January 17, 2008

The Kenya effect

Kenya's current unrest has presented neighbours like Ethiopia with both problems and potential opportunities, as is clear here in Addis Ababa

January 17, 2008

Simon Tsidal

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 the 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 here 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 worth of cereals and oil seed in the last five months of 2007.

Yet more so even than in Kenya, Ethiopia's bewildering 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, including the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, advocate armed struggle. And even the divided 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 now happening in Kenya.

Adding to Addis's worries, Ethiopia is literally hemmed in by unresolved and potentially ruinously expansive conflicts - in southern Sudan, in Somalia, and along its much fought-over border with Eritrea.

Ethiopia is directly and controversially involved in trying to resolve some of these problems, as in the ongoing struggle against Islamist militancy and warlordism in Mogadishu. But resources are limited.

To this fractious list must now be added Kenya, although officials hope the addition will be temporary. Their evident fear is that Kenyan turmoil, if not stemmed, 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.

Stability in Kenya was considered necessary for stability in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, it quoted Meles as saying. "Obviously 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. "Much was said about Kenya being a beacon of stability and economic success in the region," the Addis Guardian commented.

"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 that is lurking behind all the pretensions the politicians resort to."

The Sub-Saharan Informer accused the African Union and the Igad regional forum of disastrous dithering. "One wonders whether complacency, indifference or the usual line about 'non-intervention in the internal affairs of a country' is at play here," the paper said.

The presumed failings of African democracy aside, Ethiopia's concerns are tempered by the realisation that Kenya's troubles could bring long-term benefits. Cheaper Ethiopian products, notably cut flowers for export to Europe, are already undercutting previously dominant Kenyan businesses. And the current troubles may usefully serve to remind the US and Britain of an increasingly well-managed Ethiopia's strategic importance in terms of the "war on terror" and regional security, said a leading independent political consultant here.

"Meles does not want himself or Kenya to be told what to do by Gordon Brown or George Bush. The idea of lecturing from Downing Street does not go down well. 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.

Guardian Unlimited