A group of maritime experts in Kenya have appealed to the government to shift from aggressive reaction against Somalia over the maritime dispute and embrace diplomacy for the sake of peace in the western Indian Ocean.
At a brainstorming meeting at the African Policy Institute in Nairobi on Friday, the group said that should Kenya lose the case at the International Court of Justice it will remain landlocked and will have to appeal to Somalia and Tanzania for permission for ships to dock at the Mombasa port.
The meeting agreed that Kenya should not close the door to dialogue, which will be necessary after the ICJ ruling in September.
The experts, drawn from institutions working on maritime issues, explored possible solutions to the Kenya-Somalia dispute. They gave the example of China’s maritime dispute with the Philippines, in which the ICJ ruled against China but the two countries opted for dialogue.
The meeting follows Kenya’s reaction against Somalia after Mogadishu exhibited seismic data of oil blocks for potential buyers in London on February 7. Kenya has accused Somalia of including the oil blocks in the disputed 100-km triangle in the Indian Ocean.
Last month, Nairobi reportedly barred three Somali diplomats from acquiring visas at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Somalia then directed all non-governmental organisations operating in Kenya to relocate to Somalia or cease operations.
Last week, Kenya closed its border with Somalia at Kiunga in Lamu due to security threats, but the move was largely seen as retaliation against Mogadishu.
According to political analyst Peter Kagwanja, Kenya needs to convince the ICJ and the international community that landlocked countries like Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi and the DRC, which depend on the port of Mombasa for imports and exports, would be affected.
“Should the court rule against Kenya, the country will lose its ability to exploit its continental shelf in the Indian Ocean and lose its appeal to the rest of the world as a maritime powerhouse in the region,” said Prof Kagwanja.
Both countries are claiming ownership of a 100,000-square kilometre block in the Indian Ocean that has oil and gas deposits. Somalia took Kenya to the ICJ in 2014 on claims that it was encroaching on its marine territory.
Kenya stands to lose 26 per cent (51,105 sqkm) of its Exclusive Economic Zone, and 85 per cent (95,320 sqkm) of the continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical miles limit.
Fatuma Ahmed Ali, an associate professor of international relations at the United States International University-Africa (USIU-A), said the dispute is a wake-up call for Kenya’s foreign policy, and that the country must now balance its perceived hegemonic approach and what it could lose in the long run.
“Geopolitics in the eastern African region and the Horn is shifting, and Kenya will no longer be the umbilical cord of the region. Kenya must engage Somalia and re-engage on the MoU, and initiate informal engagement through its citizens of Somali stock,” said Dr Ali.
Duncan Ojwang, a lecturer at USIU-A, said it is unfortunate that Kenya has failed to leverage how it fought terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean, and claim the high moral ground.
“Kenyans have forgotten the bigger picture of the war on terror and reduced it to an economic war. Our allies in the war on terror, such as Western powers, have reneged on Kenya in the maritime dispute. Some forces want to see a protracted dispute in the region, but the result will be an increase in terrorism and piracy,” said Dr Ojwang.