Ethiopia is being destabilized by food insecurity and border disputes

Ethiopia is being destabilized by food insecurity and border disputes

Again large parts of Southern Africa and Eastern Africa, including South-Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Somalia and parts of Kenya and Uganda, have been affected by the strengthening weather phenomenon El Nino. The drought has been persistent since November last year and has been causing major food security issues in the regions. While the drought is worst in the southern countries, East Africa is becoming increasingly unstable due to the fatal combination of famine, terrorist insurgencies, political pressure and regional instability.

Although it has been recognised that this might be the worst drought Ethiopia has known in the past fifty years ,with 8.2 million people facing food insecurity, international aid and media coverage have been lagging behind. This is partially due to the fact that the government has been cracking down on its press and media.

It does not want the international community to think that it has not learned from the past and that the food and health infrastructures have not improved. However, the drought and following famine are only one of numerous issues the region is struggling with at the moment.

Droughts and floods; crises in extremis

While many of these countries have earlier been affected by droughts, agricultural and irrigation systems have barely been upgraded in past years. In November 2015 the UN had already warned that droughts would severely hit the northern, central and eastern parts of the country and that flooding would occur in the southern and south-eastern areas.

Government officials at that time responded that as the economy had become more diversified, the country had become more resilient to these kinds of shocks. However, the drought has destroyed a massive share of this years’ crop harvest and left cattle perished. The following floods of this month caused the death of at least 28 people. This indicates once more that the country has not been able to become more resilient to the impact of El Nino.

While from a humanitarian perspective this is a major catastrophe, it also puts the government in a difficult position as it has been trying to boost the agricultural development by attracting foreign investors and companies through its land-for-lease programme.

This programme has been highly criticised as a form of land-grabbing, forcing local people off the most fertile land. And although it has increased the productivity of these lands and generated more agricultural output, these have been mainly exported and little has returned to the local people, adding to the existing grievances. Food security and nutrition in the affected areas are likely to deteriorate even further in the coming period up to June-August 2016 when green harvests are expected.


Source: UNOCHA

Increasing pressure from internally displaced people and refugees

The harsh conditions have forced many people to leave their homes, with almost 100,000 people becoming internally displaced. Ethiopia already hosts some of Africa’s largest refugee camps this puts extra pressure on these facilities and the aid organisations as the Ethiopian government fails to provide much help.

As of 2015, Ethiopia has taken in over 680,000 refugees, the largest number of any African country, with refugees mainly coming from neighbouring countries Eritrea and South-Sudan, but also from the DRC, Somalia, Yemen and many other places.

Ethiopia doesn’t allow refugees to work or settle anywhere, which means that many of these refugees get stuck in the camps, without being able to provide for themselves. In many places this has already lead to explosive situations.

One of the most recent examples is the violent attacks taking place in the region of Gambela, near the border with South-Sudan. With a population of about 300,000 people, there are about 280,000 South Sudanese refugees in the region, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The local Ethiopians accuse the South-Sudanese of land grabbing and cattle stealing, and violent attacks and kidnapping of children have been taken place on both sides. While Gambela, with its fertile lands, makes for a suitable place to host refugees, it has created a lot of conflicts with the local population.

As Kenya has recently announced the intention to close its biggest refugee camps over insecurity and terrorist threats, influx is likely to increase even more. Adding to this the migration from internally displaced people, the pressure on the resources and the instability is spread into areas lesser affected by the drought.

Border disputes

Refugees are not the only group affected by the drought and posing a threat to stability in Ethiopia. In southern parts of Ethiopia, Northern Kenya, parts of Somalia and the Sudan, pastoral nomadic groups are hit hard by drought. As they cannot find lands to graze their cattle on they increasingly moving to more fertile land, which is becoming overcrowded by rivalling groups.

In the past, most of the conflicts in those areas were manageable, and tend to be resolved by elderly leaders through traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. However, these conflicts have become more complex as the numbers are increasing and the situation turns more serious when extreme droughts occur.

Although mechanisms have been developed in the past, such as the Conflict Early Warning and Response (CEWARN) in 2002, these only point out that conflicts are increasing, but still fail to sufficiently deal with them.

Going back to Ethiopia’s ambition to attract foreign developers and investors through its land-lease programme, the raids from neighbouring countries and refugees, increasing number of pastoral communities moving around these lands, pose a major challenge. 

Famine, instability and political risk

Although there is not a direct link between famine and conflict, the current situation in Ethiopia and its neighbouring countries is rapidly becoming worrisome. Not only are millions of people in physical danger due to the food insecurity, the competition between different groups is creating increased tension which could easily explode.

On top of that, the Ethiopian government is tightening its grip on the public and media, creating public frustration and political discontent. While the Ethiopian government has tried to improve and diversify the agricultural sector by attracting foreign investors, it has failed to meet local demands.

The necessary modernisation of the agricultural infrastructure that has become too apparent by this crisis may offer opportunities for investors, but the frustrations of the Ethiopian people make it a risky opportunity at the same time.



About Author

Dalia Saris

Dalia Saris is a London based research analyst. She has previously worked in Benin and at the Netherlands-African Business Council. She specialises in political reform and elections, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. She holds an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA (hons) in International Relations from the University of Groningen.