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Kenya-Somalia maritime boundary dispute is shaping regional politics

October 06th, 2021
topic: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Kenya, Somalia
tags: conflict, geopolitics, Kenya, Somalia

A longstanding maritime border dispute pitting Kenya against Somalia, now under the International Court of Justice, has transcended boundaries and is now affecting the politics and relations in the Horn of Africa while attracting global attention.

The contention emanates from which direction the 160,000-square-kilometer border extends into the Indian Ocean. While Somalia insists that its Southern boundary should stretch south-east and extend towards its land border, Kenya argues that the border should take about a 45-degree turn at the shoreline, while running at the latitudinal area. Ostensibly, this would give Kenya access to a bulk of the maritime zone. 

Tracking the dispute

Kenya has over the years maintained that a maritime boundary agreement has always existed since 1979, and has been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the dispute. However, in 2014, Somalia took Kenya to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) after out of court settlements failed. Both countries are signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

In the event that parties to the conflict fail to reach an agreement, a third party, such as the ICJ, is mandated to institute boundary delimitation to make a determination on where the water borders lie. While the court’s rulings are binding, it doesn’t have enforcement powers.

The Indian Ocean contested area provides a source of income and livelihood for fishermen and is believed to have vast oil and gas deposits, which explains the global attention it has attracted.

The court case has dragged on for close to 7 years, with Nairobi accusing the court of bias after it failed to grant Kenya’s request to delay the proceedings.

Kenya’s recent request to have the proceedings further pushed forward due to COVID-19 was denied with the submissions taking place in March this year. Kenya boycotted the proceedings. 

“Kenya has decided not to participate at the Maritime Delimitation Case (Somalia v Kenya) which is currently ongoing at the International Court of Justice," a statement from Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs read in part. "This decision is on account of procedural unfairness at the Court. It is a decision that was made after deep reflection and extensive consultation on how best to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kenya.” 

Kenya’s issue with the ICJ, it says, emanates from ‘third party commercial interests’ which it believes interfere with the case, arguing that they might have far reaching implications on East Africa’s peace and security.

The court, having heard oral submissions from Somalia, has announced that it will deliver a ruling on 12 October 2021.

“Kenya has also informed the Court that influential third party commercial interests are fueling the case that threatens to destabilise the peace and security of an already fragile region," the statement from Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs further read. "The speed at which the matter was rushed before the Court and the players involved in this dispute, pointed to a well-orchestrated strategy of pitting the countries against each other in total disregard to the precarious security situation in the region. Influential third parties are intent on using instability in Somalia to advance predatory commercial interests with little regard to peace and security in the region.” 

Diplomatic tiff and the Horn of Africa angle

But the dispute has played out outside the court, with the two countries severing diplomatic ties as each accuses the other of interference on territorial integrity, trade, domestic affairs and security.

In 2019, Kenya came under fire from Somalia for deporting its minister and two legislators after they were denied entry into the country at the airport.

In March 2020, Somalia slapped Kenya with a ban on importation of Khat, a popular stimulant plant in Somalia, under the guise of observing COVID-19 measures. Somalia, however, allowed Khat from Ethiopia to enter the country.

The diplomatic spat further heightened in December, when Somalia accused Kenya of interfering in its domestic affairs; allegations that Kenya denied.

As a result, Somalia's government directed Kenyan diplomats to leave the country within seven days and recalled its diplomats. 

The tiff has escalated to the horn of Africa. A summit by The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc consisting of governments from the African Great Lakes, Horn of Africa and Nile Valley and of which Kenya and Somalia are members, had picked a mission led by Djibouti to carry out a fact finding mission on the Kenya-Somalia spat.

The mission found no substantial evidence on Somalia’s claims. Somalia dismissed the findings of the mission, alleging interference by Kenya, which in turn introduced a new spat between Djibouti and Somalia.

Somalia had also threatened to quit IGAD in the event that the findings were not reversed.

Elusive truce

There has been a series of meetings to thaw the diplomatic tensions, and flights that had been suspended to and from Somalia by Kenya were recently restored after the two Presidents met at the inauguration ceremony of President Ismail Omar Gelle in Djibouti and later in London. 

In August, Kenya's President and a delegation of senior government officials met Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble at the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and agreed to bolster ties and collaborate on trade and international issues. 

But as the two nations, the region and the world await the ICJ ruling, pundits say that the decision of the court, whichever way it goes, will have significant ramifications for the area. 

"These tensions have just been bottled up. The ruling and how it is interpreted by both countries could exacerbate an already volatile situation in the Horn of Africa," said Dr. Lameck Kiptoo, an international relations expert. "The African Union and regional bodies like IGAD should be prepared to handle the situation before it escalates and threaten regional peace and stability."

Image by: Random Institute

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Kenya Somalia
Kenyan coastal fishermen fly black flags on their fishing dhows with the message "Save Lamu Waters" as they take part in a demonstration demanding to be heard in a legal dispute between Kenya and Somalia over a maritime demarcation in the Indian Ocean.
© TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images
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