Analysis: Kenya's neighbors start to feel the heat

Uganda, Tanzania must cope with higher refugee flow and Somalia's humanitarian crisis will likely worsen.

kenya riots 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
kenya riots 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Escalating tribal rivalry arising from Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's controversial election win on December 27th has resulted in a cycle of violence leaving hundreds dead, an estimated 250,000 internally displaced and thousands seeking refuge in Uganda and Tanzania. Despite the reduction in violence in recent days, a political deadlock between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Kibaki is ensuring that tensions remain high, with further bloodshed inevitable. The consequences of Kenya's turmoil for some of its neighbors are already being hard felt, with the situation likely to worsen. Uganda and Tanzania will struggle to cope as the influx of refugees increases, Somalia's humanitarian crisis will likely intensify with its own refugees limited as to where they can now flee, and the economic effects on the neighboring countries will worsen. Odinga has stood firm in his refusal to enter into negotiations with Kibaki over the formation of a national unity government, demanding that the latter step down before talks begin. This deadlock makes a political solution unlikely, with the violence set to continue. Despite the mediation efforts of regional and international actors (African Union chairman John Kufuor is currently in Kenya and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for calm), it will be difficult to calm tribal rivalries. This will work in Odinga's favor; the pressure may become so great that Kibaki will have no option but to step down. Hundreds of Kenyans have sought refuge in Uganda and Tanzania, with the fear of further attacks causing more to follow. This number will surely rise, with reported figures in the range of 250,000 Kenyas (from a total population of 36.9 million) now internally displaced, raising the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in the nation and the region. As an increasing number of Kenyan's seek safety in Uganda and Tanzania, these impoverished countries will struggle to cope with the influx. With even a small percentage of the population seeking refuge in either country, the impact will be considerable. In 2005, the United Nations' Human Development Index ranked Uganda and Tanzania 154 and 159, respectively, out of 177 countries, emphasizing that Kenya's neighbors struggle to provide for the well-being of their own populations, let alone that of those seeking refuge. They simply do not have the resources to deal with the emerging crisis. Uganda, still reeling from floods that devastated the country in September, is likely to have the hardest time coping with the refugees. The turmoil in Kenya has meant that Somalis, who have over the years sought refuge in Kenya from their own internal upheavals, are now limited as to where they can flee. This is likely to result in a further escalation within Somalia as the fragile nation contends with Ethiopian troops battling radical Islamists. In December, UN officials described the situation in Somalia as the "worst humanitarian crisis in Africa." The economic implications of the Kenyan crisis are significant, as Kenya is the business, communications and financial hub of East Africa. The two weeks of violence has already resulted in reduced fuel supplies in Uganda and elsewhere in the region, with communications and food similarly affected. While the deadlock continues and a renewal of the level of violence witnessed over the past weeks looms, the fragile East African region will be pushed to the limit. Shani Ross is the executive co-coordinator for the Counter-Terrorism Executive Studies Program at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.