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It is in Kenya’s best Interest to De-escalate Tensions with Somalia

Few days ago, we woke up to news about two important and related incidences concerning Kenya’s growingly strained relations with Somalia. The first is a fierce fight between Somalia forces and some local militia groups right into the Kenyan side of the border between the two countries in Mandera. The other is a visit by a number of Kenyan Somali members of Parliament to Mogadishu. These things did not augur well with the Kenyan government. The said members of Parliament were briefly detained and questioned at Wilson Airport upon return. On the other hand, the government of Kenya, through state house spokesperson, issued a statement that called upon Somalia to stop what Kenya argued is unnecessary provocation. Undoubtedly, the relations between the two countries have been deteriorating at an alarming rate.

There can be many reasons as to why and how we have gotten here. The maritime border dispute between Kenya and Somalia off the Indian ocean which has seen rising stakes ahead of an expected ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) mid this year is one of them. One the other hand, Nairobi and Mogadishu have been on the path to cold relations, albeit quietly, over Kenya’s involvement in Somalia; which Somalia argue is interference with its sovereign integrity. Kenya has, of course, denied ever having interfered with Somalia’s internal affairs. This is not true, of course. When it comes to Somalia, Kenya has indeed meddled and continues to. Attempts to ‘Kenyanize’ Jubaland is a case in point.

Even as Kenya meddles in Somalia and whether war is an option or not, it is safe to keep in mind that a war with Somalia is a different ball game all-together. Arguably Kenya’s greatest threat is the Somali nationalism with its pan-Somali ideology. Whenever Kenya behaves in a manner that sends an anti-Somali signal, which is unfortunately what is the case, Somali nationalism grows. It is counterproductive. Things like harassing members of the Somali community whenever acts of terror by Al Shabaab happens, only goes to grow the said Somali nationalism. Any attempt to restrict Kenyan Somalis from interaction with Somalia Somalis does the same thing. The more reason why concerns over Somali members of Parliament’s visit to Somalia does not help Kenya.  

Kenya’s posture and behavior towards Somalis both in Kenya and Somalia which largely leans towards containment has proved not only to be ineffective but also counterproductive. Unfortunately, Kenya has behaved the same way for way too long. No wonder the escalation of tensions. One of the simple learnings that Kenya needs to draw from her history of attempts to contain the Somalis, particularly in Kenya, is that when you persecute and/or systematically isolate a people for far too long they learn to mobilize and organize and outsmart you over time. They become secretive and can be vicious. The relations between the Kenyan state and Somalis is that of mutual suspicion. Any suspicious action on either side raises mistrust further complicating the situation. In as far as Kenya continues to behave and act in the manner that it has been (which seems likely) tensions between the two countries can be expected to grow over time and if unchecked a full-blown war between Kenya and Somalia is not a farfetched idea.

We may continue to see Kenya attempting its containment strategy especially of its Somali population. The opposite – and perhaps unequal reaction – is that Somali nationalism and pan-Somali can be expected to soar. Pan-Somali, like Zionism, has the possibly of growing into a strong movement with global solidarity. The fact that Kenya’s Somalis do actually have a genuine grievance, will embolden their claim for emancipation and will attract sympathy from different quarters including religious. In the end, Kenya will have created a monster that it will no longer be able to handle and/or control. In the event that the strained relations end in war, it is clear that such a war will be too costly and that ending it will be too difficult.

To avoid this dangerous path, Kenya may need to (re)consider its stance on Somalia and its posture towards Kenya’s Somalis. As regards the latter, the state may need to reconcile with its Somali population. Addressing their grievances and genuine steps towards integrating the Somalis into the Kenyan polity looks like a good – of course hard – thing to do. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report still offers an opportunity to open this conversation. As regards the former (Kenya’s relations with Somalia), there are a number of things that Kenya needs to do to foster de-escalation. They include reducing stakes in Jubaland, pulling out the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) out of Somalia and finding an amicable way in settling the maritime border dispute off the Indian ocean. These undertakings are not going to be easy but is stability cheap?

It is in Kenya’s best Interest to De-escalate Tensions with Somalia It is in Kenya’s best Interest to De-escalate Tensions with Somalia Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on March 05, 2020 Rating: 5

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