A mere promise by Somalia to “revisit” the actions of an international company at the core of maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia is at the centre of the diplomatic row between the two neighbours.

According to minutes of a meeting on April 3, with Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma, Somalia’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Isse Awad expressed commitment to “revisit the actions” of Spectrum Geo that on February 7 organised a London conference in which Somalia launched the first international bid round to sell offshore blocks, a decision that angered Kenya.

But Kenya specifically wanted Somalia to ask Spectrum Geo, a Norwegian company, to withdraw “offensive maps” that were presented at the conference.

This was a part of five-point agreement between Kenya and Somalia that included the return of ambassadors to their respective duty stations, keeping the lines of communication “open for regular consultations” and Somalia’s reconsideration of the listing of Al Shabab militants under UN resolution 1267, which imposes assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo on individuals and entities associated with Al-Qaida.

But in a May 30 letter sent to Kenya, Mr Awad raised doubt about Kenya’s phrasing of the agreement, writing “the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) will revisit the actions of Spectrum International with a view of confirming to Kenya if there are offensive maps by Spectrum, which do not reflect the position of the FGS.”

The Somali government later declined to support Kenya’s push to list Al Shabab under UN resolution 1267 out of fear that this could be used against Somalia’s informal financial institutions, such as money transfer companies, or Hawalas.

The April deal came nearly two months after Nairobi expelled the Somali envoy to Kenya and recalled its Ambassador to Mogadishu, accusing the Horn of Africa nation of encroaching on its territorial waters in the Indian Ocean, an allegation denied by Somalia.

Although the two countries are underplaying the rift, there are tensions simmering under the surface.

The Somali government was not – since 2011 — happy to have  Kenyan forces on its soil, with  former President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed at one point openly criticising Kenya’s presence in southern Somali regions, though he later changed his mind.

The two neighbours are butting heads over the ownership of about 100 square kilometres of waters in Indian Ocean, whose case is being adjudicated by the International Court of Justice. Kenya is particularly bitter about the presence of Somali refugees at Dadaab camps,threatening several times to repatriate them back to the war torn country.

On Tuesday, Kenyan security and tax officers conducted searches at Somali-owned money transfer agencies in Eastleigh, Nairobi, a move seen by many as an attempt to send a signal to the Somali government that Somalis’ financial lifeline is at risk if the row continues. Despite all this Kenyan and Somali officials are putting a brave face, denying diplomatic row.

“There’s is no diplomatic row. Why do we always sensationalise the pettiest of issues,” said Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau on Thursday.
Somalia’s Foreign Minister Awad concurrs: “There may be minor misunderstanding, but I don’t believe that there is a serious diplomatic row between us. Somalia and Kenya are two friendly nations and they’re capable of overcoming any differences they may have.”

In an interview with Sunday Standard, Awad, however, said his country was dismayed by Kenya’s  decision to reintroduce a stopover in Wajir town for passenger planes originating from Mogadishu.

Last Monday, Kenyan immigration officials detained Somali ministers and lawmakers at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, confiscated their passports, forcing them to return to Mogadishu, according to a Somali protest letter.

“These actions contravene the neighborly bond that exists between Somalia and Kenya,” said Somalia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its protest letter, calling on the Kenyan government “to consider the potentially destabilizing impact of these actions and to uphold the longstanding relations”  between the two nations.

Suffer economically

Perhaps to demonstrate that Kenya’s relationship with Somalia was not as fraught as the media is making it, the Foreign Affairs CS tweeted a photo of her shaking hands with Somalia’s Education Minister Abdirahman Mohamed Abdolle.

Analysts say it’s in the two countries’ interest to de-escalate to avert hardliners from both sides to take advantage of the ongoing rift.

“Kenya and Somalia must tamp down their tensions,” said Omar Hassan Omar, a lecturer in international affairs at Simad University in Mogadishu. “They can’t afford to engage in a protracted diplomatic row because both of them will suffer economically, as the economies are inextricably interwoven.”

A section of Somali lawmakers are already planning to file a motion to demand the withdrawal of Kenyan forces serving under the African Union peacekeeping mission.
At the same time there are allegations that Kenya is supporting the re-election of Jubaland’s, much to the consternation of Mogadishu, which is said to be scheming to remove him.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire thanked Kenya for being Somalia’s “champion” in its transformation from a failed state to a recovering one.
“We request you to continue leading in the efforts of reconstructing our nation,” Khaire said, according to a statement by PSCU.

During his visit, Kenya offered at least 500 scholarships to Somalia to train doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators, said Awad.

A Somali official speaking on condition of anonymity blamed Somalia’s lack of robust institutions for the sour ties between Nairobi and Mogadishu. He disclosed that February’s diplomatic spat could have been occasioned by Somalia’s delayed response to an urgent letter by Kenya.