Ethiopia's Abiy Steps Up Mediation in Kenya, Somalia Sea Row

Ethiopia prime minister has sent emissaries to Kenya and Somalia seeking to have their maritime border dispute resolved without worsening flagile diplomatic ties in the Horn of Africa.

Officials in Nairobi and Mogadishu said Abiy, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the region's security prefect, had scheduled a meeting for this week between presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Mohammed Farmajo for July 13.

However, the meeting was still subject to confirmation from the two heads of state with the officials leaving it at "their diaries allowing."

The revelations came amid intense speculation on Tuesday that Somalia had ceded ground on the dispute by giving room for out of court settlement, a path it disowned by taking the matter to the international court of Justice in 2014 where the matter is set for hearing on September 9.

However, President Farmajo office said "we unequivocally deny a change of the position of the Federal Government of Somalia on the ongoing case at ICJ."

Describing the media reports as malicious, "The office of the Attorney General will investigate the sources of this propaganda and the fake news it embodies," the Somalia presidency's director of communications Abdinur Mohamed Ahmed said of the "malicious media reports."

Behind the scenes

Senior Somali government officials, however, said Abiy's had been working behind the scenes to broker a truce amid pressure from key international players like the United States and the United Kingdom for a truce.

Igad and its partners fear the maritime dispute could undermine cooperation in the fight against terrorism and sea piracy in the Horn of Africa.

An earlier bid this year by Dr Abiy failed after Mogadishu stuck to resolving the dispute in court.

Yet Ethiopia which has interests in Somali ports and shares defence cooperation with Kenya has insisted the maritime dispute should be resolved amicably, to avoid stalling other areas of co-operation.

On Tuesday media reports in Mogadishu had indicated that President Farmajo was willing to delay - not withdraw - the case at ICJ and allow "negotiations under special arrangements."

Nairobi also downplayed reports of a change of heart in Mogadishu saying there was nothing official.

"We will need to verify," Kenya Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau said.

There has been mounting diplomatic pressure for Kenya and Somalia to accept an out-of-court settlement, a position that Nairobi prefers.

The dispute between Kenya and Somalia arose from a 2014 case in which Mogadishu sued Nairobi, seeking to redraw the sea boundary from the current eastwards extension of the land border, to a diagonal one towards the south east.

Should Abiy, prevail in his efforts, the case could be delayed to allow for a joint committee of the two countries to table proposals on the solution.

In 2009 Kenya and Somalia technocrats drew an MoU which the Somali Parliament rejected, prompting Mogadishu to file the case at ICJ.

The ICJ rule the MoU was a valid bilateral agreement but went ahead to admit the case for hearing on the grounds that alternative means had not been exhausted.

To postpone the case, the two countries would need to write a joint letter seeking the court leave for an out of court settlement for consideration by judges.

Calming tensions

Analysts say this would give both countries time to calm tensions that have expressed themselves in sideshows over diplomatic passports and apparent recognition of the break-away Somaliland

"A solution cannot be found in these tense moments. So, asking to delay, as opposed to withdrawing, the case will buy time for a solution by other means," Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa analyst.

For President Farmaajo, Dr Abdisamad said, withdrawing could be seen as a sell-out by critics of his foreign policy mostly from federal state governments.

That is the last thing he would want as he eyes re-election in federal elections set for next year, a tall order given the country's ethnic politics according to analysts.

"The nature of Somali politics means you cant be re-elected. This is usually arranged leadership. He is from Marehan. Maybe they will elect a Hawiye," said Peter Kagwanja, the CEO of the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi.

In addition, he has been very combative.... aligning himself with Qatar so this has been forced on him by the stronger political players in Somalia."

Two weeks ago, Kenya Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma told an audience in London that Somalia was being pushed by foreign commercial interests.

"We believe this issue is the surest demonstration of the effects of western commercial interests in the context of a fragile country," she said during her lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence policy think-tank.

She said such interests would only delay the settlement of the case.

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