Abdikariim A. Jama
Until Thursday, November 14 2019, Somalia has been on the receiving end of Kenya’s intensifying diplomatic pressure and multitudes of other arm-twisting to resolve its maritime boundary dispute out of court rather than through the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Diplomatic relations between the two East African neighbors soured early this year after Kenya accused Somalia of auctioning offshore oil blocks in a disputed area, an allegation Somalia strongly denied and disapproved.
At the center of the dispute is an area, almost 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) off the Indian Ocean coastline, said to be rich with oil, gas and other maritime resources that both countries claim as part of their respective Exclusive Economic Zone.
In efforts to reignite the economic engines of the country and reduce poverty among the Somali populations, Somalia resolved to exploit its petroleum resources effectively to achieve peace, stability and shared prosperity for all Somalis without damaging the environment.
Since independence, both countries stood different positions in regards to their maritime demarcations. Kenya has maintained that its maritime boundary with Somalia runs parallel to the line of latitude from the eastern terminus of their land border, mimicking its border demarcation with Tanzania. Somalia, for its part, argues that the sea border should follow the extension of the land border in a south-easterly direction, based on the principle of equidistance.
In late 2014, Somalia instituted proceedings against Kenya before the International Court of Justice over the matter after Kenya stalled the bilateral talks between July to August 2014, forcing Mogadishu to seek ICJ’s arbitration. In 2017 the Court passed a preliminary memorial in Somalia’s favour, which Kenya has appealed and unsuccessfully challenged the admissibility of the case at the ICJ on grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear and determine the case.
Mid this year, Kenya waded deeper into the controversy with an immigration stroke that blocked Somalia’s diplomats from attending an international conference in Nairobi. Before this incident, Kenya ordered mandatory two-tier checks for persons traveling from Mogadishu to Nairobi. In a measured retaliation, Somalia asked its officials to boycott all future events hosted in Kenya prompting Somalia’s international partners to opt for neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda.
All through Kenya’s unfriendly moves, Somalia, which is recovering from decades of state hiatus, resolved to demonstrate more political maturity than Kenya in respecting the case at the ICJ. While Kenya aggressively described the Somalia as, “the Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia has once again demonstrated that it has yet to attain and embrace the political maturity and diplomatic stance of a normal, well adjusted, and properly functioning modern government“.
As Kenya ramps up its punitive diplomatic measures against its neighbor, Somalia maintained to adopt a measured tone exhibiting level-headedness of a modern state while Kenya has thrown an embarrassing fit.
Perhaps this assured entrenchment is rooted in Somalia’s strong legal claim and defense, and as such, Somalia didn’t see the need to escalate the tit-for-tat diplomatic war and, in the process, chose to claim the moral high ground.
In a surprisingly mature move, Somalia said it’s committed to working with Kenya to address issues facing both nations.
“As a matter of international law, the court’s judgment will be binding on Kenya,” President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo of Somalia said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September this year. “We trust that, when that judgment is issued and the boundary is established, a lasting settlement of this longstanding dispute will finally be achieved.”Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, President of the Federal Republic of Somalia
Thanks to Somalia’s enduring strategic patience, this week an agreement to normalize relations was reached between Somalia and Kenya during a bilateral meeting held between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Somali counterpart Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed on the sidelines of a global population and development summit in Kenya’s capital
This move represents not just a positive step in strengthening bilateral relations between the two neighbors, but also a victory over those who would prioritize risk-aversion ahead of the actual work of diplomacy, which requires presence, relationships, and a multilayered understanding of the geopolitical and social dynamics that shape the relations of the two neighboring countries.
Somalia and Kenya are intrinsically linked economically, politically and ethnically. Moreover, it is not in the interest of Somalia and Kenya to jeopardize the modest political and economic progress achieved in the region in recent years.
Kenya as the original diplomatically offending party in the diplomatic dispute, should demonstrate the equanimity to avoid making further diplomatic trouble over the Somalia’s domestic affairs and sovereignty. This is what I hope for following the establishment of a new page of friendship to build confidence and redeem the recent loss of trust and poisoned political environment between the two countries.
Kenya and Somalia have far more to cooperate on than feud over. They are deeply intertwined and interdependent. For instance, Kenya has a hugely significant Somali population and, since the Somali state collapsed in 1991, has hosted thousands of Somalis. Thousands of Kenyan workers and private companies also operate across Somalia to fill the human capital deficit of the country.
Besides some very sensitive historical political achievements fulfilled by this fresh agreement, it signifies that Somalia has transformed from a traditional regional theatre of chaos to a mature and modern diplomacy champion. It has become more familiar with the mechanisms of the international system and the regional dynamics.
This historical achievement can also be taken as a reminder for Somali officials and politicians to pay more attention to the importance of maintaining their capabilities in managing the application of diplomacy in the domestic scene and strengthening ongoing digital approaches to diplomacy in the coming years. This peaceful approach demonstrated by the Somalia government would also be a free of charge historical training course for others in the region, perhaps.