Somalia and Kenya still have a road to neighbourly cooperation

Neither Somalia nor Kenya can afford the multifaceted dispute that led to the severance of ties turning into a protracted crisis.

Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta listen to speeches during Farmaajo's inauguration ceremony in Somalia's capital Mogadishu [Feisal Omar/Reuters]

In December, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Kenya accusing it of repeatedly “meddling in its internal affairs” and “violating its sovereignty”. The move brought the long-simmering tensions between the two neighbours to the surface and ushered in a tinderbox situation that will have wide-reaching geopolitical ramifications if not resolved quickly.

Neither Somalia nor Kenya can afford the dispute turning into a protracted crisis: The two East African nations share a long land border and have strong socioeconomic ties.

Indeed, Somalia is currently home to tens of thousands of Kenyan workers who play an important role in the country’s corporate, aid, service and hospitality sectors. Until early December, Somalia had a visa-on-arrival arrangement with Kenya, which allowed 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 Somalia’s post-conflict reconstruction and hosted several conferences that played an important role in the success of peace-building efforts in Somalia. The Somali diaspora also has significant investments in Kenya due to the relatively favourable working and market conditions in the country.

Moreover, Kenya is one of the countries contributing troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the two nations are currently fighting against a shared enemy that is threatening their safety and stability: Al-Shabab.

The multiple roots of the Kenya-Somalia crisis

While the Somali authorities have not yet disclosed the specific reasons behind their decision to cut diplomatic ties with Kenya, there are several well-known tension points in the two countries’ relations that likely paved the way for the move.

The trade imbalance between the neighbours and Kenya’s repeated suspension of cross-border trade activities in recent years due to “security concerns” is one of these tension points.

The trade of Khat, a herbal stimulant widely grown in Kenya, is currently at the heart of the trade disagreements between the two nations. Somalia, where Khat is widely enjoyed, has long been Kenya’s main export market for the red-stemmed, chewable green shrub. In March, however, Somalia practically banned Khat imports 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 trade relationship with Nairobi.

Somalia is also discontented with Kenya’s refusal to issue visas to its citizens on arrival, despite such an arrangement being agreed to in 2019 during a meeting between President Mohamed Farmaajo and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Jubaland, one of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states which border Kenya, is another source of tension between the two neighbours. On November 30, Somalia expelled Kenya’s ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Nairobi, accusing Kenya of interfering in the electoral process in the state. Local authorities in Jubaland claim Mogadishu is seeking to remove the state’s President Ahmed Madobe, a key ally of Nairobi, and put a loyalist in power to increase central control. In the meantime, Somalia is accusing Kenya of using its military presence in the region to support and maintain a regional government that it considers “unfriendly”.

Kenya and Somalia are also at odds due to a spat over maritime borders, with possibly lucrative Indian Ocean oil and gas reserves at stake. The dispute now rests with the International Court of Justice, but Kenya is still trying to reach an out of court settlement. It is safe to say this case, whose final hearing is due in March 2021, has influenced how Nairobi treats Mogadishu. Kenya seems to be failing to understand that no Somali leader in their right mind would dare an out of court settlement with Kenya since it would turn the public opinion against them.

The two countries are also having disputes in the security arena. Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) serving under AMISOM in Somalia are facing criticism for allegedly 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 break al-Shabab’s communication channels. The Somali government openly condemned Kenya for destroying the towers, even though the 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 leader Musa Bihi Abdi in Nairobi. At the end of the visit, the two leaders announced closer relations in a joint statement, with Kenya committing to opening a consulate in Somaliland by the end of March. Many believe this was the main reason behind the latest escalation in tensions.

Domestic politics has also played a role in Somalia’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Kenya. A presidential election is scheduled to take place in the country on February 8, and once again President Farmaajo is trying to win the race by creating an outside enemy and stoking nationalist sentiment. Prior to the 2016 election, Farmaajo presented Ethiopia as an enemy that only he can successfully confront and this narrative helped him obtain the presidency. Today, he is clearly trying to do the same with Kenya. Farmajo’s government and supporters are also pushing the narrative that opposition groups in the country contesting his presidential bid are pro-Kenya and hence “traitors”.

The way forward

Despite all the aforementioned pressure points, the Somali and Kenyan governments need each other to ensure the future security and prosperity of their people. They can still choose the path of diplomatic sanity, engage in talks, and prevent a physical confrontation that would be devastating not only for their own nations but also for the wider region.

With the severance of diplomatic ties, it became clear that the “wait-and-see” attitude both countries assumed in regards to their bilateral problems is not working. If they are to move beyond this crisis and build a strong neighbourly alliance, a massive paradigm shift in the way the two countries relate to each other is needed.

Somalia and Kenya can take several steps, together and independently, to ease current tensions and resolve outstanding issues:

A committee consisting of Somali and Kenyan technocrats can be tasked with mapping the issues and grievances between the two nations and offering policy recommendations. Issues like the trade imbalance, Khat exports, visa regimes, and border security can be resolved swiftly 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 problems between the KDF, Somali forces and local administrations. The alleged misconduct of the KDF forces is not undermining only the relations between Somalia and Kenya but also regional security. If both nations acknowledge this fact and allow for claims of misconduct to be independently investigated, they can eventually come up with an effective security strategy acceptable to both sides and keep their border areas secure.

The Jubaland dispute, meanwhile, can also be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy. The Somali authorities, rather than taking punitive measures against Kenya such as expelling its ambassador, should directly discuss their grievances over the issue with Kenya’s leaders. Moreover, rather than acting as if all of the regional state’s problems are tied to Kenya, they should treat the issue as a domestic one. If Mogadishu manages to come to an understanding with the Jubaland administration through peaceful consensus building and dialogue, Kenya will automatically find itself unable to intervene in the situation and the problem will resolve itself.

But the two nations should not be left to deal with this multifaceted dispute on their own. Other African powers and regional bodies should also move to put pressure on Somalia and Kenya to swiftly restore their diplomatic relations and resolve their grievances through dialogue. Ethiopia, which has close ties to both countries and has recently played a leading role in the resolution of many regional conflicts, can take steps to bring the two administrations to the negotiating table. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which counts both Somalia and Kenya among its members, can also help bring the dispute to an end. The trade bloc already started putting pressure on Somalia to resolve its diplomatic tiff with Kenya during its 38th Extraordinary Assembly in late December and convinced Mogadishu to “take the first steps” to resolve the dispute. These efforts should gain further speed in the new year.

In the end, neither Kenya nor Somalia has much to gain from a protracted conflict. There is still a clear path to peaceful coexistence and neighbourly cooperation and the two nations should get on it before its too late.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.