Kenya’s testy and troubled relations with Somalia are once again on the rocks.
The election of Sheikh Ahmed Madobe as President of Jubaland on May 15 by clan delegates in Kismayu has opened a huge chasm between Nairobi and Mogadishu and created a febrile atmosphere inimical to dialogue.
As Kenya continues to warmly applaud and welcome the developments in Juba as positive and Mogadishu insists it will not recognise the new leadership in Kismayu, the stage is now set for a bruising diplomatic row certain to cause a major setback in bilateral ties.
The risks of a new potentially destabilising diplomatic tempest appear a near certainty and the consequences too blindingly obvious and grave to contemplate.
An intense shuttle diplomacy spearheaded by Igad in the last one week to try to calm the mounting tension and ease the renewed polarisation over Jubaland apparently failed to make any headway.
Pressure is mounting
Sources say the talks in Mogadishu between Igad delegation led by its executive director and senior Somali government officials over the weekend failed to agree on a workable formula to end the impasse.
Consequently, pressure is mounting on the senior most leadership— President Uhuru Kenyatta and President Hassan Sheikh— to initiate urgent talks with all the key stakeholders and muster the nimble diplomatic footwork required to resolve the crisis before it escalates further.
Sources in Kismayu have confirmed that Sheikh Madobe is due to visit Nairobi later this week for talks with the Kenyan Government, but speculation the Jubaland leader may also meet the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud could not be ascertained.
All these would of course seem to suggest the Uhuru administration is keen to reach out to all sides and facilitate a new intra-Somali dialogue.
For its part, the Somali Government set up a 16-member committee on May 15, made up of MPs from the two chambers of Parliament, led by Abdi Guhaad Jama “Oday”, and dispatched it to Kismayu for talks with the new leadership, clan elders and politicians.
Many in the diplomatic community, uneasy at the new turn of events, say the growing momentum towards dialogue can only be a positive thing, not least, because the act of talking may have the potential to progressively de-escalate the tension in the short-term and hopefully create the context for serious negotiations to find a pragmatic solution in the longer-term.
As things stand, there are now two active parallel dialogue initiatives— one led by Igad and the other by the Somali Government— and a potential third brokered by Kenya seems to be in the offing.
Such proliferation of parallel talks could create confusion; become bogged down in tangential issues and complicate matters and there is, therefore, need to merge these efforts and create a well-structured single dialogue designed to focus on the fundamental issues.
Admittedly, while few are holding out the prospect for an early breakthrough, considering the complexity of the issues at stake and the entrenched views on both sides, there are hopes, nevertheless, the crisis over Jubaland may have thrown up a new opportunity to address the core issues that have dogged Somalia’s federalisation process.
In a speech on May 18, President Hassan for the first time acknowledged, albeit obliquely, that the row over Jubaland was fuelled by a perception the government was reluctant in implementing federalism and that views on the federal model envisaged under the existing Constitution differed widely.“The government has a plan to implement federalism in Somalia,” he said.
Whether the claim was simply rhetoric, as sceptics are wont to suggest, or whether, indeed, an actual blueprint on federalism exists, remains a matter for conjecture and debate, but the mere fact the President had tacitly admitted federalism was a principle cause of the discontent in the periphery is, in itself, significant.
Many will now be hoping to see the President move swiftly to reopen the debate on what kind of a federal model the country should adopt and constitute a committee of experts to revisit the controversial articles in the Constitution that have given rise to the confusion.
Unless Somalis arrive at a common understanding and consensus on the federal model the country must adopt; the language of the relevant sections in the Constitution amended accordingly and rendered more precise; and a common criteria for the federal states agreed and their borders and powers defined with greater precision, it is unlikely we will see an end to the type of acute centre-periphery power struggle as we are now witnessing.
The crisis over Jubaland is essentially emblematic of the deeper malaise at the root of Somalia’s unfinished experiment at political devolution. Kenya and other regional mediators are certainly capable of using their influence over Mogadishu and Kismayu to broker a temporary truce but in the absence of an overarching nationwide Somali consensus to settle the federalism question once and for all, the potential for future conflict is inevitable.
The writer is an independent Horn of Africa analyst.