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Kenya/Somalia: Tensions rise ahead of February presidential elections

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Friday, 29 January 2021 15:07

Jubaland forces walk near the site of a suicide car bomb attack near a military training base in the port town Kismayu 22 August 2015. REUTERS/Abdiqani Hassan

The diplomatic feud between Kenya and Somalia escalated this week, after Mogadishu accused Nairobi of being behind an attack in a border town that killed some 11 civilians.

In several statements, Somalia accused the Kenyan military of being behind a Jubaland militia that fought government forces in the border town of Balad Hawa on 25 January.

Reports of the attack came just as Somalia was threatening to leave the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional body, which mandated Djibouti to carry out a fact-finding mission in December. The fact-finding mission was part of an attempt to calm tensions after Somalia broke off diplomatic relations.

Fact-finding feud

Somalia called Djibouti’s report “biased, partisan, unfair, compromised and predetermined”. Mogadishu also said it was intended to exonerate Kenya from claims of meddling. It said the mission “undermines the credibility, as well as impartiality of the government of the Djibouti and stains that of IGAD.”

READ MORE Somalia’s election impasse: Crisis or successful state-building?

In another statement sent out on 28 January, Somalia said the 25 January attack had been orchestrated and staged from Kenya. It said the militia was “trained, fed and supported by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF)” and “supported by the KDF with mortar rounds.”

In Nairobi, government spokesman Cyrus Oguna denied the claims of interference.

“As a country, we want to state very clearly and categorically that we will not accept to be drawn into the internal politics of Somalia,” Oguna said at a press conference in Nairobi on 29 January. “It will be counter-productive for Kenya to destabilise Somalia in any way.”

A day earlier, Kenya’s defence cabinet secretary had said that any decision to withdraw forces from Somalia would require United Nations approval.

Years of tensions

While the diplomatic feuding between Mogadishu and Nairobi has been years in the making, it has escalated in the past few months as President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmaajo’ navigates an electoral crisis in Somalia.

President Farmaajo’s term is set to expire on 8 February 2021, and he is facing at least 14 opponents, that includes two former presidents. Somalia is also yet to hold parliamentary elections after the current legislature’s term expired in late 2020.

READ MORE Somalia: Why clan elders are vital in launching talks with Al-Shabaab

As of Thursday 28 January, Mogadishu seemed likely to go ahead with elections in three of its five states.

  • The holdouts, the semi-autonomous regions of Jubaland and Puntland, confirmed their participation in the polls by appointing regional electoral commissions, a decision Mogadishu said was unlawful.
  • Puntland had sided with the opposition in claims that President Farmaajo had packed the electoral body with spies and allies, making it unlikely that there would be a free and fair election.
  • On the other hand, Jubaland’s president, Sheikh Madobe (Ahmed Mohammed Islam), first demanded the withdrawal of the army from the Gedo Region, where Balad Hawa is located.

The other issues at play

Although the latest squabbles seem to be about Somalia’s view that Kenya is supporting the opposition in Jubaland and Mogadishu in the ongoing electoral crisis, there are other issues at play.

Jubaland is on the border between the two countries and is a regular source of tensions.

The militia that Somalia accused Kenya of supporting in Balad Hawa is said to be the forces of Jubaland’s security minister, Abdirashid Janan. He is wanted by Mogadishu after he escaped from custody in January 2020 and reportedly fled to Kenya.

A month after his escape, his militia was engaged in fighting against Somalia’s military in Gedo, which left five civilians dead and tens of others wounded.

The Jubaland elections, just months earlier in August 2019, had worsened relations between Mogadishu and Nairobi, especially after President Sheikh Madobe was re-elected. The federal government held parallel elections in the southern border state, but ended up recognising Madobe’s re-election in June 2020.