21 November 2019
- Kenya’s restoration of relations with Somalia will boost trade and security cooperation, and will help contain militant threat
- Kenyatta will likely reject court verdict on offshore area disputed with Somalia, and will instead seek out-of-court settlement to resolve dispute
- Both countries will struggle to compromise on territorial dispute in longer term, meaning that further downturn in Kenya-Somalia relations is likely in 2020
President Kenyatta and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ agreed to restore bilateral ties in a meeting in Nairobi on 14 November. This follows a deterioration of diplomatic relations in the last year over a disputed 100,000 square kilometres offshore area that likely holds vast oil and gas reserves. Both leaders publicly agreed to resolve the dispute in a mutually acceptable manner. Kenyatta also said that the Government would lift imposed visa restrictions and allow direct flights from Nairobi to Mogadishu to resume; these restrictions were put in place in May in an attempt to pressure Somalia over the issue.
The location of the Kenya-Somalia maritime boundary has been increasingly disputed in recent years due to growing interest in offshore oil and gas resources, and after Somalia sued Kenya in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the dispute in 2014. The dispute escalated in February, when Kenya accused Mogadishu of auctioning oil and gas blocks in the disputed area (see our 21 February Report). Since then, Kenya has tried to pressure Somalia into negotiating an out-of-court settlement, including through the visa and flight restrictions. Kenya has also threatened to close the Dabaab refugee camp and withdraw its troops from Somalia (see our 4 April Report). Relations have been further strained by Nairobi and Mogadishu supporting rival elites in August elections in Jubaland, a Somali state bordering Kenya.
The move to restore relations reflects that Kenyatta will seek to facilitate talks with Mogadishu to reach a negotiated settlement before the ICJ hearings, which are expected in June 2020. Meanwhile, Farmaajo is interested in boosting trade with Kenya, and ensuring that Kenya continues to deploy 4,000 troops in Somalia through the AMISOM peacekeeping mission. As a result, the restored relations will likely lead to improved diplomatic and economic relations in the next few months. However, relations could again rapidly deteriorate in 2020, as Kenyatta will almost certainly refuse to accept any ICJ verdict that cedes disputed territory to Somalia. Similarly, Farmaajo will likely reject an out-of-court settlement that favours Kenya in order to avoid appearing weak. Kenya and Somalia’s competing interests in Jubaland will further exacerbate tensions, ensuring that bilateral ties remain fragile.
Nevertheless, the recent improved relations will boost trade, and improve security cooperation and intelligence sharing in the next few months. However, as both sides are unlikely to agree on demarcating the maritime border, relations are likely to again deteriorate over the coming year. Such a scenario will likely see Kenyatta again threatening to withdraw Kenyan AMISOM troops; however, an actual withdrawal is improbable as this would strengthen the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which Nairobi seeks to contain in Somalia. Similarly, even in the event of relations worsening, security and intelligence cooperation will continue, as weakening al-Shabab’s capabilities will remain a priority for both parties. This, along with Kenya’s deepened counter-terrorism cooperation with the US, will ensure that Kenya remains able to disrupt most planned complex/major militant attacks in cities like Nairobi and Mombasa over the coming six months.