In fact, along the eastern side of Africa starting from Port Said in Egypt, to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, perhaps barring the latter, the freest and fairest elections along that stretch happen in Somaliland and Puntland.

As the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) got underway in Glasgow, UK, the Tigray war in Ethiopia ended its first year, and dramatically entered the second as rebels made attacks that posed a likely threat to the capital Addis Ababa.

One of the early victories at COP26 was a promise by more than 100 world leaders to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

With war on his hands, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was not in Glasgow. No one spoke of it, but the irony is that the Tigray war could have consequences for one of the world’s most ambitious tree-planting efforts. Abiy’s Green Legacy Challenge project claimed to have planted a record 353 million tree seedlings on a single day in July 2019, and 4 billion in 2020.

This year, the Abiy government was aiming to plant five billion trees, part of a grand plan to plant 20 billion seedlings by 2024 to help build a green climate-resilient economy.

Today, with the war reaching fever pitch, trees are probably the last thing on Abiy’s mind. Thousands of people have been killed and displaced, and in Tigray, they face a humanitarian crisis of Biblical proportions. Beyond that humanitarian tragedy, then, globally the first major casualty of the Tigray war could be the environment; there are up to 5 billion trees that have been planted and might not be tended, and 20 billion that might not get planted.

The war might also have other unexpected consequences. Ethiopia has been the anchor state in the Horn of Africa. Its crisis is coming at a time when the soldiers in Sudan just staged another coup, two years after the ouster of long-ruling strongman Omar al-Bashir in popular protests, stalling the democratic transition led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

South Sudan is still struggling to make the national unity government work and end its debilitating civil war. While Eritrea and its unflinching ruler Isaias Afwerki have emerged stronger from the turmoil in the region, at least for now, it remains a hermit republic. Afwerki is thus unable to take advantage and establish himself as the new undisputed Horn of Africa hegemon.

In Djibouti, in April strongman Omar Guelleh won a fifth term with 98 per cent of the vote. Djibouti remains relatively stable, but the 73-year-old Guelleh’s best days are clearly behind him. With doubts about his health and content with Djibouti being the world’s military base (hosting more foreign military bases than any other country in the world) and living off the rent from that, Guelleh is not about to do anything that will upset that balance.

Somalia is days off from an election that could go south, and Mogadishu continues to feud with the African Union and other international players about what should happen to the African peacekeeping mission AMISOM.

It all leaves us in a very unusual situation, with the two most stable territories, or to some nations, being the semi-autonomous Somali regions of Somaliland, and Puntland. Though not recognised internationally, Somaliland sees itself as an independent state, behaves like one, and outperforms many countries in Africa and the world. It’s flourishing economically.

Somaliland and Puntland are also the only places in the Horn of Africa that hold democratic elections of good standard and have regular changes of government through the ballot. In fact, along the eastern side of Africa starting from Port Said in Egypt, to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, perhaps barring the latter, the freest and fairest elections along that stretch happen in Somaliland and Puntland.

Depending on how events play out in Ethiopia and Sudan, by 2024 when Abiy is supposed to have planted those additional 20 billion seedlings, Somaliland at least, could have emerged as the clear winner of the turmoil in the Horn.

There will also be other pickings. Addis Ababa had won, hands down, the battle to be the wider East African air transport hub. Along with it, the fortunes of Ethiopian Airlines soared, as its rivals all over the continent struggled or bit the dust.

Ethiopian Airlines, as history tells us, is the phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes, so short of a break up of Ethiopia as we know it today, it likely will weather the storm. Addis Ababa, though, could quickly see all the work it has done in the last 30 years to establish itself as a regional hub go down the drain.

Nairobi could exploit Addis Ababa’s troubles, get Kenya Airways back on its feet, and retake the hub crown. This time, though, there will be a fight for it. Kigali has been building its muscle with some success as the main switch-over hub in the heart of Africa, connecting west, east, south, and north. And it has brought up an airline it is pressing to that cause.

Dar es Salaam has in the last 15 years also been making some serious money moves, and right now probably has East Africa’s best airport. It is also working overtime on its ports. The shame of an Ethiopian implosion would last generations, but the show must go on.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Citizen Kenya


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