From Red Sea, a Ugandan’s tale of locusts, superpowers, and Toyotas

Wednesday February 5 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Locusts are ravaging East Africa and the Horn, although so far Uganda has been spared. Reports that the locusts in Kenya could number 200 billion (I had to read that 10 times to ensure I wasn’t seeing things). One swarm was reported to measure 40 kilometres by 60 kilometres, an area several times larger than Kampala.

While Uganda has escaped, there are reports that the swarms could multiply 500 times in the coming weeks – then head Uganda’s way.

There is no East African organisation dedicated to dealing with locusts, deadly as they are. But that wasn’t always the case. Many years ago, the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (Igadd) based in Djibouti, used to worry about locusts, among the other existential issues in its in-tray.

Igadd was founded in January 1986, making it one of the most consequential events in the region in the month of the NRM’s ascension to power. As happens, on February 3, 2020, Igad (Intergovernmental Authority on Development, as it was refashioned in 1996), among other things, broke ground on a new radically designed headquarters in the affluent suburb of Haranous, away from the edge of the busy Avenue Georges Clemenceau in downtown Djibouti, where its well-worn offices presently sit.

Today, Igad is primarily preoccupied with the security issues of the wider Red Sea Arena/Horn of Africa. It is an indication of how much the region has changed. It was founded on the back of famines, locust invasions, and conflict that laid waste many parts of the Horn, including the horrific famines in Ethiopia and Sudan, between the early 1970s to mid-1980s.

In Ethiopia, they contributed to the end of empire with the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and enfeebled the disastrous junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam, leading to its eventual military defeat by rebels in 1991. Famines, even worse ones, still hit the region, and the last one that ebbed two years ago in Ethiopia, was the worst there in 60 years.


It didn’t kill millions like previous “smaller” ones. Officially, hardly anyone died (though 18 million were in need of emergency food aid), indicating how much better Ethiopia, particularly, has become at dealing with these crises.

Igad is much beloved in Djibouti, having got here at a time when there was little in this country of 900,000, which is mostly desert, where there is virtually no agriculture, and no natural resources.

It became an important part of the city’s economy, until the foreign military bases came. Now Djibouti, which sits at southern part of the Red Sea’s mouth, is the world capital of foreign military bases, hosting more of them than any other nation on earth. In the geopolitical market, Igad now has super power competitors.

My hotel is a little nice place on Avenue Georges Clemenceau, a spitting distance from the Igad headquarters. Like most places in Djibouti, it has a verandah, where folks emerge to sit in the evenings after the oppressive daylight heat has passed.

I sat there downing bottles of cold water, and contemplating the scenes before me. It was at that point that it dawned that I haven’t seen so many Toyotas, especially pick-ups, in a single African city, for a very long time. Djibouti is Toyota country. The Japanese would be very pleased.

They are probably pleased, because they are not too far away. Japan is one of the powers, medium and big, that has a military base in Djibouti, at Ambouli. It’s been described as Japan’s “first full-scale, long-term overseas base.”

One wonders why it needs a base, for it has already conquered. In Africa, the Toyota, and Japanese cars in general, represent the most complete conquest, achieved without firing a bullet, possibly without bribing rulers, or assassinating rebellious patriots.

It also represents the single biggest bi-partisan issue in Africa. Despotic governments and their oppositions, dictators, democrats, civil society and NGOs and the regimes they confront, State armies and the rebels fighting them, are all united in their love of the Toyota pick-up, and the Japanese car maker’s various iterations of VX, TZ, and Cruiser SUVs.

Igad has sometimes been embattled. I swallowed the last drops of my water and got up to leave, and thought to myself; the solution to all the problems that keep it awake at night, drives by in the thousands in front of its office every day.

Next, we will return with the stories of the couple that has been Chief and Chiefess of Djibouti since 1999.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site