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Author: Niamh Fallon


In the seventh lecture of the IIEA’s Development Matters series supported by Irish Aid, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for the Horn of Africa, provided a broad overview of the political, governance and global issues affecting the region. The Special Envoy’s mandate encompasses all member countries of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), namely Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda.

In her introduction to the Special Envoy’s remarks, Sinead Walsh, Deputy Director General and Horn of Africa Director of Irish Aid, noted that the Horn of Africa has been a longstanding priority for the Irish Government.

Furthermore, in the context of Ireland’s upcoming tenure on the UN Security Council (UNSC) beginning in January 2021, Ms Walsh reflected that approximately 70% of the files on the agenda of the UNSC pertain to African countries, and that, of those countries, approximately 65% are located in the Horn of Africa.

Special Envoy Onanga-Anyanga addressed this point and suggested that imbalances in the multilateral system are further reflected in the fact that no African country is currently a member of the UNSC, until Kenya assumes its non-permanent seat in 2021. The Special Envoy congratulated Ireland on its election to the Council and stated that for many African countries, Ireland’s campaign had represented a rejection of global inequalities. David Donoghue, event chair and former Irish Permanent Representative to the UN, added that greater African representation on the UNSC has been a consistent priority of Irish foreign policy.


Impact of COVID-19 in the Horn of Africa

On the impact of COVID-19, Special Envoy Onanga-Anyanga recognised the pandemic as a global symmetric shock that knows no borders, but one which countries were not equally poised to mitigate from the outset. To date, the reported death rate per capita in Africa has been low compared to other parts of the world, despite weak health systems. A number of contributing factors to this have been identified including: the continent’s young population; pre-existing protocols and expertise gained from dealing with past epidemics; low levels of travel on the continent; outdoor living; lower rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and related health complications; and the swift, proactive responses seen in many African countries.

However, while the Special Envoy acknowledged that the worst health impacts appear to have been avoided, he highlighted the lack of data available for the Horn of Africa region, as well as its limited testing capacity. He underlined the long-term socioeconomic fallout of COVID-19 as the key concern. Furthermore, the Special Envoy observed that the outbreak of the virus has compounded a list of pre-existing difficulties in the region, including the desert locust invasions that have persisted throughout 2020, food insecurity, extreme poverty, social unrest, security concerns, and political instability.


Current Political Situation in the Horn of Africa

Both the Special Envoy and Ms Walsh addressed the threat posed by current unrest in the Tigray region of Ethiopia to stability across the Horn of Africa and considered the substantial numbers of refugees crossing into Sudan. The Special Envoy stated that current UN efforts are being conducted in close partnership with the Ethiopian Government and national authorities. These are focused on ensuring humanitarian access to the region and on protecting both civilians and humanitarian actors.

Mr Onanga-Anyanga and Ms Walsh also addressed the complex and intertwined issues at play in Somalia, which are exacerbated by the destabilising effects that Al-Shabab’s operations are having in the country. The Special Envoy noted that a vital prerequisite for progress in addressing corruption, criminality and security challenges is the re-establishment of the rule of law. He noted that the preparation of the upcoming Somali parliamentary and presidential elections represents a significant opportunity to further these efforts.


Governance Challenges in the Horn of Africa

Special Envoy Onanga-Anyanga noted that, thanks to improvements in indicators of human development and economic opportunities, the countries of the Horn of Africa have made substantial progress in governance in recent years. However, he referred to the 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance which indicates that these gains are currently at risk.

The Special Envoy surveyed the various governance challenges facing the region. First, he highlighted an increasingly unstable security situation, particularly with regard to Ethiopia and Somalia as outlined above. Second, according to the African Governance Index, is a decline in civic and democratic space and rights. Third, the Special Envoy observed, is the adverse impact of the COVID-19 outbreak which has served to exacerbate this decline in some cases by presenting an excuse to restrict political activities, to the significant concern of many of the region’s opposition parties. In addition, the pandemic has directly disrupted electoral process. For example, in Ethiopia, parliamentary elections due to take place in August 2020 have been postponed until May or June 2021. The Special Envoy noted that, in the context of the pandemic, the decision on whether to proceed with elections must navigate a complex web of political, legal, human rights and public health concerns.

Beyond immediate and contextual factors, Mr Onanga-Anyanga highlighted the many particular obstacles facing countries in transition. He remarked that many countries in the region are new nations in which social contracts have yet to be consolidated or even established. He pointed out that even for many of the older nations, state formation is still underway. Furthermore, Special Envoy Onanga-Anyanga noted the pervasiveness of identity and exclusive politics in the Horn of Africa. He stated that, as a result of the emotional potency of these longstanding and deep-rooted divisions, identity politics creates political fragmentation and poses a formidable challenge to consensus-building, change, and social cohesion. The Special Envoy pointed out, however, that such politics are not confined to Africa.

Ms Walsh observed that the current situation in Tigray exposes the national-regional tensions inherent to Ethiopia’s federal system of government. This points to the intricacies of finding solutions to the region’s governance challenges. In Kenya, as a second example, the impact of devolution and strengthened regional and local governance instigated in 2010 is still being debated with regard to the impact these measures have had on tensions between sub-national groups, and on the stakes of national-level political competition, among other elements.


Strengthening Governance in the Horn of Africa

The Special Envoy outlined contributing factors to the enhancement of democratic processes and governance in the region. He stated that strong institutions, though highly desirable, are not enough in themselves but must be matched by principled, visionary leadership and sincere political will. He further underscored the significance of fostering a democratic culture based on a conscious respect for the rule of law, a focus on consensus-building, fair policymaking, and just allocation of public goods.

The Special Envoy placed particular emphasis on the instrumental role of continuous grassroots and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) engagement. He identified a transformation in what he described as the “trajectory to nation-building” underway in the region whereby communities themselves, particularly led by young people and women, are increasingly demanding effective governance and accountability. Special Envoy Onanga-Anyanga stated that there was no doubt that CSOs in the Horn of Africa are galvanised. Both he and Ms Walsh referred to the transition in Sudan as a powerful manifestation of this new momentum.


Global Interdependency

The Special Envoy was emphatic that progress towards political stability and good governance in the Horn of Africa cannot be realised in a vacuum, rather it is a product of the political and economic dynamics of a globalised world. He stated that the current international system is unsustainable in that it reproduces and exacerbates global inequalities and endangers the planet. Mr Onanga-Anyanga took the example of climate change and noted that the countries of the Horn of Africa are simultaneously among the lowest contributors and yet the most vulnerable to global warming. He cited increasing desertification, growing water scarcity, and food insecurity, as well as the impact of changing migration patterns on cross-border conflicts and regional stability.

Outlining some concrete steps to mitigate the difficulties caused by global imbalances, the Special Envoy said that the decision of the G20 to extend the freezing of debt for developing countries was welcome, but that the best case scenario is total cancellation of debt. He also stressed the need for a more equitable world trade system. This, he said, should be founded on fair pricing of products and should also see substantial investment – with legal protections – where the raw material for global supply chains exists. This would serve to create jobs and increase opportunities for young people to stay in the Horn of Africa region. The significance of this was heightened by the Special Envoy’s reflection that, of the current combined population of the IGAD countries of over 230 million people, more than 50% are young people, who represent the future of Africa.