From Kenya to Somalia, competition for natural resources underpins political dynamics of Central and East Africa. Efforts to engage this region must consider foremost the competition for natural wealth.
To end East Africa's wars, focus first on natural resources
Natural resources underlie the political dynamics of Central and East Africa, and any effort to understand and engage contemporary issues in the region must consider foremost the competition for natural wealth.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, decades of violence have killed millions of people, and at the heart of these conflicts is a scramble for the country's rich forests and mineral deposits.
The fighting is particularly bad in the eastern part of the country where - as a United Nations report last month indicates - the neighbouring states of Uganda and Rwanda have allegedly been fuelling the conflict by supplying weapons and support to rebel groups. The assumption is that the support to M23 rebels is aimed at winning access to resources in the DRC. If accurate, such moves would not only show what states are willing to do to extend their grip on resources, but also reveals how entwined security issues and resource grabs are becoming across the region.
Underlying nearly all of the conflicts in this part of Africa is the pressing need for land, water, energy and food. And in many cases, resource-related decisions made by one country are having a direct effect on the lives of their neighbours.
As a result of the UN allegations of supporting the rebels in the DRC, for instance, Uganda has threatened to rethink its commitment to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Because it contributes the most troops to that operation, a withdrawal by Uganda would be a direct blow to efforts on the ground, emboldening the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab militant group that has a hold there.
Moreover, what happens in Somalia has a direct effect on neighbouring Kenya. With tens of thousands of Somali refugees already inside Kenya, along with increased terrorist attacks inside the country, Kenya's troops entered Somalia a little over a year ago in order to help restore order, particularly to the border region.
This step by Kenya can be seen as part of a wider trend of gaining economic influence. And as with Uganda's and Rwanda's involvement in the DRC, Kenya's decisions are being made with an eye towards securing natural resources, both those within its own borders and those of its neighbours.
With its major Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, and its railway line that dates back to colonial times, Kenya has long occupied a central role in the transporting of Africa's natural wealth to the rest of the world.
Despite its rapid industrialisation, Kenya's future is tied to natural wealth. Wildlife-based tourism already forms a large part of the country's formal and informal economies, and major development projects are underway: highways are being improved to link Kenya with its neighbours, and a major deepwater port is being built in Lamu not far from the Somali border.
Connected to this will be a pipeline to transport South Sudan's oil to the coast. The discovery of oil and mineral reserves in Kenya provides the opportunity to create a more skilled labour force and attract foreign investment.
This rapid growth, however, is not without its dangers. There are many questions being asked about China's financing of a Kenya-Uganda railway, for instance (who benefits - Kenyans or Chinese)? And a widening economic gap between the rich and poor in Kenya and elsewhere raises concerns that the region's drive to exploit its natural wealth is creating many haves, but many more have-nots.
As Kenya prepares for national elections in March, amid hopes of avoiding a repeat of the post-election violence that gripped the country the last time Kenyans went to the polls, in December 2007, natural resource issues will be a key test for future leaders. On Friday, dozens of people were killed in a clash between small-scale farmers and semi-nomadic pastoralists in Kenya’s Coast province, escalating ethnic and political tensions in an area where fighting over land and water rights in August left more than 100 dead.
What these recent events and patterns illustrate is that the quest for natural resources in Central and East Africa - at all levels - is shaping how communities and states project themselves in their wider region. Whether this is through military intervention or infrastructure projects, the peace and prosperity of the region depends on the wise and sustainable use of its natural wealth.
What would happen, for instance, if because of its involvement in the DRC, Uganda did withdraw from the AU Somalia mission, creating a vacuum for militant groups and terrorism to gain a further foothold?
What if Kenya descends into violence during the run-up to elections? How would this affect the fledgling country of South Sudan, which is hoping that its oil and infrastructure links through Kenya will give it an economic boost?
Political dynamics in the region are shifting, and disputes over natural resources - land, water and energy among them - underlie it all. Any attempt to understand what is happening, or any national or international development projects that do not consider natural resources as a central issue, are, quite simply, a waste of time.
Brendan Buzzard is a freelance writer and Africa analyst based in Kenya