MS Risk Blog

Neighbourly Quarrels: Somalia and Kenya

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Ties between Somalia and Kenya hit a new low in December 2020 when the Mogadishu government cut ties with Nairobi due to “constant political violation and Kenya’s open interference in Somalia’s independence”. The dispute between the two nations carried on into the new year with the Somali government accusing the Kenyan military of supporting the Jubbaland militia that fought Somali government forces in the town of Balad Hawa in late January.

What is this conflict rooted in?

There have been numerous issues in the past few months that have worsened the diplomatic ties. In December, the Somali government cuts ties with Kenya after it accused Kenya of political interference in relation to the electoral process of the region of Jubbaland. Somalia has also accused Kenya, in several statements, of supplementing armed fighters who engaged Somali forces in the border town of Balad Hawa on 25 January, a bout that cost 11 lives. Earlier signs of tensions building up can be traced back to December, when the president of Somaliland – the breakaway region which is not recognised by Somalia and internationally – was hosted in Nairobi. Somalia had also cut ties with Guinea after it received the Somaliland president. More recently, the two countries have been at odds over a maritime dispute, with Indian Ocean oil and gas reserves at stake. Somalia brought its case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2014, and last week (w/c 8 February) Somalia rejected Kenya’s fourth request to the ICJ to postpone the two countries’ maritime case.

In an attempt to ameliorate the relations between the two countries, during a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional body in December, representatives from the two nations arranged to restore their diplomatic relations. However, Somalia had one condition, and this was for an IGAD mission to be dispatched to investigate its claims of political meddling by Kenya, which Djibouti was mandated with. Kenya has always denied political interference, as well as, any violation of airspace and territories of Somalia. At the end of January, the IGAD fact-finding team found that, as claimed by Kenya, there was no proof that Kenya was interfering in Somalia’s affairs. However, there was evidence that Kenya has violated Somalia’s airspace. On this point, it was suggested that Kenya and Somalia use diplomatic efforts to resolve matters – in order to exercise restraint, and de-escalate tensions along their borders.

However, very shortly after, Somalia disapproved of the findings by the fact-finding commission that asserted that it found zero evidence indicating Kenya’s political interference. Osman Dubbe, the Somali Information Minister, labelled the report “biased,” and “one-sided” saying:

 “The outcome of their report came as a shock to us…They [investigators] refused to go to the Somali territory. They went to Kenya twice, they went to Mandera. We wanted them to visit the Gedo region, but they refused to cross the border.”

Impact on security

A lot is at stake when two neighbouring countries have a tense relationship. It is highly likely the insurgents Al-Shabaab are keenly observing the diplomatic fallout between the neighbours and weighing their options to see how they can take advantage of security lapses resulting from these shattered relations. In this, both countries stand to lose, with the ultimate champions being the militants.

Al Shabaab has recently been increasing their activities in northern Kenya – where in Mandera the governor, Ali Roba, of the county has said that the militants now control and occupy more than 50% of the county. Therefore, it is not only Somalia that will be impacted by the group when they try to take advantage of the diplomatic scuffle. Al Shabaab has been carrying out attacks in Kenya for over a decade, ever since Kenya sent troops into Somalia as assistance in the African Union mission directed to protect the Somali government and its people from the insurgent threat. Taking the example of what is happening in Mandera, there is the likelihood Al Shabaab will seek to expand the areas and people which they control and occupy while the two countries are embroiled in maritime and diplomatic tensions.

If there is no change to diplomatic relations, there is a likelihood that Somalia will call for a prompt withdrawal of Kenya’s 3,600 troops from Somalia – a key contributor to the African Union mission. Many Somali people seem to be eager for Kenyans to withdraw from their country, in spite of the impending security risks from Al Shabaab if this were to occur. If Kenya were to withdraw their troops as well, the forces countering the militant group would significantly decrease and give the militants the opportunity to expand their influence over areas and people.  Al Shabaab, which over the past decade has materialised into a very resilient force, could quickly overrun many regions in southern Somalia, where it still maintains some control. This dispute would need to be quickly and amicably resolved in order for it to not threaten, thwart and interrupt key security efforts in East Africa.

Moreover, the African Union’ AMISOM mission is set to end its mission and fully withdraw from Somalia by December 2021. However, the Al Shabaab rebels are still potent and pose a threat to both countries. Coupled with the US withdrawing their 700 troops on 15 January, it seems imperative for Somalia to rekindle relations with Kenya so that there is a more concerted effort against Al Shabaab. If the diplomatic spat between the countries continues, Somalia could see themselves less prepared in the fight against Al Shabaab and the Islamist group could take up the opportunity of recapturing lost territory, and further general attacks and disruption.

Is the election to blame for this diplomatic spat?

It is also important to look at this conflict in context. Somalia’s incumbent president, Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi, is currently running for re-election, and has taken a nationalist standpoint out on the campaign trail. It might be argued that this escalation in diplomatic tensions with Kenya is little more than a political move by the incumbent President Farmaajo to stir up quarrels, unite Somalis against the spectre of meddling foreigners, and to rally up the electorate behind him in the hope of securing him a second term. We seem to be seeing a repeat of events as preceding the election of 2016, where Farmaajo pushed the narrative of Ethiopia as the enemy that only he can successfully oppose, and this narrative aided in his election win. Currently, we see the same trend occurring but this time with Kenya. Farmaajo, his government and his supporters are also trying to showcase opposition groups in the country who contest his bid as traitors and pro-Kenya.