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Defining the Challenge to 2030: Conflict, Climate Change, and Trade Integration

East Africa Strategic Horizons: Partnerships and Priorities


The options for action above were grounded in analysis and evidence presented during plenary discussions. The East African region has seen marked political and social transformations in recent decades. Africa is a remarkably young continent, with some 70% of the population under the age of 30. Without adequate work, African youth often find themselves in circumstances of ‘waithood’ where ‘youth not only wait for economic development, they wait for maturation and growth in their own lives, as they struggle to attain normative expectations for the life course and become adults’ (Stasik et al, 2020, 1). East Africa is also rapidly urbanizing, which poses challenges such as informal employment, inadequate infrastructure, and urban poverty. With these demographic and spatial shifts as a backdrop, the region is facing challenges across issues of state stability, climate change, and economic development.

“The architectures of regional cooperation are no longer fit for purpose and therefore require new thinking and investment.”

State Stability and Conflict Trends

There have been important structural transformations to East African states that are important to consider. In Sudan and Ethiopia, hegemonic orders that were consolidated over the course of three decades have been contested and even upended. Armed conflict in these countries have raised concerns about the impacts on neighbouring countries and the wider region, particularly as people take refuge in neighbouring countries that are ill equipped to manage their acute humanitarian needs. The steady erosion of humanitarian access norms has also been part and parcel of the increasing complexity of conflict in the region. It is important to consider the ways that conflict dynamics in East Africa have been characterized by the parallel trends of fragmentation and regionalization, and the consequences of this for pathways to peace.

Fragmentation can be understood as the increasing proliferation of armed groups, and the advancement of conflict dynamics to previously unaffected regions. Rapid state decay encourages the growth of ungoverned spaces, ethnic polarization, and difficulty in predicting conflict lines. In Sudan, fragmentation manifests as the proliferation of militias and armed groups, representing political, religious, or even displaced constituencies. In Ethiopia, fragmentation manifests as ethnic polarization, where elite actors within ethnic groups are fragmented within their own constituencies. This creates concerns for the possibilities of peace, as there are few elites with enough influence to appreciably bring violence to an end. Elite fragmentation can lead to further externalization and regionalization of conflict dynamics, as fragmented actors can more easily find support across borders for their own agendas.

The regionalization of conflict in East Africa has led to an increasing protractedness of conflict patterns, narrowing options for peaceful resolution. There are concerning signs that South Sudan could be pulled into the Sudanese war theatre, particularly as some 60-75% of the country’s oil revenues have been disrupted due to the Sudanese conflict (Wilton Park, 2024). Transitional processes in South Sudan, including constitutional review and multiparty elections, are being frustrated by the increasing enmeshment of South Sudanese political elites into conflict dynamics in Sudan, putting an already fragile situation at even greater risk of outbreak of violence.

The regionalization of conflict can also be catalysed by engagements with actors farther afield, as East Africa is embedded in the politics of the Red Sea. Rising international tensions and crises have direct consequences for the stability of East African states reliant on imports of food to feed their populations. Populations in East Africa are extremely vulnerable to spiking food prices and scarcity.

As the Red Sea region faces increased insecurity due to the reverberations of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, similar questions about the reliability of food imports arise. Ethiopia’s pursuit of access to the Red Sea, most recently seen in the controversial Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the self-declared breakaway state of Somaliland, demonstrates the importance of control and access in this critical region. Indeed, there remains the possibility that these demands for Ethiopian Red Sea access may trigger further conflict, including potentially renewed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Key to these trends is the increase in multipolar geopolitical competition globally, and the growing engagement of ‘non-traditional actors’ in East Africa, including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In some analyses, the Horn of Africa is best understood as part of the ‘wider Middle East’ as much as Africa. These regional actors have historically acted both as mediators and created challenges for the peaceful reconciliation of conflict. The political economy of warfare is a case in point, where the UAE has interests in Sudan, including parties to the conflict and exports. Other international actors, such as Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are also important actors in the region. As an increasing number of international actors, including China and Russia, have come to view the East African region as a strategic location for investment and competition, it is important to develop strategies to engage and work effectively on common priorities.

The growing complexity of conflict dynamics in the region has reduced the impact of regional organizations and regional cooperation. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has played an important role in conflict mediation and resolution in the region in the past, but has faced difficulty navigating the politics and interests at play in current conflicts. Indeed, IGAD played a significant role in conflict mediation processes in South Sudan, but there are concerns that the increase in the number of external actors involved may lower the efficacy of future interventions if South Sudan were to experience significant instability or conflict. There is significant concern that the architectures of regional cooperation are no longer fit for purpose and therefore require new thinking and investment.

Climate Change

“Climate-induced shocks exacerbate existing social tensions and increase the likelihood of the outbreak of violence.”

Climate change has inflicted severe outcomes on East Africa, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and challenging socio-economic development. The Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that ‘the most vulnerable people and systems have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change’ (IPCC, 2023), with East Africa considered a ‘global hotspot of high human vulnerability’ (IPCC, 2023). Extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones have become more frequent, causing widespread damage to infrastructure, and disrupting livelihoods.

There are three significant challenges emerging from climate change in the region: food insecurity, disease, and conflict and displacement. Some 80% of people in East Africa rely on agriculture for food, and between rising temperatures and crop failures, an estimated 50% of people in the region are at risk of food crisis (Wilton Park, 2024). As temperatures continue to rise, the geographic scope of those vulnerable to malaria and Rift Valley Fever is expected to increase. Increased temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have led to prolonged droughts, desertification, and water scarcity, adversely affecting agriculture, livestock, and food security.

The impacts of climate change have already been felt in the region, manifested through humanitarian crises and mass displacement. Climate-induced shocks exacerbate existing social tensions and increase the likelihood of the outbreak of violence. Transboundary resources like water, access to pasture, and land rights continue to be the source of political and social instability.

This region already prone to conflict has witnessed heightened tensions over dwindling resources and exacerbating existing humanitarian crises. While all communities are affected by climate change, marginalized constituencies within those communities are impacted in acute ways. Girls face a higher risk of child marriage due to economic insecurity, curtailing educational attainment and possibilities for social mobility. On a rapidly urbanizing continent, the growing communities of urban poor may lack the social protection of the countryside, while also lacking access to urban services. However, the largest impact of climate change is felt by those displaced by flooding or drought, and IGAD estimates 10% of the region’s population to be at risk of climate-related displacement. This significant amount of human mobility of those with acute humanitarian needs places pressures on host cities and regions.

These compounding challenges erode the region’s ability to recover. Where cyclical crises emerge one after the other (communal conflict, locusts, drought, flooding), communities are overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges and the resources required to adapt. Taken together, impacts of climate change pose significant challenges to the resilience and sustainability of communities in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, necessitating urgent adaptation and mitigation efforts to safeguard lives and ecosystems.

Economic Trends: Trade Integration and Preferential Access

“It is critical to ensure that economic development priorities centre the need for sustainable, local markets for food.”

Climate change and emerging risks of political instability can block much needed economic transformation. Political instability and violent conflict disrupt economic livelihoods and destroy essential infrastructure. Put simply, conflict is costly. According to the World Bank’s Ethiopia Damage and Needs Assessment (2022), Ethiopia’s conflict costs between 2020-2021 had already been estimated at some ‘US$22.69 billion, while the total reconstruction and recovery needs are estimated at about US $19.73 billion.’ The World Bank found evidence of widespread damage spread across social sectors (such as health, housing, and education), productive sectors (agriculture, industry, and finance) and infrastructure (transport, energy, water, sanitation & hygiene, and information & communication technology) among many others. This demonstrates the material impact of conflict on communities, and the need to address holistically the economic and political consequences of armed conflict.  

There has been hope that increased regional trade facilitated through the East African Community (EAC) and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) could help bolster economic transformation in the region. However, despite strong economic growth in some countries, the increase in trade growth has yet to fully materialize. While the EAC leads the continent in its trade integration ambitions (promising free trade, a customs union, a common market, and even a common currency), official figures still note only 15% of intra-regional trade, which is below the continental average of 18% (Wilton Park, 2024). With the accession of conflict-affected states to the EAC, such as South Sudan and Somalia, there remain concerns about the feasibility of full implementation. However, informal trade across borders, not captured by these data points, is much likely higher than reported. This can create exploitative contexts, such as the export of primary products produced in conflict-affected countries by business interests in neighbouring countries.

Preferential market access schemes to high income economies, such as the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the United Kingdom’s Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS) have not had the material impact that had been hoped.

Food insecurity cuts across the challenges of climate change, violent conflict, and economic transformation. The high dependence on food imports in countries such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Burundi renders communities vulnerable to external shocks and political crises. Inflation is a significant concern for the region, spiking significantly due to supply issues following the COVID-19 pandemic and remaining high due to a combination of international and local factors. For countries with high dependence on food imports, it may be important to focus on ways to lower tariffs and make access to food cheaper as larger projects for food sufficiency are underway.

Agricultural production for export has negative impacts on local food security, as agricultural resources are diverted for cash crops. A study of the impact on export incentives in Kenya and Uganda on food security and availability found ‘substantial resource allocation and distributional effects’ as ‘export crops such as oilseeds and other cash crops expand at the expense of the food crop sector’ (Aragie et al, 2023, 6). While the overall impact of agricultural exports on African food availability will continue to be debated, it is critical to ensure that economic development priorities centre the need for sustainable, local markets for food.




Preparing for the Future: Options for Action

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