The deteriorating relationship between Kenya and Somalia amidst the global pandemic and internal and regional political dynamics has raised a red flag. There are concerns for the dispute to spark an armed confrontation if it proceeds with the current trajectory. The standoff has already taken a heavy toll on bilateral trade and it risks compromising regional security.
The strained relations between the two neighbors went a notch higher when Somalia expelled Kenya’s ambassador from Mogadishu and recalled its Ambassador from Nairobi. However, the severance of diplomatic ties between the two states is only the tip of the iceberg. The underlying issue is the ownership of the oil, gas and tuna rich maritime territory in the Indian Ocean that is before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Recently, Kenya declined to take part in the oral hearings citing unfairness and perceived biases by the ICJ. However, the crucial question is: can Kenya and Somalia afford an armed confrontation over their maritime border in the Indian Ocean? We argue that neither Kenya nor Somalia can afford an armed confrontation since their fate is like that of conjoined twins who share a common destiny. This is because any confrontation would have dire consequences on their diplomatic, economic, political, security, and socio-cultural relations, which would negatively impact their neighbors across the Horn of Africa.
Contextualizing the Dispute
The strained relationship between the two states dates back to 1963, when Somalia harbored claims of part of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. Although the signing of the Arusha Agreement saw normalcy return, the relations soured again when Kenya supported Ethiopia in the Ogaden War. However, President Daniel arap Moi’s visit to Somalia in 1984 helped ease tensions.
The longstanding civil war in Somalia had spillover effects on Kenya. Nonetheless, Nairobi supported Mogadishu by hosting thousands of its refugees. However, in 2011, citing self-defense against increased cross border attacks, Kenya launched a military incursion into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab. Although the operation was marred by controversies, with Kenyan troops being accused of engaging in illegal trade of charcoal and sugar, it is believed the operation contributed in weakening al-Shabaab and reclaiming important cities, such as Kismayo.
In 2014, Somalia took Kenya to the ICJ for encroaching on its maritime territory, despite the existence of an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) guiding their operations in the disputed territory. Although Kenya protested against the ICJ settling the dispute, Somalia ruled out any possibility of having an out of court settlement. Somalia also asked the Court to grant it reparations from Kenya on the basis that the country’s conduct in the area was in violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In February 2019, Kenya announced the expulsion of Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya and a recall of its ambassador from Mogadishu with claims that Somalia had auctioned oil blocs in the disputed territory. It also introduced mandatory stopover in Wajir for planes from Mogadishu. In addition, it pooled its troops from the interior of Somalia towards their shared border; leaving the area vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks.
A few months later, in May 2019, Kenya detained a Somali government delegation at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport —who were in the country to attend a workshop by the European Union— for not having visas. The rivalry also played out in June 2020, when Somalia supported Djibouti instead of Kenya for the United Nations Security Council’s non-permanent member seat.
In March 2020, Somalia banned the importation of Miraa/khat from Kenya following Nairobi’s decision to stop issuing visas on arrival to Somalis. It also expelled Kenya’s ambassador from its soil after Kenya allegedly backed the re-election of Jubbaland’s president, Ahmed Madobe, who is believed to have fallen out with the central government. This also led to fighting between Somali federal troops and those loyal to Madobe, which spilled into Kenya’s Mandera town.
During Somaliland’s President visit to Nairobi in December 2020, Kenya pledged to open a consulate and begin direct flights to Hargeisa. This did not go down well with Somalia, since it continues to have claims on the region even after it self-declared independence in 1991.
On 16th March 2021, Kenya declined to take part in the oral proceedings at the ICJ on the grounds of perceived unfairness by the Court, inadequate time to prepare following the Covid-19 pandemic, and claiming the virtual nature of the hearing was unsuitable. Some observers argue this move gave Somalia an upper hand since it had a significant amount of time to argue its case. However, others opine the move stems from Kenya’s lack of confidence in the Court due to the presence of judge Ahmed Yusuf, a Somali national on the bench. Kenya also believes Somalia is a proxy for powerful international actors, keen on isolating it so as to have full control over the East African Coast.
Which Way for Kenya and Somalia?
Although there are concerns that the current standoff between the two states risks turning into an armed confrontation, neither Kenya nor Somalia can afford an armed conflict with so much at stake. First, violent escalation poses a huge threat to regional development projects, such as the LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor). Second, if Kenya makes good on its threat and prematurely withdraws its troops from Somalia, al-Shabaab is likely to leverage these security lapses to further attack Nairobi and Mogadishu. Third, the Kenyan economy will suffer since Somalia is a big market for Kenya’s exports, including miraa. Lastly, Somalia’s stability will be compromised if Kenya forcefully repatriates Somali refugees following its demand to the United Nation to close two refugee camps (Dadaab and Kakuma) since it still lacks the capacity to resettle them. This will also further exacerbate the already dire humanitarian and security situation in the Horn of Africa.
Although the two countries’ maritime territorial dispute needs to be guided by international maritime laws principles, which are binding upon parties’ consent, parties should explore alternative dispute resolution mechanisms before resorting to the ICJ. The zero-sum outcomes associated with the ICJ are not desirable in this context, hence the need for Kenya and Somalia to move towards a win-win solution through diplomatic dialogue. We strongly believe good borders are not about technical lines on a map, but rather about political goodwill. The African Union’s Panel of the Wise is capable of leading the parties to the negotiating table since it is not hostile to any of the parties. It can facilitate negotiations so that both parties agree to a joint exploration arrangement for mutual interest guided by a treaty like the Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe Joint Development Authority, which was created after the states signed a treaty to regulate their joint exploration ventures in the Bight of Bonny.