Kenya and Somalia Continue Struggle over Maritime Boundaries
Last week, a longstanding conflict between Kenya and Somalia re-emerged over ownership of contested maritime territory in the Indian Ocean.
According to the Kenyan foreign ministry, Somalia auctioned off oil and gas blocks in what it believes to be Kenya’s maritime area, and stated that “this unparalleled affront and illegal grab at the resources of Kenya will not go unanswered and is tantamount to an act of aggression against the people of Kenya and their resources.”
However, Somalia denies the accusation that any contested oil blocks were sold in the auction, which was held in London on February 7.
Questions over this territory, which measures about 100,000 square kilometers (about 38,600 square miles) are not in any way a new occurrence. Kenya wants the boundary to extend eastward, giving it the larger share of the disputed maritime area in comparison to its northeastern neighbor. Meanwhile, Somalia wants the boundary to extend southeast off the coast of Kenya.
In 2009, due to confusion over ownership, both countries agreed to defer to the decision of the United Nations commission in charge of mediating border disputes in order to put the confusion to rest. The two countries also emphasized the centrality of cooperation in their approach to reaching a solution.
Over a year later, Kenya challenged the ICJ over its jurisdiction to preside over the case. Despite this, hearings began in October 2016. In February 2017, the ICJ “affirmed its suitability to hear the case,” crushing Kenya’s plea for reconsideration.
Later in 2017, Kenya’s Attorney General vowed that his country would continue to challenge claims made by Somalia before the ICJ: “Somalia has since 1979 recognized and respected the maritime boundary between the two countries along a parallel of latitude. However, in 2014, shortly before filing its case with the Court, Somalia claimed a maritime boundary along an equidistance line, ignoring the 35-year practice of recognizing and respecting the maritime boundary along a parallel of latitude.”
When boundaries are disputed in this way, a certain process takes place: “a temporary boundary is drawn along a line that is at the same distance from both coastlines, if there are no physical obstacles to this. A test period is then implemented to see if this boundary is fair to both sides or if it benefits or disadvantages one or the other.”
Somalia is approaching the ICJ with the goal of defining the boundary in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international sea laws. It seems prepared to accept the decision that is made as a result.
However, Kenya seems unwilling to compromise and has stated that there will be consequences for Somalia’s actions.
Last Saturday, February 16, a top Kenyan official announced that the country had recalled its ambassador to Somalia. He also advised the Somali ambassador to leave Kenya in the midst of the dispute.
The next day, February 17, Kenya specified a number of demands that it seeks from Somalia in order to work toward a solution. These include informing investors that Somalia has no jurisdiction to strike a deal on the oil blocks since it does not claim them. Kenya also wants to keep the spat out of court: “Our wish as good neighbours is that we resolve this thing out of court,” said Kenyan Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau. “Friends don’t take each [other] to court; they sit down and discuss. That’s what we expect of Somalia.”
Somalia continues to deny its sales in the auction, meaning that reconciliation is reasonably far off.
The consequences of the dispute go beyond ownership of maritime territory. Kenya hosts over 400,000 Somali refugees and asylum seekers whose already unstable position could be further compromised by fighting between the two countries.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, which was founded in 2007 by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, is a regional cooperative force tasked with reducing the threat posed by al-Shabaab, an Islamist group. Kenya currently has several thousand troops serving in Somalia as part of this organization. Some fear that a further escalation of tensions between the two countries could weaken their efforts to stem militancy in the region.