Thought and Ideas
Instability in resource-rich East Africa is a matter of concern
Posted Sunday, October 6 2013 at 01:00
“We are heading into times that are going to put most of our countries and governments under serious pressure. It should be a matter of concern to any watcher of Africa.”
A prominent Muslim cleric Ibrahim Omar was shot dead on Thursday night, October 3, 2013 in Mombasa. The post-election violence many people had feared did not materialise. What has materialised is the even more fearful transnational Islamist militancy.
Kenya was for decades the island of peace and stability in an eastern Africa either torn by military coups and civil war, or stagnant because of unproductive Socialist economic policies. Kenya was the place a few Ugandans who could afford it went for their wedding honeymoons. Kenya in the difficult 1970s was “abroad” for Ugandans.
That image of Kenya as the place of exile and refuge, the place we went to shop for scarce commodities in Uganda, the holiday nation, is starting to get eroded. This is how it started in Pakistan. Pakistan, like Kenya, was a stable, safe member of the Commonwealth, with a good national cricket team, a fairly large middle class and economic base and in general, a strong state. It was a democracy and had the potential to become an “emerging market”.
This started to change about a decade ago when little by little, assassination, car bombings, communal violence and a feeling of a country in a security crisis took root. Right now, the fires in Kenya are erupting faster than they can be put out and others prevented. The Kenyan security had not yet fully investigated the August 7 Jomo Kenyatta International Airport fire, then came the Westgate mall attack. A few days after the Westgate attack, there was a gun and grenade attack at Wajir town, and then a gun attack at Mandera, all in Kenya’s northeast. Now these Mombasa riots. All these must be investigated; but they are starting to stretch the Kenyan police’s manpower, time and resources.
It is a strange development, but at present in relative terms, for the first time since about 1966 or at least about 1973, Uganda looks like a more stable place in the short to medium term than Kenya. Which older Ugandan, knowing the Uganda of the 1970s and 1980s, would ever have imagined this situation, of Uganda being more stable than Kenya? Strangely, for a change, Uganda does not seem to have the kinds of serious security threats facing some of its neighbours. It is becoming an ever more dysfunctional country, but is not for now struggling to contain communal violence or armed militants.
How long this will last, with regular reports of a former army general now based in London making it clear that he plans or hopes to overthrow the NRM government, is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, up in the Republic of Sudan, Uganda’s former northern neighbour before South Sudan became the new buffer, all last week and the week before was engulfed in riots in the capital Khartoum and several other cities.
The riots erupted after fuel prices were raised and as with most riots these days, the increased fuel prices were the pretext to vent long-standing political and social frustration. Since this is the Sudan headed by President Omar al-Bashir, distasted in the West and wanted by the International Criminal Court, we can be sure than some western intelligence agencies are eagerly going to take advantage of the present rioting to fan the flames even more.
All these places have something new in common: Large oil or gas reserves have been recently discovered in the eastern part of Africa. There had been hope that the new oil and gas findings would give East Africa the strategic asset needed to reduce poverty and transition from subsistence agriculture.
Taken together, we have political instability or a security crisis stretching from Somalia to Sudan, Kenya, potentially Ethiopia and at some point I am convinced, Tanzania’s Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar will see its own religious militancy and burning of churches such as what is happening in Mombasa.
Since the October 2005 General Election, Zanzibar has been angry and restive. Churches have been burnt down. The language on the street and in mosques is increasingly militant and demanding either Islamic Sharia rule or even a break away from mainland Tanzania.
In Ethiopia, there have in recent months been consistent pro-democracy rallies in the capital Addis Ababa and more disturbingly, the large Muslim community, about half the national population, demanding that the state stops harassing Muslims. Experience since 2001 shows that Muslims will take anything lying down but once they sense or believe their faith or freedom to worship is under attack, it takes no time before many take to the path of jihad. Ethiopia has to be watched.
Egypt has to be watched too. Since the army’s clampdown on the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party, a hardline Islamist group known as the Salafists has decided it will not accept this and right now, there is a serious outbreak of Islamist guerrilla activity in the Sinai desert area.
Like Ethiopia and Egypt, there is another problem brewing and it is called Libya.
That country is now the most unstable in North Africa. Gone are the days when Libya, despite Colonel Gaddafi’s stunts and antics, was virtually untouched by unrest of any kind.
There are daily kidnappings, gunmen actually shutting down oil storage and refinery facilities in the city of Benghazi and late last week, there was a gun and rocket-propelled attack on the Russian embassy in the capital Tripoli.
The Democratic Republic of Congo remains its usual self: A problem of instability since 1997, with no end in sight. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Sudan, Libya, Kenya, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Tanzania in the pipeline. This is a very large part of Africa to become unstable just when it is discovering major oil reserves.
There is no question that there will be an “oil curse” in eastern Africa when the present political violence also becomes a struggle for control of these resources. We are heading into times that are going to put most of our countries and governments under serious pressure. It should be a matter of concern to any watcher of Africa.