Kenya expels Somali Ambassador; Somalis suspect Nairobi’s aim is to force Mogadishu into talks over maritime dispute now in The Hague

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The Kenyan government expelled the Somali Ambassador to Nairobi, terming his country’s recent decision to open bids for offshore blocks located in disputed maritime borders an “act of aggression’ that “will not go unanswered.” Kenya also recalled its envoy to Mogadishu for urgent consultations.

Many Somalis, however, suspect that Kenya’s diplomatic escalation is just a stratagem aimed at shanghaiing Somalia into an out-of-court settlement for the maritime dispute that’s being adjudicated by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Somalis believe that Kenya has taken advantage of their nation’s weakness to lay claim to their waters, whose ownership were not in dispute when Somalia had a strong, functioning government.

“This has nothing to do with the Somali bid rounds conference in London,” said Abdirizak Mohamed, a Somali lawmaker and former internal security minister in a Twitter message. “It is rather a preemptive strategy to force Somali Government to open negotiations on the maritime dispute with Kenya or influence the outcome of the case before the ICJ #Somalia.”

In a press conference on Saturday, the permanent secretary of Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Macharia Kamau, called Somalia’s decision to launch its first post-conflict exploration licensing round in London on Feb. 7, “a most regrettable and egregious by the government of Somalia to auction off oil and gas blocks in Kenya’s maritime territorial area that borders Somalia.”

“This unparalled affront and illegal grab at the resources of Kenya will not go unanswered and is tantamount to an act of aggression against the people of Kenya and their resources,” said Kamau said.

Kamau’s strongly-worded, two-page statement said Somalia’s action had “undermined and severely damaged the existing and cordial and brotherly relations” between the two neighboring countries.

“This outrageous and provocative auction deserves and will be met with a unanimous and resounding rejection by all Kenyans as well as all people of good will who believe in the maintenance of international law and order and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Kamau said.

The two countries have been locked in a maritime dispute since 2009, with Mogadishu saying its maritime boundary with Kenya lies perpendicular to the coast and Kenya claiming the line of latitude protrudes from its boundary with Somalia.

Kenya has issued licenses to Total, Anadarko and Statoil to operate in the disputed area, which is more than 100,000 square kilometers. But the Somali government has succeeded in nudging these companies into withdrawing from the area. The Italian company, ENI, which was awarded with three blocks that lie within the Somali waters has, however, refused to follow suit.

In 2017, Kenya suffered a huge setback after the ICJ, the U.N.’s highest court that rules in disputes between countries agreed to hear the Somali case, rejecting Nairobi’s “preliminary objections to the admissibility of Somalia’s application.”

The diplomatic row comes just weeks after Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire called Kenya, which has thousands of peacekeepers in southern Somalia, a “strategic ally”. On Jan. 30, the two countries held the ministerial segment of the second session of the Kenya-Somalia Joint Commission for Cooperation in the border town of Mandera.

The bid round has also angered Somalis, hundreds of whom staged a demonstration in front of Claridge’s Hotel in central London, where the bid took place. At least four opposition groups, including the parties of two former presidents, voiced concern over the unpopular government’s move, which they called “illegal” and an “auction.” Somalis warned of dire environmental consequences and possible exploitation of the natural resources in their already unstable Horn of Africa nation that has no petroleum law or functioning institutions to protect its interests.

Kamau accused Somalia of “carelessly ignoring the internationally acceptable norms of boundary dispute resolution and or political and diplomatic disagreements,” saying that the Somali government “has once again demonstrated that it has yet to attain and embrace the political maturity and diplomatic stance of a normal, well adjusted and properly functioning modern government.”

Somali PM Hassan Ali Khaire signing a visitors’ book in Nairobi on Jan. 28. Looking on are Kenya’s FM Monica Juma (left) and Somali Ambassador to Nairobi Tarsan (right)

On Feb 6, a day before the bid’s launch, Kenya called the Somali Ambassador to Kenya, Mohamud Nur “Tarsan”, and “formally demanded a withdrawal” of the Somali map prepared to be shown at the London conference and a “cessation of the auction of the oil and gas blocks” in the disputed maritime area, said Kamau. Kenya’s Ambassador to Somalia, Lucas Tumbo, had also conveyed his country’s message to Somali leaders.

But Somalia had ignored Kenya’s demands and protest, said Kamau.

“The Government of Kenya cannot and will not standby as its demarches are ignored and its territorial integrity is infringed upon and its sovereign resources are carved out and shared out by an ungracious and unbrotherly neighbor acting to satisfy the greed of commercial interests resident in foreign lands,” Kamau said.

Somalia has offered 15 offshore blocks during the London conference, which was organized by Spectrum Geo, a Norwegian company that provides seismic data to international oil and gas companies. The bid closes on July 11, 2019.

Kenya didn’t say which contested blocks were added to the bid round, but it insinuated that the southern blocks put up for auction included those along the maritime border between Somalia and Kenya, an area where Spectrum’s Geoscience Director Karyna Rodriguez termed  “an oil province” that could hold a potential 2 to 3 billion barrels. Rodriguez said both southern and northern blocks have a potential 30 billion barrels of oil.

“Kenya regrets that the action of the Government of Somalia had undermined and severely damaged the existing and cordial and brotherly relations between the governments of Kenya and Somalia has compromised half a century’s worth of dedication and cooperation between the two countries,” said Kamau.

He blasted Somalia for auctioning “Kenyan sovereign resources to the highest predatory bidders from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Kingdom of Norway among others.”

The Somali government, which previously said it only shared seismic data with international oil and gas companies during the London conference, didn’t issue any statement.

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