East Africa: Top Regional Issues to Watch in 2024

The Berbera port of Somaliland. Photographer: Mustafa Saeed/AFP/Getty Images

Jambo. Welcome to Kenyan Foreign Policy’s East Africa Brief. Last week, we looked back at the top significant foreign policy events in 2023, from Nairobi’s diplomatic setbacks in the region, Kinshasa recalling envoys from Kenya and Tanzania over launch of a Congolese political-military outfit in Nairobi, to IGAD pulling the plug on Ruto’s mediation show at Khartoum’s request.

Below, we identify three key regional issues to watch in 2024 that will absorb the time and energy of policymakers and pundits in Nairobi and in the region.

DRC Election and Regional Relations

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi secured a decisive re-election with over 70% of the vote, announced by the country’s election commission.

However, this victory is not without controversy, as five opposition candidates, including figures like Moise Katumbi and Denis Mukwege, who failed to form a pre-election alliance, are now contesting the results, claiming “massive fraud” and calling for a protest march.

Before the polls opened on December 20, the UN Security Council, responding to Kinshasa’s request, agreed to a phased withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the DRC.

This move occurred on the backdrop of the East African Community Regional force completing its exit from Goma, citing both successes and drawbacks during its presence in the country.

The DRC, with its mineral-rich resources, plays a crucial role in the East African bloc, whose members, including Kenya, have offered congratulations to President Tshisekedi.

However, the DRC’s relations with the East African Community member states(EAC) have been on and off since it joined in May 2022. Notably, the EAC did not send observers to the DRC elections, as it was excluded by Kinshasa.

Diplomatic tensions have escalated further with the DRC recalling its envoys from Arusha and Nairobi in protest against a meeting of rebel leaders in Nairobi, where they formed a political-military coalition against President Tshisekedi.

Kenya swiftly distanced itself from the DRC opposition figure leading the coalition, but this move did little to assuage the discontent in Kinshasa.

Adding to the complexity, Kenya’s envoy-designate to the DRC, Colonel Rtd Shem Amadi, arrived in Kinshasa during the same week as diplomatic tensions were brewing.

However, given the strained relations, the presentation of his credentials might face delays as a form of diplomatic disapproval from Kinshasa.

The outcome of this situation will be critical for regional relations, particularly considering the historical on-and-off relationship between Kinshasa and the East African bloc.

The future dynamics of the DRC’s engagement with its East African neighbors remain uncertain.

Ethiopia-Hargeisa Port Deal

On Sunday, Ethiopia inked a significant deal providing it with naval and commercial access to ports along Somaliland’s coast, marking a historic agreement.

In return for this access, Ethiopia agreed to recognize the independence of Somaliland. The Somali government, which asserts Somaliland as part of the country, responded with an announcement of an emergency cabinet meeting.

Apart from a diplomatic tantrum from Mogadishu, Somalia will likely cut ties with Ethiopia.

Following a meeting with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi expressed gratitude for the agreement, specifying that Ethiopia would gain 20km of sea access in exchange for recognition.

This development occurred shortly after Somalia and Somaliland disclosed progress in talks in Djibouti, committing to further dialogue between their respective capitals.

This agreement comes amid strained relations between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu, potentially intensifying existing tensions.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s public support for Egypt in the Nile dispute, where Ethiopia is using water to fill its Renaissance dam, has added to the diplomatic complexities.

An African Union diplomat, speaking exclusively to Kenyan Foreign Policy, hinted at the likelihood of the AU invoking Article 64 of the Cairo declaration, emphasizing the intangibility of borders.

Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in the 1990s during the country’s civil war. Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, has actively sought international recognition for over three decades within the borders of the former British protectorate.

Formal recognition by Ethiopia could offer Somaliland a significant opportunity to overcome its international isolation.

The backdrop to this move involves Ethiopia losing access to its Red Sea ports in the early 1990s when Eritrean insurgents took control of Ethiopia’s northern coastal region.

This region, a former Italian colony, declared independence as Eritrea. Somalia’s recent entry into the East African Community, coupled with Ethiopia’s perceived inclination to join, adds another layer of geopolitical complexity to the region.

China-America Rivalry in Africa

Beijing’s inroads in the continent have left Washington jittery, even after the US developed some well-founded complaints about Chinese economic behaviour and launched a trade war.

The U.S has in recent years been alarmed about China’s potential to outcompete it and tried to cripple Beijing with an escalating campaign of ‘maximum pressure’.

Washington sees China as a threat to US military primacy and seeks to contain it.

Recently, Pentagon officials raised concerns over Beijing’s plans to establish a network of military and naval bases in Kenya and across Africa.

In a congressionally mandated report released on October 19, the Pentagon articulated why the American Department of Defence considers the People’s Republic of China its “pacing challenge”.

Washington sounding the alarm about China’s alleged plans to establish a military base in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, Nigeria, Namibia and Angola, and extend its influence in these country’s economically and commercially.

By setting up a base in Kenya, where Pentagon runs a similar military camp for operations in Lamu County, Washington warns that Beijing wants to boost its military and economic influence over Kenya.

A former Kenyan foreign policy official told KFP that “he’d be surprised if China is not shopping for military bases in all strategic places around the world”.

The official argued, “China is not a banana republic. They act intentionally and with purpose”.

Apart from Washington’s interests in Kenya and the continent, the US DoD worries about China’s anti-satellite weapons that are ground-based missiles and high-power lasers, satellites with robotic arms able to grab other satellites, cyber-attack capabilities and other systems that could jam, blind, or disable American satellites.

The annual report has been mandated by Congress since 2000 as a way to help inform Washington’s policy debates about China’s military growth and modernization.

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