In the mid-1980s a young aid worker cut his teeth trying to negotiate between warring parties in Ethiopia to allow food trucks to cross the front lines in a bid to ease the suffering in the world’s first televised famine. The disaster was largely caused by the government, a Marxist dictatorship that forced peasants onto collective farms, where they starved, and halted food supplies to areas under rebel control. It killed 400,00-700,000 people.
More than 35 years later that aid worker is a veteran Western diplomat who is again trying to negotiate with Ethiopia’s government to allow food to cross the front lines of a civil war to avert a new famine, affecting more than 1m people. “It has bookended my career,” he says, with evident pain in his voice. Ethiopia’s rapid descent, from one of Africa’s fastest-developing countries to one torn by civil war, will dominate the West’s interactions with the region.
Of the world’s 15 most fragile states, 11 are in sub-Saharan Africa
Amid famine, mounting atrocities and ethnic cleansing of minority groups, America and the eu will pile pressure on the government and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front to end a war that neither side wants to end but that neither is strong enough to win. Diplomats publicly talk of using sanctions and an arms embargo to encourage talks. Privately they are bereft of hope and worry that the longer the fighting continues, the greater the risk of Ethiopia disintegrating, Yugoslavia-like, into the ethnic states that make up its federation. Many are concerned that the conflict may also spill across borders, dragging Somalia and coup-prone Sudan into a war that has already sucked in troops from Eritrea.
Ethiopia is not the only African trouble-spot that the world will be watching in 2022. All but four of the 15 most vulnerable countries on the Fragile States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace, an American think-tank, are in sub-Saharan Africa. They include long-troubled countries such as South Sudan, which has been at war for most of the decade since it was formed; the Central African Republic, which is held together largely by a un peacekeeping force; and Somalia, where the jihadists of al-Shabab control most rural areas, and where 15 years of state-building are at risk of collapsing back into civil war because of a power-grab by the president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
Just as worrying is the slow collapse of states in the Sahel, a band of scrubby desert that runs south of the Sahara, and the spread of jihadists from Mali into neighboring countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso. Despite successes by French forces in killing jihadist leaders, France would like to start reducing the number of troops it has in the region. But after two coups in Mali, and others in nearby Chad and Guinea, the outlook in the Sahel remains grim
Jonathan Rosenthal: Africa editor, The Economist ■
This article appeared in the Africa section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline “Trouble brewing”