Canada helps leaders with practical solutions for East Africa, the Horn

Friday July 01 2022

The High Commissioner for Canada to Kenya and Canada’s Permanent Representative to Unep Christopher Thornley. PHOTO | NMG


The High Commissioner for Canada to Kenya and Canada’s Permanent Representative to Unep Christopher Thornley spoke to Berna Namata on his agenda for the region.

As Kenya goes to the polls in August, its landlocked neighbours are worried about violence due to the past violent elections. What is your assessment of the political environment in Kenya? To what extent do you see a risk of electoral violence?

I believe in a free and fair democracy for all countries. Kenya has come a long and has had a long track record of regular elections. This isn’t to say that it has not had challenges as witnessed in 2007 — challenges remain — but this can be said for most countries. Many continue to face challenges during elections and it’s important that governments engage everyone — the public, civil society, independent bodies, other arms of government and security agents — to ensure continuous improvement of existing electoral processes.

Kenyans have a right to elect the leaders they want. Unfortunately, not everyone vying gets the same opportunities and platforms. Women seeking election continue to face many hurdles including violence, harassment on- and offline, discriminatory laws and practices, stereotyping and social norms, as well as lack of support from families. You need women in all their diversity at decision-making tables. Global data shows that women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide and achieving gender parity in political life is far off.

Our focus on elections is to increase their participation in the political process, and focus on preventing violence against women in politics, including monitoring compliance with electoral laws and policies, the safety and security of women, and access to justice for survivors of electoral violence.

We are investing $3.8 million in these efforts. With support from UN Women and women’s rights organisations, our investment will help build a strong foundation for women’s political empowerment, including and beyond the 2022 election.


Pre-election, we are focused on ensuring that the electoral system, processes and procedures are gender-responsive and that women are enabled to participate effectively as voters.

Fragility and conflict are among the greatest development challenges of the region. What is the current state of fragility in the region? How best can affected countries, and those in transition manage political, security, economic and environmental stresses that cultivate vulnerability?

These are highly complex topics and it would take a thesis to begin to unpack and explain proposed solutions as applicable in each context within East Africa and the Horn. But here are a few thoughts:

My responsibilities include Somalia. The Horn feels more fragile today than it has in the past, and is subjected to greater shocks — environmental and inflationary — as well. This places more responsibility on the states that are exporters of stability, such as Kenya, to play an active role anchoring the region.

Hubs of stability, such as Nairobi, will only grow in influence and importance as we move forward into what I sense will be more of an uncertain future than we have known for a while.

The economic growth of Nairobi over the past decade actually creates a positive incentive for governments of the region to foster an environment of stability and a conducive environment in order to attract [investments] from abroad and generate from within the profound economic activity that is transforming this city into a flourishing hub of economic growth.

On fragility and conflict

You have to ask yourself why this country, or region within a country, or community within a region, is fragile. What are the drivers of conflict here, who are the conflict actors and what are the incentives to bringing about a solution?

Good transitions toward resilience and durable resolution of conflict must begin with a thorough and intimate understanding of that place, its people, their histories and environment. We have seen the critical importance of stable political structures and reliable service delivery to populations, and where these are absent, often you find fragile situations.

Take Somalia for example, arguably the country facing the deepest, most structural, challenges in our broader region. A whole host of work streams need to progress in parallel in order for Somalia to stabilise, to be rid of conflict, and to become resilient to shocks. The maxim underlining the rubric of linear thinking “security first, then development” doesn’t hold water.

If it was this simple, we would have collectively solved things by now. We have to move beyond the binary either/or thinking. It’s both in sequence, and in parallel, and responsible governance, and service provision, as well as a bit of good luck, and so forth.

Just as doctors use the expression “looking at the whole person” , when it comes to an overarching analysis of causes of fragility and drivers of conflict, I am inclined to start by looking at the whole country, and engage in concerted, coherent action with all relevant players toward an identified objective.

Where Canada is engaged in development programming, we take a long term view with the understanding that there are no quick fixes. It is steadfast engagement in disciplines where we have a niche such as health and education, which will bear fruit over the long term, and will — when done in conjunction with a whole-of-country holistic approach where other actors also contribute their strengths — move a population toward greater resilience in the face of fragility. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, when it comes to countries facing fragility and conflict, the experts in those domains are often found in those very places too.

East Africa is experiencing pockets of instability with a war in Ethiopia, armed groups killing civilians in eastern DR Congo. To what extent is this a concern? What can the region do to address instability?

Conflict disrupts people’s lives, often with tragic consequences. Canada always acts quickly upon receipt of requests for assistance from countries facing disasters, conflict or food insecurity.

We are also cognizant of the important role regional leaders play in approaching and mediating conflicts within their own neighbourhood.

We have seen more of that in East Africa and the Horn, and it is a promising trend that speaks to the connections and insights the leaders possess and the urgency they see in resolving conflicts whose spillover effects may threaten the interests of their citizens.

Of course, conflicts distract from these efforts and it would be a shame to see this momentum lost at a time this region could really benefit from a post-Covid economic boost.