Geography of Conflict on the Maritime Dispute between Kenya and Somalia

The Issue

There is a geographical conflict between Kenya and Somalia over control of a contested area. The area is a triangular patch covering over 100,000 km2 (“KENYA – Somalia: Maritime border dispute,” 2016). It is unclear which of the two is the rightful owner of this contested area. In its efforts to establish maritime boundaries, Somalia instituted proceedings before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against its neighboring country, Kenya, in 2014 (Mohamed Isse Trunji, 2017). Somalia asked the ICJ to determine the maritime boundary based on international law and the precise geographical coordinates.

Fig.1. Map of Kenya and Somalia Depicting the Disputed Areas

Source: Mohamed Isse Trunji, March 14, 2017

The core issue is the direction in which the joint maritime boundary lie (Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com), 2021; Olorundami, 2018). Somalia asserts that the boundary should be parallel to its border, towards the southeasterly direction. According to Somalia, the maritime boundary automatically continues towards the land boundary, 200 nautical miles from the mainland coast. Kenya holds that the border should make a 45-degree turn and run parallel to the latitude (Brosius, 2021), that the line runs straight easterly to the coastline, granting it rights over the contested area. According to Brosius, Kenya’s position implies the country would gain a maritime area of about 162,580 square kilometers, which is significantly massive as far as natural resources are concerned.

The Conflict

This issue could result in militarization that could impede fishing and other economic activities in the region. The conflict also touches on the exploration rights for the presumed oil and gas resources. Since 1979, Somalia has continuously acquiesced itself to Kenya’s preferred boundary, causing the now maritime border to get interpreted as the legal line (Cage, 2021).  After the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, numerous refugees streamed into Kenya, resulting in the world’s largest refugee camps harboring over 400,000 people. Tensions between these two countries are now apparent with travel restrictions, closed borders, and disputes over air travel, among others. Somalia perceives Kenya as an intruder in its political sphere. It poses more threat between these two countries that have previously merged their forces to fight off the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. On the other hand, Kenya is willing to defend the contested region using all means possible and sees itself as the rightful owner of the resource-rich contested area.

The conflict between Kenya and Somalia has now involved the International Court of Justice and international allies to both countries. There is much at stake in this conflict. The dispute is on the mineral resources in the contested region. Notably, both nations risk engaging in a war. Such could affect both economies and their people significantly. The tensions between the two countries remain high because of the fishing rights and suspected oil and gas deposits in the contested area. Exploration rights for these mineral resources are also at stake. Ultimately, this conflict will likely spill over to other economic aspects like trade and relations.

If the two countries don’t resolve the conflict soon, it will compromise the progress made in the fight against terrorist groups that have troubled the region for decades. It might allow the rise of a new wave of terror and eventually contribute to the closure of the Daadab camp that houses thousands of Somalian refugees. Currently, there is a standoff between the two countries, with Kenya denouncing the ICJ ruling and Somalia’s supporting the border drawn by the ICJ. This standoff is likely because Kenya has a powerful military, and its head of executive has vowed to defend this geographical portion with all means. Nonetheless, the relations between the countries have deteriorated since this case started. It is likely to worsen with time as the world waits to see what happens in the end.

Steps toward Resolution

In October this year, the International Court of Justice drew a new line splitting the contested region, a decision that was accepted by Somalia overwhelmingly (Cage, 2021). However, Kenya rejected the decision and claimed that the ICJ lacks jurisdiction over the bilateral matter. The efforts by the international community and the two involved states to have a common ground in this issue have been unsuccessful because neither wants to surrender the contested region. For instance, Kenya is unlikely to give up because of political and economic influences. Additionally, the country is faced with a large debt that it might consider the likelihood of offsetting using resources identified in the region. There is the issue of the impartiality of judges. The argument is that every court member belongs to a state with interests in the conflict.

Fig 2: A Map Showing the Region Contested by Somalia and Kenya (Source: BBC)

Personal Views

I am on the side of Somalia. The case put forward by Somalia seems to make the most sense, based on terrestrial maps. However, the ICJ does not consider maps as legal titles. The two countries should consider how they have managed to live with this issue for so long without any disputes, until just recently. They should also seek to understand the potential of using political settlement rather than a legal one. Lack of a diplomatic and peaceful settlement will result in further disputes. It will not only cost the two countries economic-wise but the entire international community.

References

Brosius, R. (2021). Somalia vs. Kenya – The maritime border dispute – africanlegalstudies.blog.

Cage, M. (2021, October 19). Why Somalia won its claim to a disputed maritime zone in the Indian Ocean. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/19/why-somalia-won-its-claim-disputed-maritime-zone-indian-ocean/

Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). (2021). ICJ sides with Somalia in Kenya maritime border dispute. DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/icj-sides-with-somalia-in-kenya-maritime-border-dispute/a-59482142

KENYA – Somalia: Maritime border dispute. (2016). Africa Research Bulletin: Economic, Financial and Technical Series53(9), 21414C-21415A. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6346.2016.07277.x

Mohamed Isse Trunji. (2017). Maritime delimitation in the Indian Ocean (Somalia v. Kenya). Hiiraan Online:: Somali news :: Your source of news and information about Somalia. https://hiiraan.com/op4/2017/mar/141039/maritime_delimitation_in_the_indian_ocean_somalia_v_kenya.aspx

Olorundami, F. (2018). The Kenya/Somalia maritime boundary delimitation dispute. Ethiopian Yearbook of International Law, 173-185. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90887-8_7

The Issue

What is it? Somalia opened a case against Kenya in 2014 over contested parts of the Indian Ocean that possess numerous minerals and ample oil resources. It is over 100,000 square kilometers of the seafloor (see Appendix 1).

What is its geographical nature? The core issue is the direction in which the joint maritime boundary lie (Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com), 2021; Olorundami, 2018). Somalia believes that the boundary should be parallel to its border towards the southeasterly directly. Kenya believes that the line runs straight easterly to the coastline, granting it rights over the contested area.

The Conflict

In what way(s) does the issue pose, create, or contribute to conflict? This issue could result in militarization that could impede fishing and other economic activities in the region.

What is the evolutionary or developmental history of the conflict? Since 1979, Somalia has continuously acquiesced itself to Kenya’s preferred boundary, causing the now maritime border to get interpreted as the legal line (Cage, 2021).  During those years, Somalia lacked a consistent decision-making authority as the country got ravaged by terrorism and insecurity. It was just a decade ago when Somalia made this point at the ICJ. Thousands of square kilometers of minerals and oil resources and the trade relations between the two countries are at stake.

What are the primary perspectives (sides) on the conflict? Somalia sees Kenya as an invader – a country that has long dominated the border with its superior military power. Kenya is willing to defend the contested region using all means possible.

Who is involved?  Kenya and Somalia. The International Court of Justice and key allies to both countries are also involved.

What is at stake? The disputes is on the mineral resources in the contested region. Both nations risk starting war that could affect both economies and its people significantly. Ultimately, this conflict will likely spill over to other economic aspects like trade and relations.

What are the consequences / repercussions of the conflict? Because Somalia has been fighting against terrorism for years and Kenya has been one of the most supportive neighbors in this fight, the conflict might allow the rise of a new wave of terror. The progress, in this case, might jeopardize Kenya’s cooperation and its role in fighting against terrorism through AMISOM and may fuel the closure of the Daadab camp that houses the majority of Somalia refugees.

What is the current status of the conflict? Currently, there is a standoff between the two countries, with Kenya denouncing the ICJ ruling and Somalia’s supporting the border drawn by the ICJ. The relations between the countries have deteriorated since this case was initiated and this is likely to get worse with time as the world waits to see what happens in the end.

Steps toward Resolution

What steps have been taken, or are being taken to resolve the conflict? In October this year, the International Court of Justice drew a new line splitting the contested region, a decision that was accepted by Somalia overwhelmingly (Cage, 2021).

How successful have they been? Kenya rejected the decision and claimed that the ICJ lacks jurisdiction over the bilateral matter. The efforts by the international community and the two involved states to have a common ground in this issue have been unsuccessful because neither wants to surrender the contested region.

What are the chief factors contributing to the success or failure of the attempts at resolution? Kenya is unlikely to give up because of political and economic influences. Additionally, the country is faced with a large debt that it might consider the likelihood of offsetting using resources identified in the region.

Personal Views

What “side” (if any) are you on, why? I am on the side of Somalia. The case put forward by Somalia seems to make the most sense, based on terrestrial maps. However, the ICJ does not consider maps as legal titles.  

What actions – do you believe – would be most apt to resolve the conflict in a satisfactory manner? The best solution would be a bilateral talk between the two states, allowing each other to benefit from the region in a controlled manner. The two countries could have a diplomatic agreement to share the resources within the contested area.

References

Cage, M. (2021, October 19). Why Somalia won its claim to a disputed maritime zone in the Indian Ocean. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/19/why-somalia-won-its-claim-disputed-maritime-zone-indian-ocean/

Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). (2021). ICJ sides with Somalia in Kenya maritime border dispute. DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/icj-sides-with-somalia-in-kenya-maritime-border-dispute/a-59482142

Olorundami, F. (2018). The Kenya/Somalia maritime boundary delimitation dispute. Ethiopian Yearbook of International Law, 173-185. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90887-8_7