(Hadalsame) 18 March 2020 – Tensions between Mogadishu and Nairobi escalated after two opposing Somali militia groups clashed in the town of Bula Hawa, Somalia, which is situated about 3 km from the Kenyan border town of Mandera, on 2 March. According to local reports, forces from the Nairobi-backed Jubaland semi-autonomous government crossed the Kenyan border a month earlier and were pursued by the Somali army. The confrontation between the Somali National Army and Jubaland Security Forces (JSF) left several people dead as the fighting spilled over the Kenyan border; threatening the security of the inhabitants of Mandera.
In response to these events, the Kenyan Government headed by President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a press statement calling for the Somali Government to cease and desist from unwarranted provocations on Kenyan territory. The Somali Government perceives the support of Nairobi for the breakaway Jubaland State of Somalia President Ahmed Mohamed Islam as an encroachment on its internal affairs.
On 5 March, President Kenyatta and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo agreed to resolve the rising tensions between the two countries and both called for increased co-operation in the areas of border security, diplomacy and trade relations. Given the contention of the two African states on several divisive issues, particularly in the areas of security and maritime territorial borders, their relationship remains precarious.
Kenya-Somalia relations are marked by increasing tensions that have escalated in recent years and which stem from the divisive issues of security and the maritime border dispute between the two East African states. Somalia has been in a constant state of political instability since 1991, which has left the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia struggling to implement its authority over the small areas that it controls. The unrest has also been conducive to the rise of militant jihadist groups such as Al-Shabaab, which was formed in 2006, and which continues to pose a significant security threat. The terrorist group still holds territory in the south-eastern portion of Somalia and is constantly engaged in attacks against military forces and civilians in both Somalia and Kenya.
The threat posed by Al-Shabaab prompted the Kenyan Government to develop strong ties with Jubaland, a semi-autonomous Somali state located in southern Somalia, bordering Kenya. Nairobi perceives the Jubaland region as an important buffer zone between its territory and Al-Shabaab-controlled territory in Somalia. The Kenyan Government, despite opposition from the governments of both Somalia and Ethiopia, supported the election of Jubaland’s president Ahmed Mohamed Islam last year in order to ensure the safety of its own borders. The close ties between Jubaland and the Kenyan Government and the internal tensions between Somalia’s federal government and its constituent states and regions has drawn Kenya into Somalia’s domestic affairs. Although Kenya’s interest lies in securing its own border from more attacks by Al-Shabaab, the Somali Government sees Nairobi as meddling in its internal affairs.
The maritime boundary dispute between Nairobi and Mogadishu further complicates the relationship between the two. On 28 August 2014, Somalia instituted proceedings against Kenya before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with regard to their maritime boundary in the Indian Ocean. Both states claim ownership over a narrow 100,000 square kilometres of continental shelf that is believed to contain significant deposits of oil and gas. The Kenyan Government claims that the boundary lies parallel to the lines of latitude, a definition which has been adopted by other African states in delimiting their maritime boundaries, such as Kenya-Tanzania, Tanzania-Mozambique and Mozambique-South Africa. The Kenyan Government has already awarded prospecting rights to several oil and gas companies within the disputed zones such as ENI, Total and Anadarko. On the other hand, the Somali Government argues that the maritime boundary extends offshore from the land border between the two countries. Somalia auctioned prospecting rights to the disputed area on February 2016 with oil companies from the United Kingdom and Norway bidding for rights on the shelf. Both the UK and Norway have shown support for the Somali Government’s claim.
The maritime boundary dispute is reflected in the escalating diplomatic row between the two states. On 17 February 2019, the Kenyan Government expelled Mohamud Ahmed Nur, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya and recalled its own ambassador in Somalia, Lucas Tumbo. Moreover, the Kenyan Government also enacted several policies such as flight suspensions and closure of its borders against Somalia last year.
Even with the repeated efforts of both countries to resort to diplomatic solutions, particularly in the issue of their maritime territorial dispute, it seems that there will be no potential rapprochement between Nairobi and Mogadishu any time soon. For both countries, the income that would flow from the potential hydrocarbon resources in the disputed area is too good to pass up. The ICJ will commence its public hearings on the maritime dispute on 4 June 2020 and how that will play out in the relationship between the two states is unclear. It should not, however, stop both governments from reinforcing their security co-operation, particularly against Al-Shabaab, which continue to poses a significant threat to both countries. It is the interest of both states to ensure that the terrorist group is held in check. Al-Shabaab poses a significant threat to Somalia’s domestic security and continues to challenge the effectiveness of the federal government which is already under pressure from its tense relations with its members states. It is equally in Kenya’s interests to ensure Somalia’s political stability, which, if left unchecked, potentially threatens and affects its own citizens.
Whether both countries could set aside their disputes in order to focus their attention on their common threats is, however, open to question.