Coronavirus: Pandemic is powering a revival of Al Shabab in East Africa

Disruptions caused by Covid-19 are undermining peace-building and development across the Horn of Africa

Al Shabab causes devastation in Somalia. Reuters
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Covid-19 presents an existential threat to the Horn of Africa as it provides an opportunity for Al Shabab to regenerate across the region.

Mohammed Guyo, the special envoy for Somalia, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, told a meeting organised by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) that he also expected a revival of piracy off the eastern African coast as a result of the pandemic.

Mr Guyo said the coronavirus was taking advantage of the long-standing and acute problems of the region with multilayered consequences, especially for the weakest states affected by conflict.

The number of people made unemployed or who face losing their livelihood as a result of lockdown measures or resulting disruption of the economy posed enormous problems.

The Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab militant group had moved to gain influence and bolster its recruitment in the midst of the crisis, Mr Guyo said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is exploiting existing challenges to human security in order to further destabilise the Horn of Africa,” he said.

“The risk is that the youths will fall prey to terrorist groups like Al Shabab. Covid-19 has provided Al Shabab an opportunity to mobilise, for recruitment and propaganda, to increase its influence.”

IGAD is a trading bloc covering 270 million people that seeks to emulate the trade and development impact of groupings such as the GCC. It has reported that an estimated 27.6 million people across the IGAD region were classified as experiencing a food insecurity crisis or famine prior to the coronavirus spreading to the area. It says the figure is rising much higher as the pandemic unfolds. As a result of climate change-induced floods and a locust plague, endemic food shortages were already a problem.

One scourge of the region that had been tackled successfully over the past decade was the disruptive impact of pirate gangs operating from lawless states such as Somalia.

Mr Guyo predicted that the threat of piracy to international trade would re-emerge in the years ahead.

“The resurrection of piracy as a result of job losses by youth cannot be ruled out,” he said. “The crisis is undermining democratic gains, peace-building and development. It has disrupted preventive diplomacy and impeded humanitarian access.”

To ensure maritime stability and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Mr Guyo said he was working with the authorities on both shores to bolster cross-water co-operation.

Rusi's own East Africa expert Christopher Hockey told a panel that Shabab was hampered by a lack of resources and internal schisms. It was also preoccupied the arrival of the coronavirus in areas under its control.

“As the pandemic continues the impact on recruitment levels must be monitored,” he added.

Mr Hockey said Shabab should learn from previous responses to crisis within the region and  said he hoped there was potential for dialogue with the government as a result of the health crisis.