Last week’s meeting between President Kenya and his Somalia counterpart Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” in Nairobi could not have come at a more appropriate time. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the International Conference on Population and Development to explore the normalisation of the relations between their neighbouring states that have deteriorated a great deal in the recent past.
At the core of the frosty relations is the dispute over some 62,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits, for which Somalia dragged Kenya to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2014 after dialogue failed. Before the ICJ could rule on the matter, reports emerged that Mogadishu had set up for auction oil and gas blocks in the disputed territory and Kenya moved to retaliate. The two countries have since not only engaged in unsavoury exchanges, but also imposed trade and travel restrictions on each other.
Attempts by Kenya to have Somalia withdraw the ICJ case have come a cropper and each side must now be busy preparing for the titanic legal battle at The Hague from next June. However, wise counsel still holds that a negotiated settlement would be a better option than one imposed by the ICJ arbitration. A court ruling would, inevitably, be a victory for one and a loss to the other. The aggrieved party could choose to ignore the verdict or accept it grudgingly, hence the perpetuation of bad relations.
Yet Kenya and Somalia will remain neighbours with vast mutual interests. Of particular interest is the security of each country. Vanquishing the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, a common threat to both, calls for close collaboration between the neighbours. They can ill-afford to be distracted by a territorial dispute.