Kenya is pushing for a speedy resolution of the conflict in Ethiopia to avert a possible influx of refugees and sneaking of illegal arms into the country.
This comes as experts warn that another fluid border could result in a spillover of the conflict and trade disruptions, given that Ethiopia is one of its key trade partners.
Ethiopia government forces have been fighting with forces in the Tigray region, forcing more than two million civilians to flee their homes and thousands others to seek refuge in the neighbouring Sudan, which has of late also been mired in conflict.
The conflict in Ethiopia reached a new high this week, with the government’s declaration of a state of emergency following claims that Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters were advancing towards the capital, Addis Ababa.
Although the National Police Service yesterday said there has been no recorded movement of persons along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, experts warn that an actual spillover of the conflict into the country would deepen insecurity in the border region and complicate the already volatile security situation in Kenya’s northern frontier counties.
“So far there has been no unusual movement at the border, though security has been enhanced to monitor happenings and ward off any potential threat to our country,” police spokesperson Bruno Shioso told the Nation yesterday.
Dr Hassan Khannenje, the Director of Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Kenya is worried about potential spillover from a possible humanitarian crisis that could lead to thousands and possibly millions of refugees flowing into Kenya at a time the country is still grappling with thousands of refugees from neighbouring Somalia.
“With the shared cross-border communities and activities along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, there is a risk of a conflict spillover across the Kenyan border that would increase insecurity in the border region and complicate the already volatile security situation in Kenya’s northern frontier counties,” said Dr Khannenje.
Independent national security researcher Edward Wanyonyi cautioned that if the conflict is not resolved soon, its impact would be too expensive for the country, as Nairobi may be required to send mediators or even troops to help pacify the country as it has in the past done in Somalia and Sudan.
“If the situation worsens, it may spread the instability being experienced in the Sahel region further down to East Africa and make it hard for our aviation industry to thrive, seeing that Ethiopia is a major connection route for Kenya Airways,” said Mr Wanyonyi.
Ethiopia is one of Kenya’s key trading partners and an escalation of the conflict would mean disruption of transportation of goods along the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia (Lapsset) Corridor.
Mr Wanyonyi further noted that a humanitarian crisis of an imaginable magnitude could be in the offing, given Ethiopia’s population of more than 100 million people.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) estimates more than 3,000 civilians have been fleeing the Tigray region into eastern Sudan daily.
This has been happening through the Hamdayet border point in Kassala state and at Ludgi in Gedaref state. The influx has been described as unseen over the last two decades.
“The transit centres are overcrowded, thus increasing the risk of disease, including Covid-19 and a full-scale humanitarian crisis as demand for shelter, food and health services soars,” a brief by the refugee agency notes.
With Sudan’s volatile situation, Kenya may find itself hosting some of those fleeing at a time when the country intends to close both Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps by June 30 next year.
Kenyan officials have been linking the refugee camps to terror activities and insecurity in the country, arguing that al-Shabaab militants have turned the camps into a recruitment centre and a base for launching attacks in Kenya.
In his address to the African Union’s 12th High Level Retreat on the promotion of peace, security and stability in Africa on Wednesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta said the country is currently hosting 600,000 refugees from across the region.
“At the height of the conflicts in some neighbouring countries, especially in the early 1990s, Kenya was receiving 3,000 refugees every hour. It was and continues to be a difficult task, but we continue to offer a haven for our brothers and sisters who are unable to return home owing to serious indiscriminate threats to life.
“Today many of the refugees we have hosted have returned home and are making positive contributions to the development of their countries,” said President Kenyatta, who has since joined other world leaders in calling for an end to the fighting in Ethiopia.
On Wednesday evening, President Kenyatta said he was deeply concerned that after one year, the crisis in Ethiopia had deteriorated amid the ongoing pandemic, with its attendant risks and disruptions, particularly for the most vulnerable.
“I have worked tirelessly and diligently to try and end the terrible crisis. I have lent the full weight of my office in insisting that despite the pertaining circumstances surrounding the crisis, the fighting must stop,” he said.
The President appealed to the Ethiopian government and the TPLF fighters to choose dialogue and end the suffering of their people.
“Kenya, Africa and the world want to see peace in Ethiopia. Today must be the day to start the journey towards that peace. We all stand ready to assist the process that the Ethiopians see fit,” Mr Kenyatta said.
The United Nations, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union have also called for de-escalation of the violence.
IGAD’s executive secretary Workneh Gebeyuh called on the warring factions to exercise restraint, work on de-escalating the tensions and resolve the differences through an all-inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation in the best interest of the country.
AU Chairperson Moussa Faki reminded the warring parties of their international obligations regarding compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law, particularly with regard to the protection of civilians and ensuring communities access humanitarian assistance.
The union, however, said it would partner with the parties in supporting a consensual political process.
“To this end, the chairperson calls on the parties to engage with the AU High representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo,” the chairperson said in a statement.