East Africa: Opinion – Gloomy Prospects for Horn of Africa in 2023

Somalia and Ethiopia will be the world’s biggest worries in the new year. Disastrous governance in these countries will likely lead the region deeper into crisis, says DW’s Ludger Schadomsky.

Observers of the the Horn of Africa were hardly surprised when the International Rescue Committee sounded the alarm at the end of the year. In 2023, it said, the countries “most at risk of humanitarian crises” will not be Ukraine, Syria or Yemen — but Somalia and Ethiopia, the global aid organization said. How did this happen?

Somalia is a failed state

After two years of drought combined with a protracted war of attrition between a demoralized army and the jihadi al-Qaeda offshoot al-Shabab, it comes as no surprise that Somalia, the proverbial “failed state,” is breaking negative records. While people and livestock starve, the president, prime minister and parliamentarians elected according to proportional representation of clans have become mired in corruption, nepotism and state failure.

The situation has only been aggravated by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Before the invasion, Somalia obtained 90% of its wheat from the two countries. But with supply chains disrupted, the few aid ships now arriving with grain are far from adequate. Half a million children in Somalia — more than in any other country this century — face starvation as a result of the drought, supply shortages and conflict.

The ongoing crisis in the once prosperous country with rich fishing grounds threatens to drag even neighboring, comparatively well-governed Somaliland into the abyss, a country that until now has served in the West as a kind of blueprint for a functioning Somalia.

Those who now reflexively seek to blame “the West” should be reminded that the US government, despite a deep “Somalia fatigue,” delivers 90% of the aid that the country receives. But ultimately only the governments in the affected countries themselves can turn the tide, though unfortunately the prospects are bleak.

Ethiopia’s war has been costly

Until November, poverty-stricken Ethiopia had been fighting a two-year civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. With an estimated 600,000 casualties, it was the most deadly war in recent history, and an expensive one at that: Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones ordered by the Ethiopian government for use in the conflict cost between €2 and €5 million ($2.1 and $5.3 million) per unit.

According to its own figures, the country now needs $3.6 billion (€3.4 billion) for reconstruction, though actual costs are likely to be considerably higher. Meanwhile, food inflation has spiked by a staggering 40%.

Mysterious Eritrea remains strategically important

While the dynamics that will determine the fate of Somalia and Ethiopia in the coming years are relatively clear, tiny Eritrea, alternately dubbed a “hermetic police state” or “Africa’s North Korea,” remains an unknown. The geostrategically important country on the Red Sea is a black box, with neither hunger nor COVID statistics available. Only one thing seems certain: longtime dictator Isaias Afwerki will continue to wreak havoc in 2023, as his policies seem aimed at achieving the greatest possible chaos in the region.

Eritrea’s potential role in the devastating civil war in neighboring Ethiopia also shouldn’t be underestimated. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front considers Eritrea an archenemy, and since the country is not part of the Pretoria peace agreement signed last month, there could be a renewed outbreak of hostilities in the embattled Tigray region next year with Eritrea’s participation, further increasing the death toll.

There is another player in the region: The reemergence of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, a rebel group against the government of tiny but strategically important Djibouti, a country that hosts French, American and Chinese military bases, doesn’t make the situation any easier.

Germany, Europe should not ignore Horn of Africa

“African solutions for African problems” has become the mantra of many politicians across the continent, and who wouldn’t embrace this policy approach in Europe?

The alternative would be devastating: According to the World Bank, Africa will soon be spending an incredible €100 billion on food imports per year! And that doesn’t include the exorbitant costs of reconstruction for entire regions, or support for millions of internally displaced persons.

Despite their understandable commitment to Ukraine, Germans and Europeans should not ignore the Horn of Africa. They must consider both geopolitical factors and their own self-interest: Should war and hunger trigger a wave of refugees across the Mediterranean, it could lead to new social upheavals in Europe.

In 2023, Ethiopia and Somalia could prove Afro-pessimism’s apologists wrong — if only those in power make it a priority.

This article was originally published in German.

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