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Date(s) - 12/10/2015 - 13/10/2015
10:00 am - 4:30 pm

Violence and dynamic change in eastern Africa:
A regional symposium on trends, dynamics and conditions of violence in the region

Nairobi, October 12-13th, 2015
Side by side with accounts of phenomenal growth in the economies of eastern African countries as well as large investments in resource development and infrastructure, violence continues to flare across the region. While multi-national AMISOM forces pushed Al-Shabaab from many towns and centres in southern Somalia, militants continue to hold sway over large areas of the countryside, while still retaining capacities to attack government and military installations in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, even as it has suffered strategic losses in Somalia, a string of high-profile attacks in Kenya linked to Al-Shabaab has deepened the organisation’s influence regionally. Kenyan government responses to the threat of Al-Shabaab have sown new ethno-regional divisions, leaving untouched the rhizomous political and commercial linkages and relationships that allow the organisation’s influence and operational reach in Kenya to expand. As Al-Shabaab’s tentacles extend more deeply into Kenya, a trend of worsening violence has destabilised many northern areas of the country, colouring the country’s early experiment with political devolution. Regional efforts to broker an end to the conflict in South Sudan have faltered while fighting has continued in many areas, including targeted killings based on ethnicity, rape, the recruitment of child soldiers and other crimes. Further north, Houthi rebel advances across Yemen have deepened the country’s political crisis, instigating a show of Saudi military power against the rebels that has yet to alter the balance of power. The ensuring humanitarian crisis has driven thousands of refugees across the Gulf of Aden into Somaliland.

Although violence and conflict are not unfamiliar in eastern Africa, recent violent insecurity is happening at a time of dynamic change. The region recorded the highest increase in foreign direct investment in 2014 and is projected to again become the continent’s fastest growing region in 2016. A host of domestic and foreign investors, both states and private companies, are pursuing a range of extractive projects to harness its rich deposits of oil, gas, minerals, wind and geothermal power. The scale of these investments is unprecedented in the region’s history, with many projects located in marginal rural areas, far from eastern Africa’s political and commercial capitals. For example, construction continues apace on Ethiopia’s US$4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and power station. At 6000 MW, when fully commissioned in 2017 it will be Africa’s largest hydro-electrical power plant. The planned Lake Turkana Wind Power Project is Kenya’s largest inward investment since its independence. It will be the largest wind farm in sub-Saharan Africa when it is completed in 2017 and provide 300MW of power to Kenya’s national grid. While the fall in global oil prices has dented oil exploration budgets in the region, Kenya and Uganda continue to push forward with infrastructural upgrades and legislative changes to take advantage of recent oil finds.

Alongside these projects, governments in eastern Africa are marshalling international capital to expand regional infrastructure – roads, railways, pipelines – to facilitate resource extractions while also opening up the region to other capitalist development. The biggest of these, the US$29 billion Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor project (or LAPSSET), will connect South Sudan, Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Uganda hastening regional economic integration as well as support the export of oil by global capital interests. The first scheduled trains are expected to use the newly completed Djibouti-Addis railway line in October, reducing transport time from two days to 10 hours, with the volume of freight expected to more than quadruple within five years. Work has already begun on Kenya’s standard gauge railway, part of improvements to the Northern Transport Corridor linking Uganda, Rwanda, the eastern DR Congo, South Sudan, and northern Tanzania with Mombasa port.

These investments are happening against a backdrop of intensifying economic growth and complexity across eastern Africa. The region as a whole is thought to have reached a critical stage in the growth of economic complexity. Seven of the world’s fastest growing economies in the decade up to 2020 are in eastern Africa and neighbouring countries on the continent’s eastern littoral. As Nairobi has sought to cultivate itself as a hub for technology and financial services in the region, Ethiopia’s emergence as a textile manufacturing and export centre are being nurtured by Turkish investment.

Problems and questions for debate
These largely spatial processes overlay complex and in some places contested regional political economies. Regional integration in this sense is often seen somewhat benignly, as part of a wider development and economic growth, and even a precursor to peace-building. New investments and regional integration has accorded many marginal areas of eastern Africa a new national and regional relevance and earned them unprecedented attention from national governments. This may have positive implications for peace and security as these marginal areas have to a large extent suffered from various forms of violent insecurity, including the use of violence as a legitimate politicaleconomic instrument to assert control over resource pockets, to accumulate livestock wealth, or for social purposes. The new investments provide a compelling incentive for engagements that might improve the security situation in these border regions.

Yet, given the top-down implementation and assumptions about development, it is important to question whether integration necessarily begets benefits or whether, in fact, there are circumstances in which growth corridors could exacerbate a propensity to violence. In some areas that will be crossed
by new corridor infrastructure, there is already evidence of jostling to control land and other key resources, shifting the political calculus at the sub-national-level and contributing to new tensions and violence. Further, these developments are often progressing with little regard for the diverse smallholder
and pastoral livelihoods and local economies that exist at the margins. Thus, whereas the region’s ‘resource boom’ clearly benefits national elites and foreign investors – willing to gamble on such ‘frontier’ explorative operations – as well as elements of local elites who stand to benefit from
investors’ largesse, it does not necessarily translate into stronger or more inclusive local livelihoods, economies or governance. Rather, there is evidence that the growing presence of an ‘extractive regime’ – encompassing exploration and extractive operations, and political institutions and security
architecture around these – worsen state-society tensions at the margins, animating long-standing struggles around public authority in these places and in some cases resulting in new violence.

Key questions include:

  • How are intensifying processes of regional economic integration and growth influencing
    dynamics of violence in eastern Africa?
  • Who frames the meaning, interpretation and pursuit of integration? How does integration
    map onto contemporary understandings of violence, shifts in the global political economy and
    different responses at scale?
  • How do ‘extractive’ projects situate themselves within narratives of growth, transformation and ‘development’ of agro-ecosystems, livelihood strategies, and local economies?
  • How do narratives of transformation and attempts to secure wide political support for these projects compare to the distribution of investments and benefits?
  • How are ‘enclaves’ of intervention generating wider impacts, and who loses and wins from these processes?