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Regional Implications of Kenyan Turmoil

This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on January 10, 2008.

Escalating tribal rivalry arising from Mwai Kibaki’s controversial election win on December 27th has resulted in a cycle of violence with hundreds dead, an estimated 250,000 Kenyans internally displaced and thousands seeking refuge in Uganda and Tanzania. Despite the fact that the violence has subsided in recent days, a political deadlock between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Kibaki is ensuring that tensions remain high, with further bloodshed inevitable. The implications of Kenya’s turmoil on some of its neighbours are already being hard felt with the situation likely to worsen. Uganda and Tanzania will struggle to cope as the influx of refugees increases, Somalia’s humanitarian crisis will likely intensify with its own refugees limited as to where they can now flee, and the economic ramifications on neighbouring countries will deepen.

Raila Odinga has stood firm in his refusal to enter negotiations with President Kibaki over the formation of a national unity government. Odinga has demanded that Kibaki step down before talks begin. This political deadlock makes a political solution unlikely, with the violence set to continue. Despite the mediation efforts of regional and international actors (African Union chairman John Kufuor is currently in Kenya and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called for calm), tribal rivalries will be hard to consolidate as tensions continue to flare. This will work in Odinga’s favour and ultimately the population supporting him, should the pressure become so great that Kibaki will have no option but to step down.

Since the onset of violence, hundreds of Kenyans have fled to neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania seeking refuge, with the fear of further attacks causing a steady stream of refugees. This number will surely rise with reported figures in the range of 250,000 Kenyans (from a population of 36.9 million) now internally displaced, raising the possibility of a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Kenya and the region.

First, as an increasing number of Kenyan’s seek safety in Uganda and Tanzania, these impoverished countries will struggle to cope with the influx of refugees. With even a small percentage of the population seeking refuge in either country, the impact will be considerable. In 2005, the United Nations’ Human Development Index ranked Uganda and Tanzania 154 and 159 respectively (out of 177 countries), emphasizing that Kenya’s neighbours struggle to provide for the wellbeing of its own population let alone that of those seeking refuge. Thus, they simply do not have the resources to deal with the emerging refugee crisis. Uganda in particular, still reeling from floods that devastated the country in September 2007, is likely to have the hardest time coping with an influx of refugees.

Second, the turmoil in Kenya has meant that Somalis, who have over the years sought refuge from internal upheaval in Kenya, are now limited as to where they can flee. Forcing them to remain in a volatile situation, it is likely to result in a further escalation of tensions within Somalia as the fragile nation contends with Ethiopian troops battling radical Islamists. The consequences of Somalia’s raging conflict for its population have been severe. In December 2007, UN officials described the situation in Somalia as the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in Africa’. Therefore no longer having Kenya as a safe haven means Somalia’s humanitarian crisis is certain to deteriorate.

Third, the economic implications are significant as Kenya operates as the regional business, communications and financial hub of East Africa. The two week violence already has severely limited fuel supplies and petroleum products to Uganda and others in the region, with communications likewise affected. Constraints on businesses have restricted food and other product supplies not only within Kenya but to the region.

Whilst the political deadlock continues and a renewal of the level of violence witnessed over the past weeks looms, the fragile East African region will be pushed to greater limits as it contends with the challenges brought about by Kenya’s turmoil.

Shani Ross is the Executive Co-Coordinator for the Counter-Terrorism Executive Studies Program at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel.