Somalia is, once again, in political turmoil. The Horn of Africa nation’s opposition leaders say they no longer recognise the authority of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known by his nickname “Farmaajo”, after his term expired on February 8 without a political agreement on a path towards elections to replace him.
Somalia’s most recent political impasse, and the way it eventually resolves, will have significant consequences not only for the country but also its neighbours, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Kenya and Ethiopia have been heavily involved in Somalia’s politics since the country’s independence in 1960. For decades, they pursued a united policy towards Somalia to counter pan-Somalia irredentism.
Pan-Somalia irredentism, or “Soomaalinimo”, refers to the Somali vision of establishing a unified “Greater Somalia” consisting of British and Italian Somaliland (now both officially part of Somalia), French Somaliland (now Djibouti), the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) in Kenya. In the early years of independence, Somalia waged wars against its neighbours to expand its sovereignty over all these lands, leading Ethiopia and Kenya to sign a bilateral defence agreement to protect their territories.
However, Kenya’s 2011 military intervention in Somalia upended Addis Ababa and Nairobi’s decades-old alliance against Mogadishu. The two neighbouring nations’ decision to support opposing sides in the autonomous Somali region Jubbaland’s 2019 presidential election further increased the tensions. Today, as Somalia works towards holding new elections and ending its political crisis, Ethiopia and Kenya are also looking for ways to expand their influence over the restive nation’s political leadership.
To understand the importance Somalia’s ongoing leadership contest holds for Kenya and Ethiopia, it is necessary to examine the region’s long history of inter-state rivalry and conflict.
In the early 1960s, after British colonial authorities granted administration of the NFD to Kenya, ethnic Somalis living in the region started an armed uprising with Mogadishu’s backing to secede from Kenya and join Somalia.
In December 1963, just weeks after declaring independence from Britain, the Kenyan government responded to the ongoing skirmishes by declaring a state of emergency in the region. Kenya’s prime minister at the time, Jomo Kenyatta, made it clear in his emergency announcement that Kenya views the NFD as part of its territory and any conflict in the region as domestic.
In the following months, as it became clear that Mogadishu is not willing to give up its irredentist claim over the NFD, the Kenyan government closed ranks with another nation suffering from Somalia’s desire for expansion: Ethiopia.
In 1964, Kenyatta, now as Kenya’s first president, signed a mutual defence agreement with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie to contain Somali aggression. The two nations renewed this pact in 1979 and again in 1989.
In Kenya, Mogadishu merely supported local armed groups to further its irredentist ambitions, but in Ethiopia, it launched a full-scale war.
In 1977, the Somalia National Army invaded Ethiopia in an attempt to annex the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region. The invasion could have reached its goal, if only it did not take place in the context of the Cold War.
At the time, both the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States were expanding their respective spheres of influence throughout the Horn of Africa, and paying particular attention to Ethiopia and Somalia.
Despite supporting Somalia before the war, once the conflict broke out, the USSR encouraged Somalia and Ethiopia to find a negotiated solution to the dispute – a move that frustrated Somalia’s President Siad Barre. In response, in November 1977, he renounced the 1974 Treaty of Friendship between Somalia and the USSR. He also ordered all Soviet advisers to leave the country within seven days, ended Soviet use of strategic naval facilities on the Indian Ocean and broke diplomatic relations with the USSR’s leading ally, Cuba.
With that, the USSR and its allies started shifting personnel and weapons to Ethiopia, effectively turning the war’s balance in Ethiopia’s favour. Barre expected his move to break ties with the USSR to result in increased support from the US. This, however, did not happen and Barre ordered his forces to retreat back to Somalia in March 1978.
The Ogaden defeat caused massive political turmoil in Somalia and sowed the seeds of the collapse of Barre’s government, and effectively the Somali state, in 1991.
Following the collapse of the Barre regime in 1991, due to a lack of central authority and ongoing internal conflicts, Somalia started to be classified in the international arena as a “failed state”. This designation spurred multiple regional and multilateral efforts to resolve the country’s crisis.
Kenya and Ethiopia have been central to these efforts. Both countries hosted numerous conferences about Somalia during this period and militarily intervened in the country. At the time, Addis Ababa and Nairobi were working together to instigate the formation of a new Somali government that would not be a threat to their political and security interests in their immediate neighbourhood.
In 2004, Kenya, Ethiopia and other regional powers’ efforts to bring peace and stability to Somalia resulted in the formation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the election of Abdullahi Yusuf as the new president of Somalia. This was an outcome that pleased both Kenya and Ethiopia. Yusuf, who fled to Ethiopia after taking part in a failed coup attempt against Barre in 1979, had been a trusted ally of Addis Ababa for decades.
Yusuf, who was seen by most of the Somali population as an Ethiopian proxy, however, failed to unite the nation. As internal conflict continued to ravage the country, he announced his resignation in 2008.
Yusuf’s exit from the Somali political scene, and the TFG’s consequent loss of control over most of the country, paved the way for the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – an Islamic legal and political organisation established to end lawlessness and domestic conflict in Somalia.
The ICU introduced a modicum of stability to the country after decades of war, especially in South Central Somalia. Many Somalis welcomed ICU rule not because they were ideologically committed to Islamism, but because they were tired of endless conflict and unsuccessful international efforts to bring peace to the country.
However, the rise of the ICU unsettled Ethiopia and, in December 2006, it sent its troops to Somalia to oust it from power. While the Ethiopian forces succeeded in defeating the ICU, this led to increased instability in Somalia and the wider region. The al-Shabab armed group swiftly increased its influence over the region, and Somalia entered into another period of conflict.
In October 2011, following a series of cross border attacks by Somalia-based al-Shabab fighters on foreign nationals and aid workers in Kenya, Nairobi deployed its troops to the semi-autonomous southern Somali region of Jubbaland.
The incursion angered not only Mogadishu, but also Kenya’s main regional ally, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa was wary of Kenya’s presence in Jubbaland, as it thought the military intervention could give increased power to the Somali Ogaden clan occupying the region – the same clan that has long been waging a separatist war against Addis Ababa in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region through the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Furthermore, Kenya formed an alliance with Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, also known as Madobe – a controversial militia commander from the Somali Ogaden clan. Madobe had fought against the government in Mogadishu as an ally of al-Shabab for years and was involved with fighters seen as supportive of the ONLF.
In 2012, Madobe’s militia, backed by Kenyan troops, managed to expel al-Shabab from Jubbaland’s capital, Kismayo, which is also a strategic port city. Over the next two years, Madobe presided over clan reconciliation in Jubbaland and in 2015, with Kenyan backing, he was elected president of the semi-autonomous region.
Madobe’s growing power in Jubbaland, and alliance with Kenya, made Ethiopia feel vulnerable. As a result, it threw its weight behind the Mogadishu government, reversing its decades-old policy of supporting regional governments against the centre to rein in its powers. This also marked the end of the Kenya-Ethiopia alliance against the pan-Somali irredentist threat.
The tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia came to the surface once again in August 2019, during the Jubbaland presidential election. Kenya once again supported incumbent Madobe, while Ethiopia allied itself with Somalia’s President Farmaajo, who was pushing for Madobe’s ouster. Madobe eventually won the election, but Mogadishu refused to accept the result.
After the election, Alan Duale, then-Majority leader of the National Assembly of Kenya, and Yusuf Haji, who served as minister of defence during Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, went to Jubbaland to attend Madobe’s inauguration.
The plane carrying the Kenyan government delegation flew directly to Kismayo, against a directive by the Federal Government of Somalia that all international flights pass through Mogadishu. The move further strained relations between Mogadishu and Nairobi.
In March 2020, the ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Nairobi escalated once again, when fighting between the Jubbaland forces and the Somalia National Army spilled into Kenya’s Mandera county.
Following the clashes, the Kenyan government issued a press statement calling for the Government of Somalia to cease “unwarranted provocations” on Kenyan territory. On March 5, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo agreed to resolve the rising tensions between the two countries and called for increased cooperation in border security, diplomacy, and trade relations.
The reassurances by the two presidents prevented yet another military conflict between Kenya and Somalia. Nevertheless, the decades-old disputes in the Horn of Africa are far from resolved.
In this context, the result of Somalia’s next presidential race is going to be crucial in determining the ever-changing power dynamics in the region. If incumbent President Farmaajo, who moved closer to Ethiopia during his term, manages to hold on to power, Kenya’s leverage in Somalia and in the region will further diminish. But if Farmaajo loses, and ends up being replaced by someone more sympathetic to Nairobi’s interests, Ethiopia may be the one that needs to come up with a new strategy to ensure its security and protect its regional interests.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.