In poignant symbolism for the slogan of African solutions to African problems, the meeting that secured a commitment to normalise relations between Kenya and Somalia was brokered by Egyptian President and incumbent African Union chair Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Tuesday night meeting that took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York was the first face-to-face encounter between the principals since March.
Although it could not be expected to produce an immediate settlement to the maritime border row, the meeting was productive because it secured a commitment to constructive engagement and a normalisation of some aspects of bilateral relations.
However, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo stands advised that his dogmatic approach to the maritime case, and insistence on a legal solution could leave a bitter taste in the aftermath.
Uhuru Kenyatta and Farmaajo should nevertheless be congratulated for rising above the noise to chart what is probably the more logical path to resolving a potentially explosive issue. Besides buying time, restoring diplomatic relations will create the conditions conducive to a less emotive approach to the dispute.
Territorial conflicts are complex because of the motivations that trigger them in the first place. So, even though Somalia has gone to court, it is reasonable to assume that the court’s ruling will be acceptable only if it is in its favour. And even if the decision were to be in its favour, it would still leave a bitter after-taste that is likely to be the source of future conflict. Even then, Farmaajo still needs to think about a negative outcome for his side and how this would impact his personal political career.
At this point also, it is necessary for Kenya and Somalia to think beyond the current imperatives. Prime Minister Farmaajo has in the past spurned diplomatic overtures, in favour of an outright settlement by the International Court of Justice.
Regardless of how strong such a posture makes him appear in the contest for power within Somalia, Farmaajo is walking a tight rope since the ICJ’s decision could go either way. Were that to happen, he would be left with no room for manoeuvre between total loss of face and entering a hot conflict with Kenya.
It is doubtable there would be a winner in such a scenario. Both countries, and the region in general, would be drawn into a diversionary and disruptive war that would still end on the negotiation table anyway.
History tells us that territorial conflicts can be protracted and costly. Nairobi and Mogadishu have been at loggerheads over the slant of their maritime border since 2014, with no end in sight.
With Amisom rolling back in Somalia and no firm commitment from the protagonists in South Sudan to close the book on the six-year conflict there, the last thing East Africa and Africa needs now is a new flashpoint.
To start with, Farmaajo should tame domestic pressures by de-linking the territorial dispute with Kenya from the 2021 election discourse. And since the dispute is primarily about resources, both Kenya and Somalia need to think about a third way by considering what concessions they are willing to make to meet each other halfway.