USIP is closely following the effects of the novel coronavirus around the world and we’re particularly concerned about its effects in fragile states and conflict zones, which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of outbreaks. This week, our Susan Stigant looks at what new challenges have emerged in the Horn of Africa since the outbreak began.


Hi, I'm Susan Stigant, and I'm the director of Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. We received some questions from social media on how the coronavirus might affect the Horn of Africa that I'll talk about in this short video. Here at USIP, we're looking at the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on conflict dynamics around the world, including in the Horn of Africa.

Interstate competition, fragile political transitions, and weak governance threaten to make the impacts of COVID-19 especially devastating. At the same time, the Horn of Africa is facing food insecurity due to violent conflict, a locust invasion, and flooding. Our first question is from Ra'phael Davis on LinkedIn, who asks: "What are the unique challenges the Horn is facing now that it was not facing before COVID-19?"

What are the unique challenges the Horn is facing now that it was not facing before COVID-19?

Well, to date, the number of cases of COVID-19 and the linked fatalities have been relatively low in the Horn of Africa. This is good news, but it is too early to breathe a sigh of relief.

Many of the countries in the Horn have limited health infrastructure to respond. Sudan, for example, has fewer than 80 ventilators and 200 ICU beds in a country of more than 40 million people. The situation in Somalia and South Sudan is even worse. Physical distancing and stay at home orders are inconvenient here in the United States; in Africa, 250 million people work in informal urban employment and many of them can't continue their jobs. It's estimated that 27 million people will be pushed into poverty as a result of the economic implications.

We know that economics and politics are connected. In Ethiopia and Sudan, where transitions are at critical points, the economic situation was dire before COVID-19. Long lines for fuel, for example, in Sudan, is contributing to people's frustrations, but it's not all bad news. COVID-19 depends on collective action for an effective response and there are promising signs that the government of Ethiopia and political opposition, for example, will find ways to work together to address the pandemic. Hopefully this will pave the way for a more inclusive dialogue about the election in that country, both its delay and then getting it back on track when it is safe to do so. 

Let's turn to our second question. We've already heard some troubling security responses to COVID-19 out of Somalia and Kenya. Saeed Ibrahim on Twitter asks: "Could COVID-19 be used to consolidate power and muzzle dissent?"

Could COVID-19 be used to consolidate power and muzzle dissent?

This is a good concern and a good question. Several countries in the Horn of Africa have issued stay at home orders, declared a state of emergency, or limited specific rights in response to the pandemic. 

Emergency powers should be used strictly and judiciously to manage the public health crisis. They should not be used to stop broader political dissent. If we imagine back one year ago, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese were mobilized in mass demonstrations that ultimately led to the transition and the current government. Today, civic groups have to be more creative about ways to mobilize action and provide oversight. This is particularly important at a moment when budgets and funds are being allocated to the health response. The African Commission on Human and People's Rights has highlighted principles of ways to use states of emergency or limit rights in a responsible manner and there are good examples of active roles by human rights commissions in the region, including in Ethiopia.

Okay, next question. The Horn of Africa sits at a strategic crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, meaning that it is a busy corridor for trade and migration. Jenny Koll on LinkedIn asks: "How is COVID-19 impacting migrant routes and migrants in general across East Africa?"

How is COVID-19 impacting migrant routes and migrants in general across East Africa?

Yes, this is something we need to watch. There were reports last week about Ethiopian workers being forcibly returned from Saudi Arabia amid concern that the necessary public health precautions were not in place. We also need to remember that people who are leaving their homes involuntarily are doing so on the basis of some serious threat or fear. Many people are rightly concerned about the protection of these people.

There is also regular migration across Africa, and this is often a source of conflict between pastoral and migrant groups, and we need to track carefully the public health implications on these groups.

As we close, let me remind you that USIP's Senior Study Group on China and the Red Sea Arena just released their new report on China's impact on conflict dynamics in the Red Sea. You can check it out on It includes some reflections on how China might play a role in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the Horn, China's strategic influence there, and the complicated China-U.S.-Africa relations.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions on social media! I encourage all of you to keep the conversation going by using the hashtag #COVIDandConflict and to visit our website for more resources.

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