Kenya and Somalia are facing off in court over an oil-rich triangle of the Indian Ocean

Facing off in The Hague
Facing off in The Hague
Image: EPA/Remko De Waal
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Kenya and Somalia are in dispute over a potentially lucrative, triangular stretch of 100,000 square kilometers of offshore territory believed to contain large oil and gas deposits. In the latest twist, Somalia has won a hearing on its case before the International Court of Justice from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, in accordance with the application filed by Somalia in August 2014.

Somalia wants the court to demarcate the maritime boundary, and to determine the exact geographical coordinates as an extension of its southeastern land borders. Kenya, on the other hand, wants the border to run in parallel along the line of latitude on its eastern border.

Kenya claims it has exercised uncontested jurisdiction in the sea area since it first proclaimed its Exclusive Economic Zone in 1979. The country has awarded licenses to foreign companies including Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and the US’s Anadarko Petroleum to prospect for oil in the disputed area, a move that has incensed the Somali government.

Analysts say that there’s more at stake than oil and gas deposits. African countries are also exercising their maritime rights for security reasons. “We are observing here part of a reawakening or realization on the part of African countries about how dependent we are on safe, secure and sustainable maritime domains,” Timothy Walker, a researcher on maritime security at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, told Quartz.

Over the years, bilateral negotiations and diplomatic exchanges between Kenya and Somalia on the maritime dispute have failed. In a 2009 memorandum of understanding, the two East African nations agreed to work with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the UN agency charged with settling border disputes. But the Somali parliament later rejected the agreement, and the country engaged the ICJ as a recourse to negotiations.

Kenya is now using the signing of the 2009 memo as the basis to ask the court to dismiss the hearings. In his opening statement to the court, Githu Muigai, Kenya’s attorney general, stressed the relationship between the two countries and emphasized Kenya’s “longstanding support” and “extraordinary sacrifice” for Somalia during its civil war raging since 1991.

“Somalia would have the court believe that during all these years, that Kenya has been scheming to take advantage of its neighbor, to steal its sea and oil,” Muigai said, noting the country’s hosting of Somali refugees, and helping fight against Al-Shabaab by taking part in the UN-mandated peacekeeping forces. “Such accusations are absurd and hurtful.”

Somalia, however, seems not to want to budge from its decision to sue the Kenyan government. Somalia’s government understands that the mineral or licensing benefits could boost its national budget, and influence future development and security policy.

The Somali government has been asserting increasing control over the country, as the nation takes baby steps towards recovery. The country even recently banned imports of khat, a widely-chewed herbal stimulant, from Kenya, a measure experts say was a bargaining tool in negotiations between the two nations.

“I’m confident that we will win that case,” president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said about the maritime case on state radio on Sunday (Sept. 18).

This hearing in The Hague will either result in dismissal of the case or a resolution. The court’s decision will be final, and both countries will be expected to adhere to the verdict. If dismissed, the original 2009 agreement holds, and the two nations will have to resolve the issue through regional diplomatic means.

Walker says that, whichever way the case goes, it offers a lesson on how African states can mutually and peacefully solve maritime conflicts. Currently, Ghana and Ivory Coast are engaged in a boundary wrangle along the Atlantic Ocean, while Malawi and Tanzania have a dispute over Lake Malawi.

Provided there’s no escalation of tensions between Kenya and Somalia, Walker says, “in the long term, this case is part of an overall process of moving towards wealthier, secure and cooperative African maritime states.”