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A man sells camels at El Hirka Dhere livestock market in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 30, 2020, a day before the Muslim festival Eid Al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. (STR/AFP)
A man sells camels at a livestock market in Mogadishu, Somalia. (STR/AFP)

Muslims around the world were dismayed to learn that they would be unable to partake in the hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca, this year due to Saudi Arabia’s closure of its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every Muslim is required to make at least on hajj in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able to do so.

For Somali Muslims, the closure of Mecca’s gates is not only a spiritual loss but also a significant economic one.

Crops and livestock make up 75 percent of Somalia’s total GDP and 93 percent of total exports as of 2018, most of which linked directly to livestock sales in the months leading up to the hajj. In normal years, livestock breeders would travel north to port cities in Somaliland or Puntland to sell their animals, which would then be shipped to Saudi Arabia to feed the millions of pilgrims descending on the remote desert town of Mecca. Forced to sell only domestically, many Somalis’ have had to lower their prices drastically.


The price of camels has dropped by nearly half


The humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger reports that the price for camels has dropped by nearly half, from US$1,000 a head to US$500. The prices of goats, sheep and cattle are similarly affected. All told, Somali livestock traders are likely to lose revenue of about US$500 million this year because of Saudi Arabia’s border closure.


Taiwan’s effort to establish diplomatic relations with Somaliland in the Horn of Africa has been roundly slammed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Chinese embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, declared it would violate the PRC’s One China principle, which holds that Beijing is the sole legitimate representative for Chinese foreign affairs.

Muse Bihi Abdi, president of Somaliland, and Tsai Ing-Wen, president of Taiwan, both announced on July 1 their mutual desire to open representative offices in each other’s capitals.


Muse Bihi Abdi, president of Somaliland, photographed at a press conference in Hargeisa on November 21, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)
Muse Bihi Abdi, president of Somaliland, photographed at a press conference in Hargeisa on November 21, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)


Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991 following the collapse of the dictatorial regime of General Mohamed Siad Barre, but the international community does not recognize it as a sovereign state. Formal recognition by Taiwan would help legitimize its claim of independence.

Despite enjoying some level of autonomy from the PRC, Taiwan is not formally recognized as a sovereign state by any African nation save for Eswatini, which would explain why its appeal to Somaliland would be a major step in distancing itself further from the PRC.

Given how indebted many African states are to the PRC both literally and figuratively for the latter’s heavy investment in grand infrastructure projects, it is doubtful they would risk this relationship by aligning itself more closely with Taiwan.


Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 300 kilomters (186 miles) north of kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. "Ravenous swarms" of desert locusts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, already unprecedented in their size and destructive potential, threaten to ravage the entire East Africa subregion, the UN warned on January 20, 2020. The outbreak of desert locusts, considered the most dangerous locust species, is “significant and extremely dangerous” warned the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, describing the infestation as an eminent threat to food security in months to come” if control measures are not taken. TONY KARUMBA / AFP
Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, about 300 kilometers north of Nairobi, Kenya, on January 22, 2020. (Tony Karumba/AFP)

Before being struck by a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the Horn of Africa was already contending with a locust plague the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in several generations. A second, larger wave of the destructive desert locusts has been making its way across Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, threatening food security for millions of people and costing the region (along with Yemen) up to US$8.5 billion according to the World Bank.


The fungus has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects


The effectiveness of chemical pesticides to control locust swarms has been limited, at best, due to the swarms’ quick pace and size, along with limited resources as these nations and foreign donors focus on COVID-19. Thus, it fell to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an international research institute housed in Nairobi, Kenya, to devise more innovative and environmentally friendly means of tackling the locust problem.

One approach has been the use of a biopesticide developed from the Metarhizium acridum fungus, which has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects.

Commercial brands use this kind of fungus in their powder products. Such powders are mixed with oil and sprayed onto fields from planes or trucks. The fungus then penetrates the locust’s hard outer layer and starts feeding on the insect, sapping away

Another tactic homes in on locust pheromones, disrupting their biochemistry to break up swarms before they form and encouraging cannibalization among immature locusts before they gain the ability to fly.

A third approach is to introduce the protein-rich locusts as a foodstuff—either cooked or crushed—for people and animals. ICIPE is developing nets and backpack-vacuums to capture large numbers of locusts. 


Somali Women
Somali women demonstrate against the Islamist group al-Shabaab at a protest held at the secure General Kahiye Police Academy in Mogadishu, Somalia, on January 2, 2020. Al-Shabaab militants had claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on December 28, 2019, in Mogadishu that killed eighty-one people. Among the dead were sixteen students from the private Benadir University whose bus was passing through the crossroad as the bomb detonated. For the first time, al-Shabaab apologized to the civilian victims of the attack, which it justified as necessary in the fight against the Somali state and its foreign backers. (Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP)

Somali women are slowly claiming their space in the formal labor force. A women’s cooperative with seventy members is now involved in the traditionally male-dominated fishing sector in Kismayo, a port city in Lower Juba province.

The cooperative has received vital support from KIMS Microfinance, Somalia’s first and only privately owned microfinance institution. With funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, KIMS provides sharia-compliant financial support to people on a low income. Women make up 50 percent of its beneficiaries.


“Women in the fishing sector have proven to be competitive”


“We have supported 25,000 female-owned businesses since we began operating in 2014,” says Khalif Yusuf, KIMS regional manager in Kismayo. “We particularly prioritize women in the fishing sector, since they have proven to be competitive and created employment opportunities for other women.”


A New Constitution

This year, Somalis are set to adopt a permanent constitution through a referendum. The provisional constitution, adopted in 2012, is currently being reviewed.

Public consultation meetings have been held as part of the review process, which have provided an opportunity for women to ask for increased female representation in elected office and public service. 


A technician measures the distance between beds at a COVID-19 isolation center at Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, Nigeria, on April 7, 2020. The center was established with donations from Kano-born Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman and philanthropist. Via AFP

The pandemic that crippled most of the world for months has lumbered through Nigeria, most prominently by claiming the life of Abba Kyari, President Muhamed Buhari's chief of staff. it is the northern city of Kano, where the virus seems to have claimed the most lives.  

The city of about 5 million has seen a surge in deaths that the nation’s health authorities do not attribute to COVID-19, at least officially. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has reported only forty-five local COVID-19 deaths, yet the people on the street know differently. Gravediggers say they cannot keep up with the demand for burials. Locals say a lack of transparency has complicated the issue in Kano.


“Authorities have claimed that these deaths were mysterious”


“Some sources reported that over a thousand persons had died from April 20 to May 4 in Kano State,” says Paul Alaje, an economist based in Lagos. “A recent report also has it that over a hundred people have died in the ten days leading up to May 4. Authorities in these states have claimed that these deaths were mysterious. There has been clarification, however, by the Presidential Task Force that most of the deaths are linked to COVID-19.”

The virus has likely spread far more widely here than the NCDC is reporting, Alaje says.


“Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens”


The disparity between anecdotal accounts of mass deaths and the official health records of the authorities has triggered distrust in the Nigerian government’s narrative.

“From April 17 to May 17, 2020, Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens, including at least seven professors, top serving and retired civil servants, media executives, captains of industry, first-class traditional rulers, and serving and retired security personnel,” reads a press release from the NGO Intersociety (International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law). “Deaths of their likes have also been reported in Zamfara, Nasarawa, Sokoto, Taraba, Jigawa, Yobe, and Bauchi states. The Kano harvest of deaths sprang up first on April 17, 2020, killing 150 in under four days.”

Whereas the official Nigerian death toll reported by the NCDC by June 2 was 299, Intersociety claims thousands have died: more than 1,500 people have died in Kano, 470 in Yobe, 200 in Jigawa, and 150 in Bauchi, according to Intersociety. These figures could not be confirmed by New Africa Daily.

“There are also independent or unofficial reports of more deaths of low-income and middle-income earners in Sokoto and others, but were wickedly kept from public knowledge,” says Emeka Umeagbalasi, chair of Intersociety’s board of trustees. Where these deaths are reported, they are attributed to other causes, including meningitis, Lassa fever, high fever, high blood pressure, hypertension, acute malaria, hepatitis B, typhoid fever, cough, and catarrh.

“Contradictions abound,” Umeagbalasi says. “Our firm demand is that all the infections and deaths in the northern states and similar ones in the rest of the country must be forensically detected and investigated, and their findings made public.”

The normally bustling city of Kano is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.Via AFP

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reassured the nation in a late April broadcast that the mysterious deaths in Kano were not attributable to the virus. However, the lockdown in Kano was extended another month, but elsewhere lockdown measures were relaxed on May 2.


Several staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples


The government in Kano may have acted to conceal the true statistics, says Dr. Lazarus Ude Eze, a medical doctor who monitors infection surveys in Nigeria.

In fact, Kano’s spike in cases in late April reportedly sparked multiple crises linked to the government’s attempts to save face. First, shortly after Kano’s testing center was set up, several  staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples; then some members of the Kano State Task Force got infected, too, forcing several medical staff to go into quarantine when they were needed the most. Meanwhile, Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje was seen spending his time lobbying the federal government to get a larger share of funding to battle the disease, which he previously said was not spreading in the state.

“The Kano situation as reported likely has been caused by a combination of meningitis, which kills several people about this time yearly due to the hot weather and poor ventilation,” says Dr. Tijjani Hussaini, coordinator of the state’s COVID-19 Technical Response Team. “Kano State is like any other place in the world battling with the scourge... We are in a rigorous investigation of the deaths in Kano, but as a scientist I can’t tell you exactly what the investigation will tell us about the cause of the deaths.”


Douglas Burton is a former US State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.



Undersea Cable


A multinational consortium of telecommunications companies—including Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN Global Connect, Telecom Egypt, and Vodafone—announced the construction of a new undersea fiber-optic cable that will connect sixteen African countries, Europe, and the Middle East. Named 2Africa, the 37,000 kilometer-long communications cable is scheduled to go live in 2023 or 2024.


Africans pay some of the highest data rates in the world.


In March, two undersea cables serving Africa experienced breakages that drastically reduced Internet connectivity for days as repairs were made. The addition of 2Africa will help improve Internet access for millions of Africans, and mitigate disruptions should other cables experience failures in the future. Such disruptions are not only frustrating for Africans, who pay some of the highest data rates in the world, but also have a negative impact on the African economy.

A 2017 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) concluded that intentional Internet shutdowns in twelve countries between 2015 and 2017 cost sub-Saharan Africa more than US$237 million. Unforeseen connectivity disruptions naturally can have far greater negative impact on national and regional economies.



Ethiopian Soldier in Somalia
An Ethiopian soldier with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on night patrol in the city of Baidoa, Somalia.


A leaked report from the office of the force commander of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Lieutenant General Tigabu Yima, suggests that Ethiopian troops shot down the Kenyan-registered cargo plane carrying medical supplies to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The plane crashed as it was approaching the airfield in the southern Somali city of Bardale on May 6, resulting in the death of all six people on board.


The downing of the plane has led to heightened tensions among Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.


A peacekeeping mission comprised of Ethiopian and Somalian troops is stationed in Bardale, but the leaked report alleges that Ethiopian troops not affiliated with the mission were responsible for shooting down the cargo plane, mistakenly believing it was about to carry out a suicide attack due to its irregular flight path. The downing of the plane has led to heightened tensions among Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, the former two having several thousand troops deployed in Somalia to combat the al-Shabab jihadist group.

This latest incident has particularly unnerved Somali officials, who have openly wondered why Ethiopian troops not affiliated with peacekeeping missions are actively engaged in Somalia. A joint investigation involving officials from Kenya and Somalia is currently under way, with a preliminary report expected to be released within forty-five days. Analysis of the aircraft’s black box could take up to three months.


Regional governmental organizations in Africa have a mixed history. Some like ECOWAS in West Africa have been able to facilitate collective action and drive change in the region, while others like the Maghreb Union in North Africa lay dormant. Somewhere in between is the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, better known as IGAD. It was established in 1996 as a successor to the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, created in 1986. IGAD includes eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Nile Valley, and the Great Lakes Region—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda—and has its headquarters in Djibouti City. Its mandate includes development with a focus on peace and security. 

In the long-term IGAD and the EAC may merge but, the two blocks have very different origins. The East African Community (EAC) started as a trade bloc, there was a custom union between Uganda and Kenya even before independence, then Tanganyika (comprising the mainland of present-day Tanzania) joined in 1927, the union of East Africa collapsed in 1977 and then was revived in 2000, while IGAD did not start as a trading bloc and is still behind EAC in economic integration. 


Don't Wait for Peace to Pursue Development

Some civil society leaders have wondered aloud if IGAD is putting the cart before the horse, and whether there shouldn’t be greater emphasis on solving the region's many conflicts before working on regional integration, let alone establishing economic corridors, which may run through conflict zones.

In 2019, I wrote an article criticizing IGAD and suggesting that its endless search for peace was a trap, because “sustainable peace objectives with high standards of security and stability” were the bait that entices stakeholders to ignore the need for private sector development and regional economic integration. My article “IGAD and Peace Trap” focused on the IGAD peace-for-development approach. 

To be clear, IGAD's peace building efforts in South Sudan and Somalia have been successes. IGAD led the negotiations that achieved independence of South Sudan. After a new wave of the civil war in South Sudan beginning in 2013, IGAD launched a mediation effort which helped the two parties of the conflict reach several peace agreements. Of theses the 2018 Khartoum agreement was the final and most decisive one.  

In Somalia, IGAD led efforts led to the IGAD Peace Support Mission in Somalia (IGASOM) in March 2005, approved by the AU in September 2006, then approved by the United Nations Security Council in December 2006. The current African Union Mission in Somalia AMISOM replaced IGASOM.

Still, we should build on available conditions, and let people and local communities push the process of accomplishing peace forward through economic development. Hopefully, this third foundation of IGAD will witness the balance between peace and development.


Cattle Uganda
Cattle share the road with traffic in Uganda. Underdeveloped roads are a major impediment to development on the continent. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)


IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan

The development of the IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan (IRIMP) is ongoing and offers a new foundation for IGAD. It focuses on the development of major economic development corridors (EDCs) that cross borders, and the integrated policies and laws to support them. If implemented by 2040, as envisioned, it will offer a clear move away from the protectionism that has characterized the region for far too long.

In March 2020, the first forum for IRIMP consultative dialogue was held in Entebbe, Uganda. I was the chair of that forum. This consultative meeting was meant to engage with civil society leaders interested in the development of IGAD generally and the IRIMP specifically.

Elsadig Abdalla, IGAD director for economic & regional integration, said the Entebbe dialogue provided valuable inputs that would enhance the IRIMP for more effective implementation. He emphasized that all IGAD members were actively involved in infrastructure: “Ahead of the implementation of IRIMP, to date, member states have invested nearly US$20 billion in infrastructure development alone.” The Entebbe dialogue witnessed broad participation from NGOs and the private sector drawn from seven IGAD states with the notable exception of Eritrea. 


From a Master Plan to an Action Plan

In April 2018, IGAD signed a contract for the development of the IRIMP with consulting firms IPE Global Limited and Africon Universal Consulting in Nairobi, Kenya. The development of this master plan—with the support of the African Development Bank—is a vital step toward achieving economic integration in the IGAD region and to contribute to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) goals of streamlined trade in goods and services.


“The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development.”


“Corridor approaches to economic development have increasingly informed strategy and plans in Africa over the past ten to fifteen years; the latest AU thinking continues to refine and further develop this approach,” said Jamie Simpson, executive director at IPE Global, in a conversation with the author at the IGAD event in Entebbe.

Simpson confirmed that projects in the areas of energy and transport have been identified as priorities in the master plan. These projects are estimated to cost between US$6 billion and US$10 billion, which will be invested in a phased manner. 

IGAD’s interest in the development of EDCs builds on well-established research in Africa over the past decade. An Africa Development Bank report on developing economic corridors, makes a compelling case for the role of EDCs. “The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development”, the report reads. It suggests that local plans for linking the geographical surroundings of each member country should be made in line with the corresponding EDC plan.

A crucial point made in the report is about the role of the private sector in the development of these corridors: This partnership should start in the planning phase and continue through construction. A list of existing African transport corridors prepared by EENI Global Business School contains nineteen corridors. The map shows how corridors became new rivers of development on the continent.

As far as regional blocs in Africa are concerned, IGAD began as development regional institutional and eventually assumed security roles. With the IRIMP the organization can fulfill one the most pressing needs of East Africa and be a model for others to follow. 


Mekki Elmograbi chaired the first ever IRIMP consultative dialogue for IGAD in Entebbe, Uganda in March 2020. Elmograbi is a former Sudanese diplomat and is currently the head of the independent think tank Mekki Center.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) will be releasing the first of what are intended to be quarterly accounts of civilian casualties in Somalia, where AFRICOM has been waging a steadily escalating shadow war against the al-Shabab terrorist group. Missile strikes by remote-controlled aerial vehicles, better known as drones, have become the Americans’ preferred attack option.


Amnesty International’s investigations into just eight air strikes found they had killed twenty-one civilians.


Dramatically Different Numbers

These reports have been hailed as a positive move toward transparency, but they do nothing to resolve the large discrepancies in the number of civilian deaths according to AFRICOM and the figures furnished by humanitarian groups like Amnesty International, the strike-tracking NGO Airwars, local media, and independent journalists.

In Somalia, AFRICOM alleges only two civilians have been killed in more than 175 air strikes during the past three years, yet Amnesty International’s investigations into just eight air strikes found they had killed twenty-one civilians and wounded eleven.


A picture taken on January 13, 2020, during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows US army drones at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. Iran last week launched a wave of missiles at the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, both hosting US and other foreign troops, in an operation it dubbed a response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Guards' Quds Force, in a January 3 US drone strike near Baghdad's airport. Ayman Henna / AFP
A photograph taken on January 13, 2020, during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group shows US drones at Ain al-Asad Airbase. (Ayman Henna / AFP)


Little Accountability

On the whole, this lack of investigation into civilian casualties after attacks is not unique or new to the Somali theater. Amnesty International relies heavily on interviews, which it cross-references to collate its data, seeing as it doesn’t have the same access to strike sites as the US militants do given the security risks. AFRICOM, conversely, has been criticized for conducting too few interviews, a difference in methodology that explains the wide divergence in official death tallies.

Under the Trump administration, the rules of engagement have been relaxed, including the revoking of an Obama-era policy that required the CIA to release an annual summary of US drone strikes and the number of casualties outside of war zones.

A lack of transparency goes hand in hand with a lack of accountability.

Somalian authorities have begun to work with Muslim clerics to create what they call an “anti-corona army”. Using the public trust in religious leaders, the government is encouraging imams to use minaret speakers to broadcast information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The inclusion of religious characteristics in the government’s public health initiative is doubly important in a country where large swaths of territory are controlled or terrorized by the violent jihadist group al-Shabab. In areas where they exercise some level of governance, al-Shabab has warned Somalians against COVID-19, claiming it is a virus deliberately spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”.

Madrassas—schools for Islamic religious instruction—have been shut down and prayer in mosques is discouraged to prevent infection. Imams, teachers, and public health officials will all be included in the anti-corona army, which will help to monitor Somalians and talk to them about handwashing and social distancing. Other myths that are circulating is that the pandemic is a divine punishment on China for the Communist Party of China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur population, or on the United States over its treatment of Muslims.


Why It Matters

Misinformation may be the second-biggest crisis during this pandemic. Around the world, false information about prevention, symptoms, and cures risk millions of lives. Worse are those who use misinformation to personally enrich themselves with fake “miracle cures”. For affected countries like Somalia, already battling a persistent terrorist threat, the dangers of rumors and myths surrounding COVID-19 are multiplied. For religious communities in Africa and elsewhere, coordination with religious institutions and figures will be essential to ensure public health information is received and, more importantly, trusted.

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Jan 22, 2023