Stabilizing a COVID-19-, Desert Locust-, Terrorism-Affected Region

The simultaneous experiences of the ‘global pandemic’ that is COVID-19, a region-wide desert locust invasion, and terrorist activity have pushed some states in Horn of Africa region into uncharted territory. A territory in which borders have been breached, the lives and livelihoods of the masses are threatened, and the economic outlooks of states become gloomy. The region’s heads of states and governments may not have ready blueprints to deal with the three security-related threats, but they must do everything in their power to minimize the negative impact of these threats on their citizens. Everything. Including cooperating with not-so-friendly countries to forestall political unrest, and keep the conflict-prone region stable.

(In)Visible Enemies

COVID-19 has crept across borders of several states in the greater Horn of Africa region, with at least one case reported in Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Eritrea, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Djibouti, and Somalia. The states have instituted different measures to prevent its spread, including the establishment of isolation centers, provision of hand disinfection points in public spaces, closure of educational institutions, and mass education campaigns on infection prevention techniques such as observance of personal hygiene, and self-distancing. The number of cases remains comparatively low at this point, and the health systems in these countries can still cope. However, the extent to which these governments will cope with additional pressure on their coffers is still unknown. So is the psychological impact of perceived and real fears of the masses about their vulnerability and ability to cope with new or increased threats, and the impact of these threats on their lives and livelihoods.

It should not be lost on the governments in the region that unlike many other states affected by this global pandemic, some countries in the greater Horn of Africa region are also contending with the locust invasion. These include Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia (and lately South Sudan) where swarms of desert locusts have destroyed tonnes of food, and fodder, threatening the securities (food, economic) of communities mostly in arid and semi-arid areas, and in food basket areas. Worse still, new swarms have formed, and will likely destroy some of next season’s crops. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has termed the situation in the three countries “extremely alarming.”

Additionally, the threat of terrorism persists in countries such as Kenya and Somalia. There have been at least 16 attacks in Kenya in 2020 alone, all of which have been attributed to Somalia-based terrorist group, al Shabab. The attacks have resulted in, among other things, the closure of some schools, and businesses; displacement; death of civilians and security officers; and destruction of infrastructure, including tarred roads and telecommunications installations.

As is common in the face of overwhelming challenges such as these, some governments are approaching the problems with an ‘othering’ mentality. With regard to COVID-19, for example, most cases in the region have been reported (by the health ministry in Kenya, for instance) to be ‘imports,’ from ‘epicenters’ such as those in Europe or Asia. The same can be said of the flying-hopping pests that were wind-imported from the Middle East in the tail end of last year, and al Shabab terrorism, which is an ‘import’ from Somalia. Blaming is a viable coping strategy, but it creates the kind of distancing that helps governments to apportion some responsibility to another entity, and, in the process not assume full responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of citizens. Citizens who are already disproportionately overburdened with loads such as high taxes, corruption, unemployment, and insecurity. This strategy is flawed to the extent that taking responsibility half-heartedly aggrieves citizens, and creates room for social unrest when the problem is unresolved.

In Others’ Footsteps

The impact of the three simultaneous threats will be felt most by citizens of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. These states should adopt a strategy that tackles each of these threats comprehensively without dampening economic growth. In addition to following World Health Organization guidelines strictly, the states should tailor-make responses that reflect local realities and learned experiences of other model countries such as China and South Korea. In densely populated informal settlements, and at camps for displaced persons, for instance, where safe water, clean environments, and adequate social distancing are a big ask, government-private sector-local community partnerships should be facilitated to meet the health and safety needs of citizens. Additionally, the states should collaborate to ensure joint borders are co-secured to prevent cross-border spread. Governments should also pay closer attention to FAO predictions concerning the continuing migration of the locusts, new swarms, and the impact of the invasion on agriculture, and by extension, food and economic securities of the states. They should coordinate spraying, for example, to break the breeding cycle, and stop the regional spread of swarms. Unmanaged, loss of livelihoods will slow economic growth and create unrest, especially where no safety nets are provided.

The COVID-19-locust invasion combination will no doubt worsen economic outcomes of many citizens in the region. Traditional security partners of these states, including the US, Turkey, European Union, and Gulf states are also taking unprecedented steps to manage COVID-19 and its impact on their economies. This means that they may not be in a position to fully support recovery efforts in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and other countries in the region financially in the immediate aftermath of the ‘global pandemic.’ Loss of livelihoods related to COVID-19 and/or the locusts could catalyse the recruitment of hundreds of newly vulnerable individuals into criminal gangs and terrorist groups. The higher the number of gangs, and the more recruits join terrorist groups, the more difficult it will become for individual states to manage threats to lives and their economies. The three states should therefore also continue to cooperate with each other to minimize recruitment, radicalization into violent extremism, and terrorist activity in the region.

Roselyne Omondi is the Associate Director, Research, at the HORN Institute

Photo: Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe on Tuesday March 17, 2020 addressing the Media on Corona virus at Afya House Headquarters, Nairobi (Photo Credit: Nicholas Nthenge/KNA)

Comments are disabled.