Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Kenya as hostilities surge between Farmaajo and Kenyatta

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Kenyatta and Farmaajo's hostility increases regional tensions
  • + Somalia accuses Kenya of violating its sovereignty.
  • + Security clashes and maritime borders have damaged relations. 
  • + Neither countries can afford the dispute as they share long land borders and have strong socio-economic ties. 

Why has Somalia cut ties with Kenya?

Answer: Recent developments in Kenyan foreign policy has metastasized into Somalia’s internal affairs. 

Throughout the years, Kenya demonstrated its will to stay away from the internal and external struggles in the region. After independence, Daniel Moi, the country’s second president, attempted to firewall Kenya from regional conflict’s spillover effect by maintaining an ambivalent foreign policy, so much so that Kenya had become the venue for peace in the African neighborhood of Sudan, Somalia and Uganda. In 2004, Kenya played an important role in mediating the Somali conflict and hosted negotiations that led to the creation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

These peaceful relations no longer exist due to recent developments in Kenyan policies towards Somalia. Kenya has reached its tenth year of military presence on Somali territory, which has metastasised Kenyan involvement into Somalian internal affairs and has encouraged more al-Shabab violence on Kenyan territory. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for large-scale terrorist operations including the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Garissa University attack in 2015. The fundamentalist jihadist group also successfully attacked Camp Simba on January 5th, 2020, killing a US soldier and 2 US military contractors. The attack on the joint US-Kenyan military base was filmed extensively by the terrorist group’s drones, releasing the footage online and proving that they were not only a terrorist threat to civilians, but also a military threat to US troops on Kenyan soil. 

In 2011, Kenya sent troops to neighbouring Somalia under the guise of controlling the “war on terror”, claiming that the intervention was necessary as an “anti-terror” operation that protected regional stability and was supported by the international community. The intervention has since progressed into continuous military presence. As of now, there are more than 3,600 Kenyan troops in Somalia, all strategically deployed in the semi-autonomous southern Somali region of Jubaland. Kenyatta has been accused of arming rebel groups in  Jubaland that destabilizes the region by causing major armed confrontation between the Somali National Army and Jubaland militias. 

Kenya and Somalia used to celebrate their good ties, but the neighbouring countries now have trade and peace motivations to consider. Indeed, boiling relations between the two reached a tipping point in December 2020, when Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Kenya for “meddling in its internal affairs and violating its sovereignty.”    

What does Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo want?

Answer: Farmaajo is desperate to expel Kenyan troops from Jubaland and to limit Kenyan meddling in Somali internal affairs. 

Due to accusations of the Kenyan forces committing various human rights violations against civilians and being involved in illicit smuggling activities, as well as supporting militias in Jubaland; Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo has demanded that the Kenyan troops leave in order for the Somali government to take control over the region and ascertain Somali sovereignty. However, given Somalia’s own limited capacity to provide security, Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo is far from accomplishing a serious effort that would expel the Kenyan troops occupying the region. Farmaajo hopes that cutting diplomatic ties with Kenya will force Kenyatta to stop meddling in Somalia’s internal affairs and repeatedly violating its sovereignty. 

Although Kenya’s occupation of Jubaland was initially intended to control terrorist activity in the region, their efforts have failed. Since October of 2020, there has been an average of two al-Shabab attacks every week in Kenya and Somalia. The intervention has only revealed Kenya’s failing security policy, unorganized military strategy and the inability to police its own borders, leaving the Somali president confused as to why Kenyan troops refuse to leave. Farmaajo has welcomed foreign armies to help train Somali National Army soldiers to help them conduct effective security operations. The UK as well as Turkey have both provided commando training to Somali soldiers. Farmaajo hopes that this training, along with Somalia’s partnership with the US, will be sufficient to help consolidate security in the region and fight off terrorism. 

Kenya’s support of Madobe, a controversial figure in Somalia’s civil war who has formed various Islamist armed groups, has also raised eyebrows in Somalia. It was revealed that Kenyatta was not only interested in containing al-Shabab but also in establishing a “sphere of influence” in Jubaland. Farmaajo has already struggled to hold the reins on 18 regions, of which 4 have declared or attempted to declare some sort of independence. The Somali president has been tasked with the formation of a federal state for Somalia, including agreements between semi-autonomous regions and the main government. Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo not only wants, but needs Kenya out of Jubaland in order to ensure domestic stability and sovereignty.  

Now more than ever, Farmaajo needs Kenya to stop meddling with their internal affairs, with looming presidential elections around the corner. His popularity as president has taken a hit ever since he announced the delay of presidential elections in order to aid his re-election bid. Farmaajo claims that Kenya supports opposing militia groups in order to keep the horn of Africa weak, divided and ravaged with war. This narrative, as well as severing ties with Kenya, could be seen as a ploy to boost national unity against a common enemy, in order to boost his chances at re-election. 

What does Uhuru Kenyatta want?

Answer: Uhuru Kenyatta wants regional stability, while attempting to become the leader in the Horn of Africa. 

Both Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Uhuru Kenyatta claim a narrow triangle of territorial waters around 100,000 square kilometers off their coasts in the Indian Ocean. This territory is home to lucrative oil and gas reserves. Uhuru Kenyatta did not take the issue seriously and considered their Somali counterparts to be a failed state, incapable of mounting any kind of defence. As such, the Kenyan president does not believe that Somalia should be responsible for the oil and gas deposits in the region. Keeping Somalia weak by intervening in their internal affairs and stationing troops in strategic territories serves Kenyan interests by reinforcing their regional power, allowing them to be the only possessors of the oil and gas reserves located between both countries. Lacking an agreement between Kenyatta and Farmaajo, the dispute on who should control the lucrative portion of sea territory has been taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which will be decided in March of 2021. Kenyatta uses humanitarian crises in Somalia to boost his international support in the UN by hosting a large number of Somali refugees, a humanitarian commitment he hopes will benefit Kenya’s case at the ICJ

Uhuru Kenyatta seeks regional stability, and has taken the position as leader in the region in order to assure this. With the idea that Somalia is a failed state that is not capable of guaranteeing security, stability and prosperity in the Horn of Africa region, Uhuru Kenyatta believes that he is the only one competent in providing peace and security in the region. Benefitting from Kenya’s temporary seat on the UN Security Council, Kenyatta is becoming the Horn of Africa’s leader,  aiming to boost regional cooperation, foster good relations with Europe and the US that will lead the African neighborhood to prosperity. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Both Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Uhuru Kenyatta are losing by not collaborating. 

Neither Kenya nor Somalia have much to gain from this multifaceted dispute. Both countries need to work together in order to ensure security and prosperity for their own people and the region. Al-Shabab will continue to dominate and terrorize the area, proving to be devastating for both countries. Kenya could be purposely destabilizing the region in order to keep Somalia weak and maintain a stronghold on the region, however this has negative implications on fighting al-Shabab which should be a top priority.  

If you are African, you hope that the ICJ’s decision in March will solve the maritime dispute between the two countries in order to prevent the inevitable spill over into other African players in the region. If you are European or American, you hope that there is a way forward that will change the status-quo in the region. The “war on terror” has proven to be a dangerous and complicated conflict that has taken over much of Africa, it is evident that Kenya’s attempt at providing security in the region has not been successful thus far. Thus, it is important to get Uhuru Kenyatta’s troops out of Jubaland in order to find a solution that is far more effective. You would also hope that relations between Kenyatta and Farmaajo improve as Kenya starts its two year term on the Security Council. A united Horn of Africa will prove beneficial for regional multilateralism and encourage sustainable regional cooperation. Relations need to be reinstated in order to move forward and find solutions.