Ethiopia’s war triggers fears in South Sudan, Kenya

Kenya’s government has announced the tightening of security along its 800-kilometer (500-mile) northern border with Ethiopia.

Police have also set up additional roadblocks to monitor the movement of firearms and foreigners who may try to enter Kenya illegally.

Local communities and the government fear an influx of Ethiopian refugees, as the war raging in the country’s northern Tigray region spills into other areas of Ethiopia and Tigrayan fighters and their allies advance on the capital, Addis Ababa.

Northern Kenya is already home to the refugee camps of Kakuma in the northwest and Dadaab in the northeast. They are among the world’s largest refugee settlements.

For the past few years, Kenyan officials have been pushing hard to have the camps completely closed by mid-2022 — a plan that could be scuttled by new refugees from Ethiopia.

Kenya’s police service has already cautioned citizens to report cases of undocumented persons and unprocessed immigrants in the country.

Northern Kenya already under stress

“There is a likelihood [of] hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees, flocking into Kenya,” the director of the Nairobi-based Institute for Strategic Studies, Hassan Khannenje, told DW.

This will “impose heavy costs on Kenya,” he said, adding it could trigger a humanitarian situation that Kenya isn’t prepared for.

The large numbers of refugees in northern Kenya have stressed local resources in the region, and are fueling tensions with local communities.

Two million people are currently facing food insecurity in Kenya’s north, where the United Nations has described the situation as “particularly drastic” because of poor rainfall.

Trade between the two countries has also fallen because of the Tigray conflict, according to Kenyan authorities. Earlier this year, Kenya and Ethiopia set up the Moyale Ones Stop Border Post, a free trade area to make cross-border business dealings easier.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta appealed last week for a stop to the war between the forces of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

“The men and women of the government of Ethiopia, led by my dear brother in leadership, Abiy Ahmed, as well as the men and women who constitute the leadership that is fighting the government must find reason to cease the conflict immediately and talk,” Kenyatta said in a statement released last Wednesday.

South Sudan’s peace deal at risk

The conflict in Ethiopia seems to have indirectly weakened the implementation of a peace deal in neighboring South Sudan.

Ethiopia, in recent years, has played a mediating role between the rival factions of President Salva Kiir and the former opposition leader Riek Machar.

South Sudan’s two main peace deals, signed in 2015 and 2018, were both negotiated in Ethiopia.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir holds up a blue folderSouth Sudan’s President Salva Kiir holds a copy of a signed peace agreement

In addition, the international community is diverting more time and energy on Ethiopia, says political analyst Boboya James from the Juba-based Institute for Social Policy and Research.

“Traditionally the international community used to urge the government of South Sudan to fully implement the peace agreement, but now it appears their attention has been diverted to resolving the conflict in Ethiopia,” James told DW.

“You can see the Americans now spending a lot of time in asking the two factions in Ethiopia to dialogue and bring about peace.”

He fears that South Sudan’s peace process could become more elusive as Ethiopia’s war drags on.

Uncertainty for South Sudanese in Ethiopia

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan’s war have taken refuge in Ethiopia’s Gambela region on Sudan’s western border with Ethiopia.

The communities living on both sides of the border have great cultural affinity and there is a brisk flow of goods across the border there, mainly from Ethiopia into South Sudan.

“The majority of South Sudanese on the border get food from Ethiopia,” James said.

So if Ethiopia’s war continues, it will “definitely bring economic destabilization to the border between South Sudan and Ethiopia,” he said.

Diplomatic efforts

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has called an extraordinary summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, known as IGAD, in Kampala on November 16.

Ethiopia is a member of the eight-member bloc which also includes Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti.

IGAD, which helped broker South Sudan’s peace deal, is hoping for a similar role in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts are ongoing to try to resolve the war in Ethiopia.

US and African Union envoys have been holding urgent talks in Ethiopia in search of a cease-fire.

The UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, visited the Tigray region on Sunday, using the occasion to plead for greater access for aid to civilians.

The UN is warning that some 7 million people in Ethiopia, including 5 million in Tigray, are facing famine-like conditions because of the war.