Nairobi and Mogadishu may have reached an important level of confidence this week when President Uhuru Kenyatta hosted Somalia Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, but it will take more than one physical meeting to address enduring causes of tension between the two neighbours.
Political analysts argue that the personalities of leaders in both capitals will henceforth determine how long the latest friendship will last.
Coming into the meeting, Kenya’s agenda had: The amicable out-of-court settlement of the maritime dispute; resumption of the miraa (khat) trade; approvals for Kenya Airways flights; assurance of border security and the fight against terrorism.
Somalia at the other end of the table pushed for respect for its sovereignty, normalised equal relations, eased visa regime for its nationals and co-operation on the Blue Economy.
On Tuesday, after a meeting at State House, Mombasa, the two leaders agreed to “reset relations” and appointed a joint technical committee to look at issues needing urgent implementation, based on previous agreements on security controls at the common border, fair trade rules, aviation co-operation, open borders, visas and new areas of co-operation such as Blue Economy.
The feeling after the meeting was that these issues be addressed soon. Others, such as visas, had been agreed upon earlier, only for both to reimpose restrictions when relations soured.
“Without peace, there can be no prosperity. Let us focus on providing services to our people. This can only be possible if we work together to root out terrorism,” President Uhuru said.
“It’s time to improve trade and sort out immigration issues to allow increased people-to-people interactions.”
Two months ago, such a visit looked impossible as Kenya had banned flights between the countries, adding up to six months of frosty relations.
“It is a step in the right direction and as the president said, you cannot choose your neighbours so anything that can improve relations is welcome,” said Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, author and Horn of Africa analyst at the Southlink Consultants in Nairobi.
“Once diplomatic channels are opened, everything else follows. We now wait for the joint technical committee to harmonise the issues.”
Ties between the two countries have relied on external influences, just as much as personalities of the leaders in power. Under President Farmaajo, Somalia and Kenya have had public spats, mostly related to the maritime boundary case Mogadishu filed at the International Court of Justice seeking to redraw their maritime border.
The verdict is due anytime from now.
On Tuesday, Roble seemed to strike immediate friendship. He gifted his host a number of traditional Somali items including the waist cloth (Macawis) and a container for carrying camel milk.
“It seems President Kenyatta and PM Roble established some level of trust and friendship that will help both reset and improve the diplomatic relationship,” Aden Abdirisak, a Somali Horn of Africa analyst told The EastAfrican.
Speaking to the Somali community in Nairobi later on Wednesday, Roble said the two sides agreed to do “whatever” it takes to restore relations.
Yet even this trip was clouded with suspicions. Ahead of the visit, Farmaajo had announced that no agreements with foreign entities will be entertained until after elections on October 10. Roble defied this directive, first by engaging the UN, and later making the trip to Nairobi. He was conscious, however, of the political ramifications should he touch sensitive subjects like the maritime case.
“All Somalis, wherever they are, be it Garissa, Jigjiga, Mogadishu, Hargeisa, Djibouti, are all aware that Somali territory, land, maritime or airspace are untouchable,” he said, referring to the expanse of ethnic Somalis in the Horn of Africa.
“The marine case at The Hague is up to the court to decide. I have no role in interfering with it. President Uhuru is my brother and friend, and I told him that. I did not hide my position.”
As the case has been a political hot potato in Somalia, long even before it was filed, it ended careers of some of the best known politicians. For Farmaajo, it signals nationhood, and has used the stance against Kenya to portray himself as defender of Somalia’s resources.
He also banned miraa imports from Kenya, citing Covid-19, but which was perceived as further penalty on Kenya’s stance and alleged interference in Somalia’s internal politics.
“There is a general feeling in Somalia that lately Kenya has been out to take unfair advantage of Somalia’s weak institutions, and unscrupulous politicians,” said Adam Aw Hirsi, a former senior Somali government official, now political analyst. He suggested that the social media speculation which preceded the trip may have contributed to his cautious approach.
“Now that he is coming home without any visible damage done to what is viewed as Somalia’s national interest, everyone is breathing easy and this trip might help quell that general anxiety,” Aw Hirsi added.
Kenya denies all such allegations, but Aw Hirsi says Somalia could loosen up if Kenya showed it has no desire to interfere in Somalia politics or arm-twist Mogadishu over the maritime case.
“Everything else other than the maritime case is just about perception and personalities. Even the case at The Hague will take on perception dimensions as soon as the verdict is out.”
“Let's hope both countries take advantage of the level of trust and friendship between Kenyatta and Roble and find amicable solutions for outstanding issues and focus finally on foreign policy guided by people-centric mutual interest,” Abdirisak added.