Kenya/Somalia: Is thawing of relations a major win for Qatar?

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on Monday, 10 May 2021 23:58
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, right, speaks during a joint news conference with Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Thursday, March 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

Somalia has announced it will be restoring diplomatic ties with Kenya, five months after it cut ties citing “interference” from Nairobi. Could this be the beginning of both countries turning the page on their simmering feud?

In separate statements on Thursday 6 May, both Mogadishu and Nairobi confirmed that they would be restoring ties “in keeping with the interests of good neighbourliness”.

Tit for tat

In 2019, Kenya recalled its ambassador to Somalia after the latter started the process to auction off oil and gas blocks in a disputed maritime zone.

Nairobi accused Mogadishu of “betrayal” over the maritime dispute, and “inciting hostility” to its citizens and troops in the country.

Since then, Somalia has continuously pointed a finger to Nairobi on accusations of interference in its internal affairs. Its beef with Kenya culminated in December 2020 when it recalled its ambassador to Nairobi and expelled Kenya’s, in what was the culmination of a feud that has been growing for years.

Gulf involvement

But in the statements by both Kenya and Somalia, specifically thanked the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Al-Thani, for mediating the diplomatic crisis. Qatar’s special envoy, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, went to Mogadishu on 1 May to negotiate the country’s political crisis, which worsened after Somalia’s President Mohammed Farmaajo moved to extend his rule by two more years.

Qahtani also delivered a “special message” to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi on 6 May.

“We believe that normalising the relationship between the two neighbours is very important for political stability, especially in Somalia which is currently going through political turmoil … and we look forward to the elections there,” Qatar’s foreign minister later told the news agencyReuters.

The Qatari special envoy met nearly all major players in the growing Somali political crisis, which now seems on its way towards a possible peaceful resolution after President Farmaajo backed down and appointed a prime minister, Mohammed Roble, to lead negotiations with opposition parties and plans for a new election.

The embattled head of state backed down from his two-year term extension after losing support from two more federal state governments, coupled with Doha’s position on how his continued stay was aggravating the political crisis and steering the country towards a civil war.

In addition to having his two-year extension passed by the lower house of parliament, Farmaajo’s government removed the capital’s police chief Sadiq John, after he urged members of parliament to boycott when the legislature was voting on his extended presidency.

John was immediately replaced and placed under house arrest.

In his place, Mogadishu appointed the controversial Farhan Qarole, a Turkish-trained security functionary who was formerly a member of rebel group Al-Shabaab’s assassination wing.

That created an entirely new angle to the crisis, as forces loyal to the ousted police chief set up roadblocks around his home to prevent his arrest.

Part of prime minister Roble’s brief now is to deescalate the situation in Mogadishu, where the country’s security forces have broken into factions, with troops from the national army supporting the different sides.

What are Doha’s intentions?

In an editorial, the Somali online publication Garowe Online questioned Doha’s timing, as it followed the announcement that the African Union would be sending a special envoy to mediate the Somalia crisis.

The editorial also questioned the Gulf state’s intentions, saying former president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed also questioned the sudden change of heart. “[The former president’s] absence from the sitting [where the Qatar special envoy met opposition candidates], suggests Qataris have already succeeded in dividing the opposition lobby,” the online paper speculated.

Qatar has been a close ally to Farmaajo and is said to exert immense influence.

Farmaajo’s spy chief, Fahad Yassin, a former Al Jazeera stringer, is widely seen as the main conduit between Doha and Villa Somalia, as well as Qatar’s main man on the ground in its proxy wars with other Gulf states seeking influence in the Horn of Africa country.

So far, the resumption of diplomatic ties with Kenya, which has traditionally played the role of a neutral ground for Somalia’s political classes during crisis, seems to be Doha’s biggest win.

In Somalia’s political crisis, however, some view Doha’s mediating role with suspicion due to its open support for Farmaajo. But Qatar could also be feeling out the opposition for possible new allies in case he does not survive the current political crisis.

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