East Africa: Annus Horribilis - Why 2020 Was the Horn of Africa's Worst Year

27 December 2020

An air of optimism greeted the year 2020, but it has turned out to be the Horn of Africa's -- and indeed the World's -- worst Year-- an annus horribilis. Many are happy that this "horrible year" has come to an end.

The year opened with the tragic outbreak of the 2019-2020 desert locust invasion, the worst in 70 years in Kenya and the deadliest in 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia, which has left in its trail a debilitating food insecurity compounded by the outbreak of corona virus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Linked to the effect of global warming and the impacts of climate change, the locust invasion occurred against the backdrop of the resurgence of terrorism, which intensified insecurity in Africa.

Data from the African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism indicates that terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab staged an average of 190 attacks per month in 2020 resulting in a monthly average of 834 deaths!

This total to an estimated 2,280 attacks and over 10,000 deaths for the year. In Kenya, the year opened with the January 5, 2020 Al-Shabaab pre-dawn attack on Camp Simba used by US personnel along with an undisclosed number of Kenyan troops in Lamu County.

Iranian threats

The attack coincided with Iranian threats of retaliation to target US troops in response to the United States drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Iranian major-general Qasem Soleimani on January 3, although Al-Shabaab denied any link between the two events.

The cup of nature's wrath was seen yet again in the wake of the confirmation of the first Covid-19 case in Africa in February 2020. From early March, Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

By December, the region recorded 289,210 cases and 5,514 deaths. Although Africa's cases of COVID19 are still low -- 2,585,867 cases and 60,973 deaths as compared to the global tally of 80,191,630 cases and 1,756,884 deaths -- the continent has borne the full weight of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.

The existential threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic was complicated by the escalation of political violence across countries affected by conflict. In Somalia, the epicentre of terrorism and insecurity in the Horn of Africa, security incidents stood at 235 by the end of January 2020.

In February and March, clashes between forces loyal to the federal government and those allied to the state of Jubaland displaced 56,000 people, killed at least ten and threatened to export the crisis to the wider Horn of Africa.

The tensions reflect conflicting visions of power between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed "Farmajo" and Jubaland President Ahmed Mohamed Islam "Madobe over how Somalia's political system should allocate resources and power.

Jubaland crisis

Ethiopia and Kenya, both part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), were drawn into this dispute, with Addis backing Somalia's president, and Nairobi supporting Madobe. The war ended with an uneasy stalemate, but the unfinished Jubaland crisis casts a long shadow over Somalia's 2020/2021 parliamentary and presidential elections.

The surge of ethno-nationalism inspired groupings that undermined existing security consensus. In January 2020, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia proposed the formation of a new regional bloc known as the Horn of Africa Cooperation (HoAC), which alienated partners in the region and undermined security efforts of other regional organisations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), the African Union (AU), and the Eastern Africa Standby Force.

Humanitarian assistance

Tensions also escalated between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River. The main disagreement is over the role that the dam will play in mitigating droughts. Wary that a drought might appear during the filling period, Egypt wants the filling to take place over a much longer period.

Despite efforts to silence the guns and establish durable peace, armed conflict remained Africa's biggest challenge in 2020. The eruption of armed conflict between the Tigray People's Liberation Front and state military units of Ethiopia and Eritrea from November 4, 2020 increased the number of active conflicts on the continent.

The Tigray war reflects the failure of democratic experiments in Africa and the brutal resurgence of authoritarianism, now spawning a profound humanitarian crisis. In its wake, the war has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 50,000 others who have fled to Sudan.

According to the United Nations (UN), some 2.3 million children are cut off from desperately needed aid and humanitarian assistance. Nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray have run out of food.

Conflicts have precipitated diplomatic crisis. On November 30, Somalia severed diplomatic ties with Kenya, claiming that Nairobi is meddling in its internal affairs and in its upcoming elections. Nairobi denied the charge and declared that it would not expel Somalia diplomats or citizens in response to Mogadishu's decision to sever ties.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining. This is true of 2020. On June 18, Kenya won the United Nations Security Council non-permanent seat for the period 2021-2022, defeating Djibouti.

Finally, the year ended with a ray of home that the world is on the cusp of containing the Covid-19 pandemic following the discovery of vaccines. But the big question is whether developing countries will have equitable access to the vaccines.

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