In December, Somalia severed diplomatic relations with Kenya, accusing it of “repeatedly interfering in its internal affairs” and “violating its sovereignty”. This decision brought to the surface the lingering tensions between the two neighbors and ushered in a powder keg situation that will have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications if not resolved quickly.
Neither Somalia nor Kenya can allow the dispute to turn into a protracted crisis: the two East African countries share a long land border and have strong socio-economic ties.
Indeed, Somalia is currently home to tens of thousands of Kenyan workers who play important roles in the country’s business, aid, service and hospitality sectors. Until early December, Somalia had a visa-on-arrival agreement with Kenya, which made it possible for Kenyan nationals to do business in the country with relative ease.
Kenya, on the other hand, hosts hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees and is home to a large population of ethnic Somalis. It has also invested heavily in post-conflict reconstruction in Somalia and has hosted several conferences that have played an important role in the success of peacebuilding efforts in Somalia. The Somali diaspora also has significant investments in Kenya due to the relatively favorable working and market conditions in the country.
Additionally, Kenya is one of the troop contributors to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the two nations are currently fighting a common enemy that threatens their security and stability: Al-Shabab.
The multiple roots of the Kenya-Somalia crisis
Although the Somali authorities have yet to reveal the specific reasons for their decision to cut diplomatic relations with Kenya, several well-known points of tension in relations between the two countries likely paved the way for this decision.
One of these points of tension is the trade imbalance between neighbors and Kenya’s repeated suspension of cross-border business activities in recent years due to “security concerns”.
Trade in Khat, a plant stimulant widely cultivated in Kenya, is currently at the heart of trade disagreements between the two nations. Somalia, where khat is widely appreciated, has long been Kenya’s main export market for the chewable green shrub with red stems. In March, however, Somalia virtually banned imports of khat from Kenya, citing the spread of COVID-19 as the reason. The move was seen by many as an attempt by Mogadishu to use Khat as a bargaining chip in its efforts to establish a more balanced trading relationship with Nairobi.
Somalia is also unhappy with Kenya’s refusal to issue visas to its citizens on arrival, although such an arrangement was agreed in 2019 during a meeting between President Mohamed Farmaajo and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Jubaland, one of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states bordering Kenya, is another source of tension between the two neighbors. On November 30, Somalia expelled the Kenyan ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Nairobi, accusing Kenya of interfering in the electoral process in the state. Local authorities in Jubaland say Mogadishu is seeking to impeach state president Ahmed Madobe, a key Nairobi ally, and put a loyalist in power to increase central control. Meanwhile, Somalia accuses Kenya of using its military presence in the region to support and maintain a regional government it deems “hostile”.
Kenya and Somalia are also at odds over a conflict over maritime borders, with potentially lucrative oil and gas reserves in the Indian Ocean at stake. The dispute now falls to the International Court of Justice , but Kenya is still trying to reach an amicable settlement. It is safe to say that this case, which is scheduled for a final hearing in March 2021, has influenced the way Nairobi treats Mogadishu. Kenya does not seem to understand that no sane Somali leader would dare to settle amicably with Kenya because it would turn public opinion against them.
The two countries also have disputes in the area of security. The Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) serving under AMISOM in Somalia are criticized for targeting Somali telecommunications towers, which are crucial to the local economy as they are used not only for communication but also for monetary transactions, under the guise of trying to -The communication channels of Shabab. The Somali government has openly condemned Kenya for destroying the towers, although authorities in Nairobi continue to deny any involvement in the attacks.
Somaliland, the northwestern region that declared independence from Somalia in 1991, is another source of conflict between Mogadishu and Nairobi. A Kenyan delegation visited Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa in July to discuss bilateral relations and in December President Kenyatta hosted Somaliland’s leader Musa Bihi Abdi in Nairobi. At the end of the visit, the two leaders announced a closer relationship in a joint statement, with Kenya pledging to open a consulate in Somaliland by the end of March. Many believe this is the main reason for the latest escalation in tensions.
Domestic politics also played a role in Somalia’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Kenya. A presidential election is slated for the country on February 8, and once again President Farmaajo is trying to win the race by creating an external enemy and stoking nationalist sentiment. Ahead of the 2016 election, Farmaajo presented Ethiopia as an enemy that only he can successfully face and this narrative helped him secure the presidency. Today he is clearly trying to do the same with Kenya. The government and Farmajo supporters also back the rhetoric that opposition groups in the country who challenge his presidential candidacy are pro-Kenya and therefore “traitors.”
The path to follow
Despite all of the aforementioned pressure points, the Somali and Kenyan governments need each other to ensure the future security and prosperity of their people. They can always choose the path of diplomatic sanity, engage in talks and prevent a physical confrontation that would be devastating not only for their own country, but also for the region at large.
With the breakdown of diplomatic relations, it has become clear that the two countries’ wait-and-see attitude towards their bilateral issues is not working. If they are to emerge from this crisis and build a strong neighborhood alliance, a massive paradigm shift in the way the two countries interact is needed.
Somalia and Kenya can take several steps, together and independently, to ease current tensions and resolve outstanding issues:
A committee made up of Somali and Kenyan technocrats may be tasked with mapping issues and grievances between the two countries and coming up with policy recommendations. Problems such as trade imbalance, khat exports, visa regimes and border security can be resolved quickly and effectively if both governments commit to following the recommendations of this technical and bilateral committee.
A similar committee can also be formed to resolve issues between the KDF, Somali forces and local administrations. The alleged misconduct of the KDF forces not only undermines relations between Somalia and Kenya, but also regional security. If the two countries recognize this fact and allow an independent investigation into the misconduct allegations, they can eventually come up with an effective security strategy acceptable to both sides and ensure the security of their border areas.
The Jubaland dispute, meanwhile, can also be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy. The Somali authorities, rather than taking punitive measures against Kenya, such as the expulsion of its ambassador, should discuss their grievances on the issue directly with the Kenyan leadership. Moreover, rather than acting as if all the problems of the regional state were linked to Kenya, they should treat the problem as a national problem. If Mogadishu can come to an agreement with the Jubaland administration through peaceful consensus and dialogue, Kenya will automatically find itself unable to intervene in the situation and the problem will resolve itself.
But the two nations must not be left to face this multifaceted dispute alone. Other African powers and regional bodies should also act to put pressure on Somalia and Kenya to quickly re-establish diplomatic relations and resolve their grievances through dialogue. Ethiopia, which has close ties with the two countries and has recently played a leading role in resolving many regional conflicts, can take steps to bring the two administrations to the negotiating table. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has both Somalia and Kenya as its members, can also help to end the dispute. The trade bloc has already started to pressure Somalia to settle its diplomatic dispute with Kenya at its 38th Extraordinary Assembly in late December and has convinced Mogadishu to “take the first steps” to resolve the dispute. These efforts are expected to accelerate in the new year.
In the end, neither Kenya nor Somalia has much to gain from protracted conflict. There is still a clear path to peaceful coexistence and good neighborly cooperation and the two nations should embark on it before it is too late.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.