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Towards a regional response to COVID-19 in the Horn

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Countries are experiencing unforeseen threats to peace and security due to the pandemic.

Since COVID-19 was first reported in the region in March 2020, states in the Horn of Africa have been taking drastic measures to curb the spread of the pandemic. While they are doing what is possible to mitigate the epidemiological and economic ramifications of the pandemic, little is said, however, about its impact on peace and security.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) COVID-19 strategy, announced following a virtual Extraordinary Summit on COVID-19 on 30 March 2020, also does not explicitly acknowledge the peace and security implications of the pandemic.

IGAD does in its statement warn against ‘unconnected country-specific measures to combat the pandemic’. This is particularly important as the region represents a security complex, with interwoven conflict dynamics. The impact of COVID-19 will therefore take on a regional dimension. Border closures and siloed responses will not contain it – it can only be overcome through a coordinated regional response.

Border closures and siloed responses will not contain the virus – it can only be overcome through a coordinated regional response

Peace and security challenges that are likely to emerge as a result of the pandemic are linked to new and unforeseen threats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic; its impact on existing conflict dynamics in the region; and the extent to which it is disrupting ongoing peace processes in the region, with the potential for escalating conflict.

Emerging peace and security threats

The first emerging security challenge related to COVID-19 stems from the lack of clarity on the mechanisms for enforcing COVID-19 response measures. Some of these limit or suspend civil liberties and at times criminalise ‘normal’ activities.

Such disjointed measures have already led to the use of excessive force and violence by those tasked with enforcing response measures. Such violence undermines measures that are meant to save lives, and further fractures an already tense relationship between law enforcement and poor communities hard hit by lockdowns and curfews.

Disjointed measures have already led to the use of excessive force and violence by those tasked with enforcing response measures

Punitive economic measures

The second source of emerging insecurity stems from the economic impact of response measures such as lockdowns, restrictions on mobility, and border closures. These have caused an economic downturn, price spikes of basic goods and a lack of work in the informal sector, which supports many in the region.

Some countries are taking steps to mitigate the worst effects of these measures. However, if people’s lives become impossible, this may erode public confidence in state institutions and the measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

The inability of governments to provide adequate provisions for workers in the informal sector has amounted to the criminalisation of their activities in the context of lockdowns. Such situations have led, in some cases, to tensions between sections of the population and state security forces tasked with enforcing the lockdowns. In some instances the resulting hardships among workers are fuelling criminality, and driving some to resort to looting food and commodities out of sheer desperation, as has been witnessed elsewhere on the continent.

The risk of politicising the pandemic

The third potential source of instability linked to COVID-19 is the politicisation of the pandemic. While there are clear indications that some governments in the region are exploiting their response to COVID-19 for political gain, the same can be said of opposition parties. Some opposition parties have developed propagandist campaigns in parallel with their political activism, using the crisis to compete for influence and public support.

In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni have warned against political opportunism during the pandemic. Museveni stated that ‘politicians who try to distribute food for cheap popularity’ resulting in large gatherings ‘would be arrested and charged with attempted murder’.

Toxic political rhetoric during the pandemic is divisive and further polarises already tense political contexts, at a time when people should be coming together.

Toxic political rhetoric during the pandemic is divisive and further polarises already tense political contexts

Finally, the fourth potential source of insecurity for communities is the pardoning of thousands of inmates to reduce the spread of the virus in overcrowded prisons. Ethiopia has released more than 4 000, Kenya nearly 5 000 and Uganda more than 2 000 inmates who have served part of their sentences. Given the fact most prisons in the region do not have reform programmes, there are fears that their release could lead to a spike in the crime rate in cities.

Conflict dynamics in the face of COVID-19

Meanwhile, the region continues to experience enduring peace and security challenges, which have been compounded by the threat posed by the pandemic. This includes the al-Shabaab threat in Somalia.

Important elections are also planned to take place in Somalia in 2020, fuelling tension and violence. Election campaigns that draw large crowds will also affect COVID-19 prevention measures.

In Ethiopia, the immediate political and security challenge posed by COVID-19 is related to the indefinite postponement of the planned general elections for August 2020. While many agree the measure was necessary, some opposition parties claim it was taken without adequate consultation with stakeholders. Without elections, the country will face a constitutional crisis when Parliament’s mandate ends in six months.

The government also declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic, barely six months before the end of its term in office. Analysts are apprehensive of the sweeping powers a state of emergency gives the government, in a context where parts of the country are administered by military command posts owing to instability. This has fuelled accusations that the government is taking advantage of the pandemic to tighten its grip on power and illegally extend its tenure.

The politics surrounding response measures are having an adverse effect in Ethiopia

Thus, the politics surrounding response measures are having an adverse effect in Ethiopia, in an already tense political landscape characterised by toxic ethnic polarisation that has previously led to conflict in various parts of the country.

Meanwhile, South Sudan, which has just emerged from a protracted civil war, continues to experience inter-communal clashes as well as conflict with breakaway rebel groups. This hinders efforts to put in place transitional security provisions and has led to local power vacuums. All of this will hamper prevention efforts and the response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 disrupts peace processes

Sudan’s political transition is anchored in ending the protracted conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. Negotiations that were expected to be finalised in April through ‘indirect’ talks have been postponed to May due to COVID-19 risks.

As a result, the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minnawi (SLM/MM) has suspended involvement in the negotiations, claiming lack of consultation in postponing the process. The SLM/MM also argues that direct discussions are necessary to reach agreement on contentious issues such as power sharing and security arrangements, while mediators insist on holding indirect talks due to COVID-19.

This has inevitably delayed the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement. Other processes are also delayed, specifically forming the National Legislative Council and appointing civilian state governors, which were expected to follow the signing of a peace agreement.

A crucial inclusive peace process among local communities, meant to proceed from the political settlement, might also be deferred indefinitely because of the pandemic. These issues are already divisive and have the potential to derail Sudan’s transition process.

Negotiation between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam cannot resume due to COVID-19

Negotiation between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is another process that cannot resume due to COVID-19. The delay continues to divide political opinion in the Horn, and has ignited regional rivalries following a resolution by the Arab League in support of Egypt’s claims.

While Sudan voiced concern, it was supported by Djibouti and Somalia, the other members of the Arab League in the Horn, which has garnered them strong criticism from Ethiopia. In countries such as Sudan, the dynamics around the GERD is impacting local processes as actors in the Sovereign Council remain divided over the issue.

Regional rivalries emerging around the GERD negotiations are also hampering a collective response to the pandemic, given the suspicions and tensions it has created among states.

In the face of the cross-boundary impact of COVID-19 on peace and security across the Horn of Africa, a concerted regional response is needed to mitigate its destabilising effect and overcome emerging security challenges.