Photograph — Somaliland Live

President Uhuru Kenyatta has embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East to drum up support for Kenya over the longstanding maritime row with Somalia. 

Both parties await the commencement of hearings set for September 19 on the Indian Ocean maritime border case filed by Mogadishu, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, Kenya’s options appear to be dwindling amidst limited time, as the dispute continues to weigh heavily on Kenyatta’s government.

Bilateral negotiations had dragged on for six years without much success before the case was filed in 2014. Since then, Kenya has been requesting for Somalia to withdraw but Mogadishu prefers to wait for the ICJ verdict. 

With this stance, Kenya had involved Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to lead mediation efforts earlier in the year. But despite the leader meeting with both Kenyatta and his Somali counterpart, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo in March, the negotiation effort soon collapsed due to Mogadishu’s unwillingness to consider a bilateral or regional resolution.

Consequently, Kenya is moving ahead of the ICJ ruling in a move to convince peers that a decision that affirms Somalia’s claim on the disputed area will have security, diplomatic and economic repercussions. With an assembled team of international lobbyists, Nairobi is reportedly reaching out to international allies as well as oil and gas investors to get the much-needed backing regardless of the outcome of the case at the ICJ. 

According to insiders, Kenya believes that oil and gas companies are fuelling the dispute, with some already taking strategic positions to join the race for exploration soon after the court gives a verdict on the matter.

While the ICJ decision is final, the court has no mechanism for enforcing the ruling and requires the affected countries to still sit down and chart the way forward. Thus, some advisers have suggested Kenya could just withdraw from the ICJ proceedings. But at a recent symposium in Nairobi organized by the HORN Institute for Strategic Studies, during which several options were considered, the consensus was to maintain the diplomatic charm offensive.

The diplomatic strategy, according to sources, is to consolidate the African voice, which will be key in making collective decisions at the African Union and United Nations once the court has delivered its verdict.

Another recommendation of the summit was to forward Kenya’s concerns to the UN General Assembly and Security Council (UNSC) – the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states. On that end, Kenya is seeking support for a seat in the UNSC as a non-permanent member. All member states are obligated to comply with the body’s decisions and Kenya hopes that its membership will help with conflict resolution in case the ICJ verdict results in a fallout.

Several African countries have reportedly committed to supporting Kenya’s bid at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly next month. Apart from the EAC partner states and neighbours in East Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana have all promised to back Nairobi. President Kenyatta is also visiting Jamaica soon and is expected to seek its support as well.

Kenya needs the backing of the UNSC and the General Assembly, particularly because if it loses the case, it risks becoming landlocked, which would complicate its security and business activities. 

However, a Ugandan diplomat, Harold Acemah said being a member of the UNSC does not mean Kenya will enjoy an advantage in the dispute with Somalia. “Unless the dispute seriously threatens regional and international peace, the Security Council cannot force Kenya and Somalia to negotiate. That is a role for the EAC and AU, which I assume and hope they are already playing. The option is for Kenya and Somalia to request the UN Secretary-General to mediate,” Acemah stated.

Still, Kenya is seeking the support of the European Union, the U.S. and the other permanent members of the UNSC – France, China, Russia, and the UK. Regardless of who wins the ICJ ruling, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary, Kamau Macharia, noted that both countries must co-exist and jointly manage resources in the Indian Ocean. “Ultimately, if Somalia is to enjoy its blue economy resources – oil, gas, marine, fisheries, etc – along its maritime boundary with Kenya, it will have to do so in cooperation with Kenya,” Macharia said.


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