As we kiss 2018 goodbye and, looking at East Africa and the Horn from Nairobi, it’s reasonable to say the most significant development for Kenya last year didn’t happen here.
Kenya won an unexpected geopolitical jackpot when, in April, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected a 42-year-old hitherto unknown Abiy Ahmed to replace the reticent Hailemariam Desalegn, who had, in one of those rare unAfrican moments, resigned as prime minister in February.
By end of 2018, Abiy had become one of the most known African leaders globally and was gracing magazine covers and commentaries as the continent’s leader of the year.
That was because, in a few months, he took Ethiopia on a rollercoaster ride that would otherwise have taken a century.
There was no Ethiopian enemy he didn’t seem to make peace with. He reformed the government radically and opened doors for women in leadership dramatically, appointing both a female president, chief justice and election chief.
Ethiopia is famous for its Byzantine bureaucracy, and Stone Age economic rules.
He took the hammer to all that with several audacious economic reforms and, for a country with an anti-African streak, announced that all Africans would not need pre-arrival visas into Ethiopia.
Kenyan financial analyst Aly-Khan Satchu declared in his The Star newspaper column in July: “These 90 or so days [since Abiy took office] represent the most consequential arrival of an African politician on the African stage since [Nelson] Mandela walked out of prison blinking in the sunlight and constructed his ‘Rainbow Nation’… [and] as remarkable as the less than 90 minutes of France’s Mbappe’s performance on Saturday [at the World Cup].”
It was a bold hand Satchu played there, given that similar exuberance had greeted Dr John Magufuli’s arrival as Tanzania’s president at the end of 2015 but he flattered to deceive.
In six months, he had spiralled into the most ham-fisted Tanzanian leader since the German colonialists.
But it paid off; eight months later, Abiy has proved he isn’t a one-season wonder.
Abiy is the first Ethiopian leader from the long-oppressed Oromo people.
The Oromo are, by far, the largest Ethiopian community, comprising 35 percent of the country’s 95 million people. They had been in a rebellious mood.
When other groups joined them, the EPRDF seems to have panicked, thrown a Hail Mary pass and picked Abiy.
It worked, although some EPRDF grandees are trying to sabotage his reforms.
The Oromia State, the largest in Ethiopia, covers all the northern border with Kenya — except a tiny bit in the northwest, which touches the State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (what a mouthful!)
A peaceful Oromia, buoyed by having a homeboy as premier in Addis Ababa, is likely to bring great fortunes to Kenya, thanks to things that were done well before Abiy came on the scene.
A lot of it is down to the construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis Ababa road, which was conceived in 2006.
To appreciate the big deal here, one needs to read a report by the Abidjan-headquartered African Development Bank (AfDB), which is co-funding the project.
It probably didn’t attract much attention when it was published on its website last year. It should have.
It projected that trade between Kenya and Ethiopia would jump fivefold from $35 to $175 million by the end of 2019.
The 845km stretch from Mombasa to the border town of Moyale is complete and the Ethiopian section is expected to be done by mid-2019.
By last year, the average transport costs between Isiolo and Merille (Kenya) reportedly fell to 0.28 cents/km from 0.49; between Nairobi and Moyale, they fell from Sh2,500 in 2013 to Sh1,500.
The extra volume of goods transported to and from Mombasa to Moyale and into Ethiopia reached 900,000 tonnes — 20 percent of its total maritime freight.
A KRA official is quoted as saying: “In 2014, we earned over $16 million per year but earnings have risen to $70 million.”
Even a vegetable seller in Moyale pitched in, saying delivery of the produce had been cut from a week (when they would often arrive rotten) to one day.
All these numbers and projections were prior to the dynamics brought on before the Abiy chieftaincy kicked in.
Buffeted by the “rise of the Horn”, especially Djibouti Port and the investment by world superpowers as they scramble for bases in the region; a drip-drip loss of its advantages as a coastal and regional economic hegemon (and the Uganda oil pipeline) to Tanzania; and the emergence of Rwanda as a leading commercial centre for middle Africa, Abiy is the present Nairobi would never even have dreamt of.