Crisis is one more storm in east Africa – By Simon Tisdall in Addis Ababa, The Guardian
Kenya’s traumatic post-election stress disorder is making regional governments jittery. Knock-on fuel shortages and economic dislocation affecting landlocked Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are only part of the story. The sudden turbulence radiating from Nairobi, often characterised as an island of stability in an east African ocean of storms, is proving deeply unsettling politically. (more…)
Kenya’s traumatic post-election stress disorder is making regional governments jittery. Knock-on fuel shortages and economic dislocation affecting landlocked Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are only part of the story. The sudden turbulence radiating from Nairobi, often characterised as an island of stability in an east African ocean of storms, is proving deeply unsettling politically.
Ethiopia, Kenya’s larger, more populous and impoverished northern neighbour, is a leading case in point. The ruling coalition led by prime minister Meles Zenawi is still struggling to overcome the awful legacy of totalitarianism, famine, war and secession 16 years after deposing Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Dergue regime.
Officials in Addis Ababa say progress is being made. Growth is in double digits. State primary education and healthcare provision is expanding. And the agricultural sector, representing about 50% of the economy, is booming. Although still a recipient of food aid, Ethiopia actually exported $97m (£49m) worth of cereals and oil seed in the last five months of 2007.
Yet more so even than in Kenya, Ethiopia’s racial and linguistic diversity – there are about 80 distinct ethnic groups – sets daunting political bear traps for the unwary nation-builder.
Several regionally based opposition groups advocate armed struggle, and even the parliamentary opposition has not yet forgiven Meles for the disputed 2005 general election that saw dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests – an event compared by critics to what, on a larger scale, is happening in Kenya.
Adding to Addis’s worries, Ethiopia is literally hemmed in by unresolved conflicts – in southern Sudan, in Somalia, and along its much fought-over border with Eritrea. Ethiopia is controversially involved in trying to resolve some of these problems, as in the struggle against Islamist militancy in Mogadishu. But resources are limited.
To this fractious list must now be added Kenya, although officials hope the addition will be temporary. The fear is that Kenyan turmoil will indirectly exacerbate regional strife.
Meles, an ally of Kenya’s besieged president, Mwai Kibaki, has kept his head down so far. According to the foreign ministry, he telephoned both Kibaki and his rival, Raila Odinga, to urge calm and a peaceful resolution of the crisis. “We don’t want to see chaos in Kenya. Any fires burning there will surely come to us,” a senior official said.
But regional newspaper editorials have been less circumspect. The Addis Guardian said: “Kenya was a country the west has been brandishing as a model of tolerance and democracy … What the crisis has revealed is that democracy in Africa is still an illusion and that tribalism is the monster lurking behind all the pretensions the politicians resort to.” The Sub-Saharan Informer accused the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development of dithering.
But Kenya’s troubles could bring long-term benefits to Ethiopia. Cheaper Ethiopian products are already undercutting Kenyan businesses, and the troubles may remind the US and Britain of a well-managed Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the “war on terror” and regional security, said a top independent political consultant here.
“Meles does not want himself or Kenya to be told what to do by Gordon Brown or George Bush. And there is a sense that the EU’s constant criticisms of Kenya have not helped,” the consultant said. “But the Ethiopians do want to convey the idea that they have a stronger core of stability than Kenya, that they have state structures that can survive whatever you throw at them.”
In Addis, such proud self-assertiveness in the only major African country never to be colonised feeds an ultimate aim of changing the country’s image from basket case to regional powerhouse. They are calling it the Ethiopian renaissance. And despite problems at all points of the compass, they seem pretty determined to make it work.