18 February 2019

Kenya's Options Thin in Ocean Boundary Duel With Somalia

opinion

Let's today spare a thought for the people of Migingo Island on Lake Victoria. They have been condemned for a decade and more to life under Ugandan armed occupation while the authorities in Nairobi impotently refuse to free them.

Now they are witnessing how tough Kenya can be when its territory is violated. Unfortunately, it's not for them but unoccupied waters on the other side of the world.

UNDIPLOMATIC

That is in the dramatic escalation of a tiff with Somalia over the Indian Ocean border line. Kenya reacted with anger and fury after the Somali government reportedly auctioned oil concessions in the disputed maritime zone. The border dispute was pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) when Somalia invited international oil companies to bid for prospecting rights.

Kenya responded by summarily expelling the Somali ambassador from Nairobi and also recalling the Kenyan man in Mogadishu.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a lengthy note condemning Somalia's action. The letter bore the, sometimes, undiplomatic and unrestrained imprint of Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, who all but accused the Somali regime of aggression.

Mr Kamau last employed such rhetoric during his term as Ambassador to the United Nations, while leading an onslaught against the International Criminal Court's indictment of President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto and four others over the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

Such angry tirades often promise consequences. That time it was in campaign for a mass African walkout from the ICC.

This time, Kenya is accusing Somalia of aggression and threatening firm action to protect its territorial integrity.

The letter is, however, silent on what exactly Kenya can do. An obvious one would be to ensure that Somalia, which has no sea or air forces to speak of, cannot physically take possession of the disputed triangle in the ocean.

REFUGEES

Kenyan forces can also block the British, Norwegian and other 'predatory' oil prospectors.

The also letter makes reference to Kenya's sacrifice in putting soldiers on the ground in Somalia and hosting more than 400,000 refugees in vast camps that have become breeding grounds for Al-Shabaab terrorists. Thus the implied threats to expel the refugees and also recall Kenya Defence Forces from Somalia.

Both would be popular with a people tired of the continuing terrorist threats, the perception of a silent Somali invasion in towns across the country and also seriously doubting that the military adventure, going into its eighth year, has achieved its purpose.

Kenya has tried in the past to kick out the refugees but always held back in the face of pressure from the international community. The most it has managed is a voluntary repatriation that hardly makes a dent in the numbers.

Pulling out the troops might also been easier said than done. Operation Linda Nchi, as it was called before re-hatting under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), was not launched to prop up the feeble government in Mogadishu: It was designed to protect Kenya from terrorist incursions by establishing a secure buffer zone across a large swathe of southern Somalia.

The troops may be spread too thin on the ground beyond a few fortified camps while Al-Shabaab runs free in the rest of the countryside but the presence provides vital eyes and ears on terrorist activity and movements. It might, therefore, be in Kenya's interest to remain in Somalia.

HISTRIONICS

Another option not stated in the letter would also have an impact: Kenya is the second home for Somali officialdom. Top politicians, civil servants and military officers have family homes in Kenya. They have invested heavily in real estate and business and use the country as a money 'Laundromat' as authorities look the other way. How about targeted sanctions on individuals?

All that would still amount to misplaced over-reaction. What has not been stated amid the ranting and raving is that, long before Somalia purported to auction oil blocks in the disputed area, Kenya had done the same four years earlier. Perhaps it's just tit-for-tat, in which case the best option might be to halt the histrionics and work more diligently towards defending Kenya's position at the ICJ.

It might also be useful for Kenya to conduct an internal inquiry and establish which officers at the Foreign Affairs ministry and the offices of Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General mishandled the defence when Somalia first launched the court action.

Kenya

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