As two Somali forces clashed on the Kenyan border last week, a new theater of conflict surfaced in the region. Kenya has hinted at annexing parts of Somalia to stop al-Shabab terrorists from reaching its territory.
Tension between Kenya and Somalia soared last week following heavy fighting along Kenya's border with Somalia. The clashes involved Somali government troops and forces loyal to Ahmed Madobe, leader of Jubbaland, which is one of Somalia's five semi-autonomous states.
At least 11 people were killed in the Somali border town of Bula-hawo.
Kenyan authorities said the fighting spilled over into Kenya, after Somali government troops pursued Jubbaland forces that had crossed over the border.
"This action amounts to an unwarranted attack by foreign soldiers with the intention of provoking Kenya," the Kenyan report reads. It also alleged that Somali soldiers destroyed properties of Kenyans in the border town of Mandera.
"Half of Mandera town has now been deserted," said Mohammed Mahmoud, a senator from Mandera County. "We already have internally-displaced people and therefore our plea is that our government should intervene." Kenya's Mandera Governor Ali Roba warned Wednesday that further conflict between Somali forces would put Mandera residents in limbo.
Somalia also accused Kenya of harboring a fugitive Jubbaland minister who was arrested by Mogadishu for "serious crimes" but fled from prison in January.
The Somali government also asked Kenya to "halt its ongoing violations" of Somalia's sovereignty and encroachment in the border areas. The situation in the area remains precarious as Jubbaland forces are regrouping for possible fresh clashes, despite efforts to ease the hostility.
Somalia's Turkish-trained armed forces have been deployed to Bula-hawo's Gedo region in a move indicating that Mogadishu wants to expand its control beyond the capital. The deployment was denounced by local Somali political opposition groups who accused President Abdullahi Farmajo of misusing the national army for political purposes.
Maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia
"This is the product of a very long dispute that really dates back decades," says Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur, who is known for his reporting on piracy in Somalia.
The fighting is the latest since ties between Mogadishu and Nairobi became frosty over a maritime territory stretching 100,000 square kilometers into the Indian Ocean. The area is rich in oil and gas deposits.
Somalia, which brought the matter before the International Court of Justice in 2014, had hoped for a ruling in September 2019. But Kenya managed to have ICJ adjourn the case to June 2020.
Uhuru Kenyatta insists on a bilateral solution but Mogadishu officials have refused to negotiate with Nairobi.
Is Kenya planning to annex parts of Somalia?
"In the last few years, we've had an escalation of the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia which has led to increased tensions between the two countries and even to the point where Kenya has discussed at a very high level the actual annexation of parts of Somali territory," Bahadur says.
Kenya accuses Somalis of letting al-Shabab terrorists infiltrate and recruit suicide bombers from refugee camps for Somalis fleeing war. The terrorists have carried out dozens of attacks in Kenya in a bid to force Nairobi to withdraw its troops from Somalia. According to Kenya, deploying deploying troops to Somalia's Gedo region could stop al-Shabab fighters from entering Kenya.
"I don't think in today's world that an actual annexation of territory is very easy thing or politically feasible thing to do. But I think it indicates how serious the tensions between the two countries have become," Bahadur said.
Kenya contributes about 4,000 troops to the Africa Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM. But Kenya has more than double that amount of non-AMISOM forces deployed in Somalia, according to Bahadur.
Kenya's buffer zone against al-Shabab in Somalia is located in Gedo region, extending to the disputed maritime location. Mogadishu believes Nairobi's actual intention of supporting Jubbaland's Ahmed Madobe is "to continue their presence in that area where there is the disputed maritime space," Bahadur said.
According to Bahadur, Kenya's interest in Somalia goes beyond stopping al-Shabab and the oil-rich maritime area. Kenya needs "access to Kismayo port, some level of control of Kismayo port, access to charcoal export from Somalia, that KDF (Kenya Defense Forces) have profited from."
To sort out the maritime row, Kenya sought help from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was instrumental in bringing Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Somalia's President Farmajo to talk last year.
Over the weekend, Kenyatta dispatched interior minister Fred Matiang'i to Addis Ababa to seek support from Abiy. "Kenyatta believes that Abiy can help in brokering an out of court settlement over the maritime boundary dispute," Kenyan news website, The Star, reported.
Matiang'i had led a high level Kenyan delegation to Mogadishu last week and extended an invitation from President Uhuru Kenyatta to Farmajo to visit Kenya. Farmajo accepted Kenyatta's request, local media reported.
However, the fighting has a regional dimension in East Africa, too. Kenya backs Jubbaland's President Ahmed Madobe.
Nairobi built and trained Jubbaland's army and Kenyatta sees Jubbaland as a buffer against Al-Shabaab militants who have staged several bloody attacks across the border.
Ethiopia, which backs Somalia's central government, detests Madobe.
Jubaland authorities in August accused Mogadishu of interfering in its election and seeking to oust incumbent President Madobe and get a loyalist in power to increase its control.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia have troops in Somalia as part of an African Union-led peacekeeping force, which, along with the Somali federal government and local states, are fighting al-Shabab's insurgency.
The United States warns that the tensions could give room to the al-Qaida linked al-Shabab group, which is now a potent threat to both countries.