The election of Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed as Somalia's new president has the potential to herald a new beginning for the somewhat strained relationship between Kenya and Somalia. He is a man perceived to be popular and performance-oriented.
For the last several years, the ties between the two eastern African countries have not been very good. In fact, Nairobi and Mogadishu are still slugging it out at the International Court of Justice over the demarcation of their common maritime borders.
Also, the loose friendship between former Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and President Uhuru Kenyatta was evident from widely circulated photos of the two leaders in a tense discussion, one of them showing as if they are talking past each other.
But the new leader’s promise to eradicate the bloody militants of al-Shabaab in his first four-year term and have good relationships with neighbouring countries present an early opportunity for Kenya to work with his administration.
Al-shabaab has been a source of menace to Kenya and the region for the last seven years, carrying out attacks in Nairobi and other parts of the country, forcing the country to invest heavily in its security sector so as to deal with the emerging dangers posed by the militants.
The two countries have a lot to gain from a robust relationship. Thousands of Kenyan professionals work in different parts of Somalia and hundreds of thousands of Somalis live in Kenya, either as refugees or residents. Add this to the strong trade between Somalis and Kenyans that runs into hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
We all know the hullabaloo that rocked the country when Somalia banned miraa planes from Kenya and the losses incurred especially in Meru by miraa traders.
While Kenya has rendered enormous favours to Somalia by hosting hundreds of thousands of its people, Nairobi’s foreign policy towards Somalia is marked by confusion, poor strategy, missed opportunities and even misconceptions to an extent that now many Somalis equate Kenya’s military intervention in 2011 with Ethiopia’s invasion in late 2006.
That should not have been the case if the two countries worked hard together to fight their common threat of al-Shabaab that is inhibiting development in both countries.
Kenya can get the best results out of its intervention – and at the same time fine-tune its ties with Mogadishu -- if it strengthens its diplomatic bond with the new leader in Mogadishu and minimises its contacts with the myriad regional administrations in the country. By doing so, it can win the trust of many Somalis, especially the nationalists and the inhabitants of border regions who now view its military operations in southern Somali regions as part of a larger desire to occupy those areas. That sentiment is being utilised by the Shabaab militants’ propaganda machine to pit the Somali population against the Kenyan soldiers in Somalia.
Kenya Defence Forces officers have been in Somalia for more than five years now, so working out on an exit strategy from that country and trying to end the mission will be a good place to start.
Kenya can’t afford to have a perpetual war on its hands. It has neither the resources to keep thousands of forces in Somalia nor will it be good for its internal security and national cohesion to indefinitely have troops in Somalia.
We have already heard calls to immediately withdraw Kenyan troops from Somalia by opposition leaders, and it is clear that if Nasa takes over the country’s leadership in August, the troops will be brought home.
Kenya may have a reservation about any strong, central Somalia that can one day call for the return of northeastern regions, but redrawing borders in this century is as hard as it was in the 1960s.
It is, therefore, important for Nairobi to appreciate that having a good relationship with a functioning Somali government that controls every inch of its territory is good for its national security. Because it is not in Nairobi‘s long term interest to waste its resources and military power on patrolling hundreds of kilometers with Somalia, nor will it be viable to keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a free for all frontier regions whose risks will surely be unpredictable.
Al shabaab’s threat can only be dealt with by a capable Somali Force and that is why the 22,000 plus strong AU force in that country is so helpless in even protecting its bases despite having been in Somalia for a decade now.
If President Mohamed’s campaign speeches are anything to go by, he is likely to be an inward looking leader who will spend most of his time inside Somalia, but the current Uhuru administration can extend him an early invitation to iron out the murky issues between the two countries, chief among them Kenya’s unilateral push to build up a wall along the two countries’ common borders. The Kenyan move has irked many Somali politicians who would have liked Nairobi to consult with its counterpart before embarking on such an important undertaking.
When Kenya sent its troops to Somalia in October, 2011, the military’s top brass and big political leaders dismissed the possibility of retaliatory attacks by al-Shabaab, but as we all know that prophesy has horribly come to pass.
Now, for Kenya to avoid being bogged down in Somalia, it should heed calls to establish cordial relationships with Mogadishu’s new leader who can be of huge help to its attempt to secure its border and to the eventual likelihood of bringing its troops home.
By doing that, Kenya can cut back on its now increasing list of regional rivals and can work towards the betterment of its population that is now the envy of all its neighbours.
Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad is an analyst with Southlink Consultants.