Democracy Key to Horn of Africa Development

Published on 11th February 2020

2020 is an election year in the greater Horn of Africa as four countries: Tanzania, Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia, are scheduled to hold their respective general elections. In the last three decades of Africa’s democratization efforts, since the tidal wave of pro-democracy reforms hit in the 1990s, the continent has continued to actively pursue a culture of consistent elections even as its countries grapple with serious development challenges.

The Horn of Africa has frequently been characterized by political instability, seeded by colonial practices such as the random division of the continent in the Berlin Conference that saw some communities randomly dissected or lumped together, resulting in much political strife ever since. 30 years ago, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea experienced regime changes that brought to end civil wars and heralded the hope for an end to strife and its twins: underdevelopment and impoverishment. Outside of the political tensions and the toll of that on human populations, the region is also repeatedly the subject of severe droughts and famine resulting from climate change as well as resource driven conflicts amongst its communities.

Tanzania, Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia are amongst the least developed countries of the world. These countries are largely characterized by among others low gross national incomes, weak human assets and high economic vulnerability. For example, Ethiopia’s per capita income is $790 although it is amongst the fastest growing economies with the aim of reaching lower-middle-income status by 2025. Tanzania’s per capita income is at $902 and per UNCTAD, the country is on track to exit the LDCs in a few years due its concerted efforts to cut donor-dependence for its budget. Somalia and Burundi have both experienced the effects of war in their recent past albeit to varying degrees.

The effects of political instability in any one state are wont to overflow to its neighbors and with it the debilitating impact of conflict on development efforts. For example, refugees from the unstable countries are likely to flow into neighboring countries, causing a strain on resources. At the same time, some elements of the national wars may be fought in the neighboring territory of what are seen as the opponent’s allies. For example, Kenya, which has had its troops in Somalia, has borne the brunt in its border communities as its refugee camps have filled to capacity and devastating retaliatory attacks have been launched on its soldiers and citizens. 

Elections in these four countries will draw significant interest from neighbors particularly in relation to political stability. This is in recognition of the fact that the pursuit of democratic processes in these countries with the support of international partners produces a stabilizing effect off of the investments made in political and economic advancement. Having elected governments in place increases the accountability and transparency of public management of resources. Accountability to development partners also somewhat mitigates against the effects of rampant corruption in the form of grabbed public resources. It also attracts further investment in the region which in turn serves to grow industries and create employment opportunities. Also, the growth of civil society and non-governmental programs aimed at post-conflict regeneration serves in tackling poverty and its challenges. Traditionally, CSO programs have included training ranging from basic skills to human rights defense. This has served the additional benefit of providing a source of employment for many, the tools for self-employment based on acquired skills and the platform for holding governments accountable.

Somalia and Ethiopia are part of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development region. Tanzania and Burundi are part of the East Africa Community. The success of elections and subsequent delivery of  respective development agendas contributes to the success of the objectives of these regional formations. Internal political stability flowing from democratic processes such as regular, credible elections in these countries, in turn paves the way for regional political stability. Given that the region serves a strategic role for various international actors both geopolitically and for trade, the shared stability and therefore the success of regional integration, is expected to open the door to leverage such strategic utility for the region’s own development agenda.

The triple electoral challenges of ethnic fragmentation, weak states and poverty are not isolated development bottlenecks in the Horn of Africa. The continent also faces the challenge being the fastest urbanizing region of the world, with migrations into cities only mirroring similar phenomenon in China, as Africa steadies herself for industrial revolution. The rapid transition poses challenges, and also offers opportunity for countries willing to risk billions in an infrastructure construction revolution. China is currently Africa’s leading development partner in this regard. Infrastructure is an essential factor to facilitating interconnectivity within and without African countries. The interconnectivity is likely to increase free flow of people, services and goods and the interaction at the marketplace is likely to whittle down ethnic animosity. Also, the net effect of increased market access is likely to increase economic growth and local development, and this development has a positive correlation to poverty reduction and employment creation. There is no doubt that with sustainable economic growth the continent is likely to enjoy strong states. In addition, as Africa connects its people within countries and continent-wide, this is likely to tone down misplaced ethnic tinged resentment that tends to push African countries into election-related violence.

Now, as what has been dubbed the second scramble for Africa unfolds, the Horn of Africa is presented with the opportunity of leveraging the renewed interest to extricate itself from its history of political strife and the poverty cycle. Development partnerships such as crafted at the recently held UK-Africa summit, as well the ongoing partnerships under China’s FOCAC and Russia-Africa Summit are a melting pot for great things for the continent’s development future.

By George Nyongesa

The author is a Senior Associate at the Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi, Kenya)

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