Kenya-Somalia talks offer best solution to maritime dispute
By Michael Mugwang'a | June 19th 2021
After months of intense tension that saw ties between Kenya and Somalia fall to a historic low, there is renewed hope. The neighbours could mend relations and work together.
Signs that the two could yet restore full diplomatic relations were evident last week when the Kenyan and Somali foreign ministers spoke on phone and resolved to end the standoff. This is a welcome gesture, a far cry from the frosty situation in December when Mogadishu severed diplomatic ties with Nairobi.
There is need for both countries to enter talks in good faith to ensure a lasting solution. There has been hesitance before, particularly after Somalia announced it had restored relations with Kenya in May in a deal brokered by Qatar.
As part of normalization of relations, Mogadishu was to restore, among others, the unrestricted transportation of miraa from Kenya and also withdraw the ongoing maritime case from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give room for talks.
But Somalia officials later maintained the ban on miraa and the maritime case would still proceed at the ICJ. This twist led to the banning of commercial flights between the two countries.
Somalia will have to maintain its current temperance if lasting solutions are to be realised, particularly with regard to the territorial feud. The timing of Somalia’s case at the ICJ raised questions. Although both countries had previously signed a binding agreement delimiting the maritime border in 2009, Somalia reneged on the pact, exploiting the fact that it does not bar either party from escalating the dispute to the international court.
Despite the legal merits of this case, it defeats the spirit of good neighbourliness. Mogadishu should have exhausted existing dispute resolution mechanisms before rushing to the ICJ.
Ideally, international norms are predisposed towards the settlement of inter-state disputes through negotiations to promote sustainable peace and avoid straining relations. In this situation, consideration of mediation by the African Union could have been a more viable option.
On the other hand, Kenya has been pragmatic and ready for amicable solution in line with the international approach for non-aggressive conflict resolution. It readily welcomed the negotiation by Qatar to settle the maritime dispute out of court.
In fact, most maritime disputes worldwide have been ironed out through negotiations and rarely find their way to ICJ.
But the maritime dispute need not be a zero-sum calculus. Whichever way ICJ rules, it is likely some oil reserves straddle the boundary and will require agreement on sharing. This is a matter of deep strategic interest to both countries. Kenya will continue to pursue alternative means of resolution of the dispute in the hope of an amicable solution.
The writer is a communications consultant and member of the Crime Journalists Association of Kenya.
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