Kenya and Somalia’s Long-Simmering Territorial Dispute Threatens to Boil Over



Written by Julian Hattem


A 62,000-square-mile triangle of the Indian Ocean is driving a wedge in the Horn of Africa. For years, Kenya and Somalia have been at odds over the pie-shaped slice of the sea, to which each lays a claim and which is believed to contain sizable oil and gas deposits. But tensions between the two have been rising in recent months and are magnifying a standoff between Somalia’s central government and the semiautonomous Jubbaland region, in the country’s south.


The dispute between Kenya and Somalia is rooted in a disagreement over which direction the two countries’ border extends into the Indian Ocean. Somalia argues that the maritime boundary should continue on in the same direction as the land border’s southeasterly path. Kenya, meanwhile, insists that the border should take a roughly 45-degree turn at the shoreline and run in a latitudinal line, giving Nairobi access to a larger chunk of the sea.

Somalia brought its case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2014, but the hearing has been delayed. It is now scheduled for June. Kenya has opposed the process in The Hague, but Somalia, which is in a far weaker geopolitical position due to its weak political institutions and long-running security challenges, has hung its hopes on the International Court of Justice as its best avenue for justice. The coronavirus pandemic, however, threatens to push the hearing date back even further.


The dispute has drawn international attention, owing in part to the ramifications for the international energy market and the promise for lucrative oil and gas contracts. The United Kingdom and Norway have expressed support for Somalia, while the United States and France have backed Kenya’s claim.


Kenya has also sought out regional support, and it seems to have concluded that the semiautonomous Somali state of Jubbaland “is the only ally that it has in Somalia,” says Abdullahi Abdille Shahow, a Nairobi-based researcher. Kenya hopes that Jubbaland, which contains the entirety of Somalia’s southern border with Kenya as well as roughly 300 miles of southern coastline, will serve as a buffer between Nairobi and Mogadishu. “Basically, what Kenya is doing is to use Jubbaland as a federal state to undermine Mogadishu,” says Shahow.


The loose alliance between Kenya and Jubbaland has historical roots. Jubbaland was passed back and forth between British and Italian colonizers during the 20th century, so it developed shared bonds with neighboring Kenya, also a former British colony. More recently, Jubbaland’s militias, including those led by its state president, Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known in the region as Madobe, fought alongside Kenyan troops against al-Shabab, the militant group affiliated with al-Qaida.


Last August, Madobe was reelected in a vote disputed by Mogadishu and Ethiopia, another crucial regional player, but supported by Kenya. Madobe’s supporters accuse the Somali federal government of trying to orchestrate his ouster and replacing him with a Mogadishu loyalist.


Tensions between Somalia and Kenya reached a new peak in early March, when fighting between Somali federal troops and those loyal to Madobe spilled into Kenya, causing residents to flee the border town of Mandera. The Kenyan government claimed that the violence, which reportedly led to the destruction of property in Mandera, “amounts to an unwarranted attack by foreign soldiers with the intention of provoking Kenya.” Somali troops were reportedly chasing Jubbaland’s fugitive security minister, Abdirashid Janan, who was arrested in Mogadishu last year but escaped in January and is allegedly responsible for torture and other human rights abuses.


In the aftermath of the incident, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known as Farmajo, spoke on the phone with his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, to try and calm tensions, and each promised to improve border security and strengthen their diplomatic and trade ties. And the looming case at the International Court of Justice promises some sort of resolution to the maritime dispute, although the prospect of delayed proceedings throws that into question.


Even if the court in The Hague were to issue a ruling, however, either side could simply ignore the verdict and proceed with its own plans. Kenyatta has shown disregard for international legal institutions before, when he flouted an indictment from the International Criminal Court related to his role in state violence following the 2007 presidential election, in which more than 1,000 people died. Those charges were withdrawn in 2014. Meanwhile, a tripartite summit in Nairobi involving Farmajo, Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed scheduled for March was delayed over coronavirus fears.


Without further dialogue or a diplomatic breakthrough, the underlying hostility will only continue to simmer, with the potential to boil over. There are reports that Kenyan officials have discussed annexing Jubbaland, which would be an incredibly provocative step. But Kenya may not need to formally deploy troops to claim the territory. An increasingly autonomous Jubbaland loyal to Nairobi would be a de facto annexation that serves Kenya’s main geostrategic purpose, suggests Mukhtar Ainashe, a Somali analyst who was an adviser to former Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Leaders in Nairobi “want to do it indirectly, as they do it now, and try and fund and keep Ahmed Madobe in power for as long as they want him.”


The countries’ standoff could distract from the international joint mission against al-Shabab. U.S. intelligence officials say the group, which launched its first attack on American forces in Kenya in January, is eyeing opportunities for plots around East Africa and even in the U.S. Kenya has repeatedly toyed with withdrawing troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, and redeploying them to safeguard Kenyan territory. Kenyan troops have been present in Somalia since 2011, and their presence has sparked several retaliatory attacks from al-Shabab in Kenya.


For Farmajo in Mogadishu, Kenya’s increased backing of Jubbaland poses a threat both to his aspirations of Somalia as a strong centralized state and, potentially, to his continued political ambitions. Later this year, Somalia is expected to hold its first popular election in half a century, after Farmajo in February signed legislation that would replace the existing clan-based power-sharing system. If Jubbaland continues going its own way, Farmajo’s role as central federal leader becomes less and less important.


The path ahead is uncertain. Absent a court ruling in The Hague, Jubbaland has become a proxy battleground for Somalia and Kenya’s maritime dispute, as well as the two countries’ divergent regional ambitions. With high-level diplomacy seemingly halted by the coronavirus pandemic, the situation is ripe for more small-scale skirmishes and shows of force by each side. A ruling from the International Court of Justice might not settle the issue for good, but it would at least bring the standoff closer to resolution. Without it, there’s little chance of moving forward.


This article was published by World Politics Review.

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