The 2019 United Nations General Assembly gathering of leaders had many sideshows, including street demonstrations and diplomatic forays. Egyptian President Mohammed Al Sisi tried playing peacemaker between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Somalia counterpart Mohamed Abdillahi Mohamed (Farmajo). He failed partly because Farmajo had little time for diplomatic niceties as he awaits the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule in his favour. Kenya, on its part, worries about the possibility of an international cartel using the ICJ as a tool of sea grabbing. For this reason, Kenya is clear it will not cede an inch of its sea water.
The ICJ, faces credibility challenges similar to those of its sister institution at The Hague, the ICC. Its composition has been questioned and the way in which Somalia rushed to the same ICJ reinforces the view it is open to big power manipulation as an instrument for punishing countries that act independent. Extra-continental interests seemingly organised the case at the ICJ as a way of strangulating Kenya by denying it access to the open sea, using Somalia as proxy.In reality, therefore, Kenya’s sea conflict is not with Somalia. It is with extra-continental powers that are manipulating Mogadishu.
This is because the top echelon of the official Somali government comprises citizens of extra-continental countries such as the US, Norway, Britain, Canada, Denmark and even Qatar. The interests of those powers range from oil and gas, assorted commercial undertakings and most important, geopolitical. They have oil and gas exploring companies that, having grabbed oil blocs along the Somalia coast, would like to extend the grabbing south to Kenya.Ordinarily, the attempted sea grabbing would not make sense, but it does when looked at in terms of global power realignment and the seeming determination of Western powers to create “consequences” for the choices that Kenyans made.
Those choices appeared to defy advice on whom Kenyans should elect and with who Kenya should befriend. The choices also appear to interfere with entrenched interests that Kenyans may not have thought about when making the moves to benefit themselves and the region.The British Soma Oil & Gas Company with its high-flying political connections in Britain, came into being in 2013, the year of Kenya’s presidential election, and among its directors was the current prime minister of Somalia, Hassan Ali Khayre.The company was reportedly involved in violating UN sanctions on weapons importation in Somalia and some of the weapons ended up with the Al Shabaab that was busy harassing Kenya.
The year after Somalia found enough financial and logistical resources to run to the ICJ, which is headed by a Somali judge, to claim Kenyan waters. Kenya made two mistakes. The first one was to attend that court instead of ignoring it. Second, some officials reportedly compromised Kenya by availing its thoughts to Somalia, thereby arming the other side. How that happened, if it did, showed laxity on the Kenyan side.While much attention is on the supposed amount of oil and gas in the conflict zone, the more serious concern is on the impact on Kenya’s economic as well geopolitical standing.
Acceding to Somali irredentism would imply seeking Somali permission to sail into or out of Kenya. It would deny Kenya access to the open sea and stop other countries from sailing to the Kenyan coast.
Sabotaging LAPSSETThis would directly hit Kenya’s and regional economies that depend on accessing the Kenyan coast. It would also mean sabotaging the LAPSSET project since no vessels would be allowed to sail in or out of the Lamu port. The entire development and security project from Lamu to Duala in Cameroon would thus be scuttled. South Africa has reason to be unhappy with the LAPSSET success because it would reduce the number of vessels going around it from either the Atlantic or the Indian oceans. If so, this would be a geopolitical hit at tropical Africa, with Kenya as the main target.This raises the question of Kenya’s options. Kenya can intensify its campaign among other states in Africa and at the UN to show the global dangers of permitting sea irredentism. It would mean denying Kenya access to its open sea and virtually denying commercial vessels from other countries access to Kenya. Insisting that it considers the court’s opinion on Somali irredentist claims to be an advisory and not binding, it can make it clear that it would defend its water as a matter of survival. The visible presence of the Kenya navy, patrolling the sea, would indicate serious commitment to defend its waters.
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU