecurity, cause disease outbreaks and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

The current volatile situation in Ethiopia will have a devastating ripple effect on the neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya, which borders Ethiopia to the south.

Kenya being the passage for Ethiopians seeking a better life abroad—in South Africa and elsewhere—the influx of people running away from the crisis will increase human trafficking, which will have a devastating impact on the rights of refugees. The people being trafficked usually pay colossal amounts of money to traffickers to get into Nairobi, transported either by lorry or by van like sacks of potatoes. Immigrants risk their lives in search of better lives and livelihoods and the influx of refugees might affect the rights of refugees as the human traffickers may take advantage of the vulnerable displaced populations. Additionally, the crisis has potentially serious effects on Kenya’s stability and security as it could weaken counterinsurgency efforts against the potent Al-Shabaab jihadist group. Kenya has taken a number of initiatives against terrorism and terror-related activities including security and political measures, and creating awareness and sensitization among the locals. These initiatives could be derailed if the militant group makes a comeback into the border counties.

The intensification of conflict and spill-over into Ethiopia’s other regions like Oromia and Ogaden may oblige Abiy’s government to withdraw Ethiopian forces from Somalia, severely weakening the AMISOM forces. This would splinter the containment model put in place by the Ethiopian government against Al-Shabaab. The security vacuum created will allow the infiltration of Al-Shabaab and other militant groups, and create conditions favouring local recruitment.  AMISON was officially scheduled to wind up its operations by the end of the 2021 but the international community has requested an extension of the term from the European Union. The deployment of Ethiopian military personnel remains a lynchpin of the AMISON mission in Somalia; retracting Ethiopia’s contingent could erase the gains made over the years in the fight against the terrorist group. The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops would also bolster the Al-Shabaab, enabling militants to spread their tentacles into the vast and volatile parts of Marsabit County.

An influx of refugees from Ethiopia could increase pressure on the county’s scarce resources and provoke a humanitarian crisis that local authorities are not equipped to handle.

The political crisis will exacerbate the ethnic and political situation in border counties like Marsabit, Mandera, Wajir and Garissa, among others. Marsabit County has in the past experienced severe ethnic conflict, from the Forolle massacre, the Turbi bloodbath, the Moyale clashes to the current ethnic clashes in Saku Sub-County. The primary triggers of the ethnic conflict revolve around land and boundary issues exacerbated by the influx of small arms and light weapons through the porous Kenya-Ethiopian border. The ease of access to light weapons will be further accelerated by the Ethiopian crisis, enabling a steady flow of guns and other armaments. This could inflame the already fragile situation in Marsabit County. Considering that electioneering in this region instigates ethnic conflict, the infiltration of light weapons might aggravate these ethnic clashes.

Given that Kenya and Ethiopia have several bilateral trade agreements and other trade arrangements at various levels, the crisis in Ethiopia is likely to affect trade between the two countries. Private firms and local traders on the Kenyan side of the border are likely to re-evaluate their business operations, which will affect income tax and cause layoffs. This will have direct bearing on the revenues generated by the state from the export and import of goods. On the flipside, there will be an inflow of illegal goods and products into Kenya, finding their way into the local markets and thus affecting the business environment in Kenya. Such a shadow market system distorts the local market and trade flows, and results in low sales as people shift to cheaper goods. An intensification of ethnic conflict implies disruption of transportation of goods along the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia corridor. Similarly, hard drugs like cannabis sativa could find their way into the lucrative drug market in Kenya.

In brief, a rapid de-escalation in the complex ethnic conflict is vital not just for reinstating equilibrium in Ethiopia, but also to ensure that Kenya is not destabilised. A lengthy destabilization of Ethiopia’s regime will reverse the gains made by security partners and countries in the fight against Al Shabaab, the most lethal terrorist group in the Horn of Africa as well as the economic achievements and bilateral cooperation between these two countries.  Should the de-escalation emerge as a result of political diplomacy leading to equitable power sharing, Kenya will not have to deal with a crisis it has not prepared for.