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Maritime boundary clash threatens bilateral relations at critical time

Border row between Mogadishu and Nairobi opens up as regional mission against Al Shabaab prepares to quit Somalia

Somalia's dismissal of Kenya's call mediation over a long-running maritime dispute, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided in Somalia's favour in October 2021 (Dispatches 19/11/21, International Court backs most of Mogadishu's claims to an oil and gas-rich zone in the Indian Ocean), could undermine wider cooperation especially on regional security.

The public row between Mogadishu and Nairobi came as the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia is preparing to leave the country by the end of next month. Security experts in Kenya warn that this might be too soon given that the Somali-based Al Shabaab insurgents have launched several attacks in Kenya's north-east region in recent weeks.

But relations between the Kenya and Somali governments are poor. Reports that Kenya's President William Ruto had asked his Djiboutian counterpart Ismail Omar Guelleh to work as a mediator on the maritime border were shot down by Somalia's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali Mohamed Omar at a hearing with a committee of Kenyan MPs.

'Regarding the remarks made by Ruto, the maritime dispute was settled by the ICJ and it is irreversible. The court verdict favoured Somalia's sovereignty,' Omar stated.

Central to the dispute is the direction that the joint maritime boundary should take from the point where the two countries' land frontiers meet on the coast. Somalia insists the boundary should extend at 90 degrees from the coast while Kenya says it should follow the lines of latitude.

At stake in the ruling are rich fisheries as well as oil and gas reserves in a 100,000 square kilometre maritime zone to which Kenya had laid claim. Now the zone is going to be divided between the two states.

The ICJ ruling drew a new border closest to that which is claimed by Somalia, attributing to it several offshore oil blocks claimed by Kenya.

Throughout and since the ICJ process, Kenya has pushed for a regionally-brokered solution, seeking to bring in the African Union, while Congo-Kinshasa President Félix Tshisekedi was asked by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to act as a mediator. Somalia has consistently rejected these efforts and the dispute is one of the few areas where Kenyatta's successor William Ruto, who has invested heavily in boosting Kenya's diplomatic standing with its neighbours, has made no progress.

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