On Thursday May 6, news outlets reported that Qatar brokered a resumption of diplomatic relations between Kenya and Somalia. The Somali Ministry of Information said that both governments agreed to maintain friendly relations on the basis of principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. Kenya’s government, in response, said it welcomes efforts to normalize relations.
Qatar had deployed its Special Envoy for Counterterrorism and Mediation in Conflict Resolution, Dr. Mutlaq al-Qahtani, to mediate between the two countries after Somalia had cut ties with Kenya in December 2020, accusing the latter of interference in its internal affairs. However, relations between the two countries are also tense due to a maritime dispute in the Indian Ocean.
Strained relations between Kenya and Somalia
Kenya and Somalia have seen several diplomatic feuds over the past few years. The most recent deterioration in relations happened in December 2020, when Somalia accused Kenya of “interfering in internal affairs.” Kenya had hosted the leadership of breakaway state Somaliland and, earlier, in November 2020, Somalia also accused Nairobi of interfering in the electoral process in Jubaland.
The deterioration in relations took place during the run-up to the February elections in Somalia, which were delayed due to disputes on how they were going to be held. Violence erupted following the delay, with the Somali opposition denouncing President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed – commonly known as Farmajo. In April, Farmajo attempted to extend his term by two years, but faced domestic and international pressure forcing him to call for the resumption of election planning.
The statements by the Somali and Kenyan Ministries on the resumption of diplomatic relations also happened during a continued maritime dispute over parts of the Indian Ocean, which is known to be important for fishing and thought to be rich in oil and gas. Earlier, in February 2019, Kenya recalled its ambassador to Somalia, after Somalia accused Mogadishu of auctioning disputed oil and gas explorations. Yet ties improved a few months later, until the December flare-up.
The maritime case was filed in 2014 by Somalia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations’ highest court for resolving disputes between states, and was heard recently, in March 2021. Somalia claims the maritime frontier should follow the same direction as the land border, while Kenya argues that the border should be formed parallel to the line of latitude. Kenya withdrew from the court process, after the ICJ refused to delay the court hearings as requested by Kenya. The ICJ’s verdict is still anticipated.
Qatar’s mediation in the Horn of Africa
Qatar has long worked to create an international image as a mediator between states both inside and outside of the Middle East. In the Horn of Africa specifically, it has a history of brokering disputes. While the results of its efforts have been mixed, it did manage to book some successes. Among others, Qatar brokered a 1999 agreement between Sudan and Eritrea following severed diplomatic relations, mediated between different Somali factions in the mid-2000s, and started talks between the Sudanese government and rebel movements in Darfur in 2008, which resulted in the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD).
At the beginning of May, Qatar, which has close relations with Farmajo, reportedly sent its special envoy al-Qahtani to Somalia to mediate the political crisis that followed the delayed elections. Al-Qahtani met with several prominent politicians. When it comes to the maritime dispute, it is important to mention that while Qatar’s mediation between Somalia and Kenya stands independent from the ICJ process, it could support its verdict by promoting stability in the region. This shows Qatar’s role as an influential player in the Horn. Yet its crisis diplomacy will only be effective if sustainable, and it was already challenged on May 11, when Kenya suspended flights to Mogadishu.
Qatar’s mediation takes place within a context of geopolitical competition between extra-regional actors over military, economic, and political ties with countries in the Horn of Africa. Other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, have also sought to play a role in conflict resolutions in East Africa. For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered to play a role in the resolution of the Sudan-Ethiopia border conflict and the Nile Dam dispute, and Turkey’s close relations with Somalia are linked to its previous involvement in Somalia – Somaliland talks. These developments show that conflict mediation and resolution in the Horn has become, in addition to economic interests and geostrategic sites, subject to extra-regional competition.