Diplomatic Crisis between Somalia and Kenya: Motivations and Likely Trajectories

EPC | 22 Dec 2020

The Somali-Kenyan relations deteriorated once again after the Somali federal government announced, in mid-December 2020, that it is severing diplomatic relations with Kenya against the backdrop of what it described as "the Kenyan violations of Somalia's sovereignty and its open interference in Somalia’s internal affairs". Subsequently, Somalia ordered all its diplomats in Kenya to return to the country, and requested Kenyan diplomats in Somalia to leave its territory within seven days.

Despite the atmosphere of optimism surrounding the meeting between the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo at the opening of the recent extraordinary summit of the African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries in the Djiboutian capital, the crisis seems likely to continue between the two sides until the date of the next Somali elections.

Background of the crisis

The recent escalation of tension between Somalia and Kenya began in late November 2020, when the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Nairobi of interfering in the upcoming Somali elections, summoned its ambassador to Kenya, and ordered that Kenyan passport holders apply for visas in advance instead of obtaining them upon arrival at the airport. In another escalatory step, Somalia banned the import of Kenyan khat (miraa) due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. Somalia used to acquire nearly 50 tonnes of khat per day, with a value of more than 100 million shillings (one million dollars), according to the Kenyan National Statistics Office. Meanwhile, exports of khat from Ethiopia, which is Kenya's rival neighbour in this market, continue to reach Somalia.[1]

 Moreover, a maritime border dispute is taking place between Somalia and Kenya. The two countries have engaged in international arbitration processes for four years. The International Court is considering the status of the oil-rich disputed maritime region,[2] which has attracted the interest of a number of international powers such as the US, the United Kingdom (UK), France, Italy, and Norway, which have shown their eagerness to participate in the exploitation of the oil resources in this region.

The renewed tensions in the relationship of the two countries coincided with the regional developments in the Horn of Africa since mid-2018. President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo markedly converged with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. On 27 January 2020, the three leaders held their third meeting, and announced the formation of a new regional bloc known as the "Horn of Africa Cooperation Council". This bloc is seen as a counter-axis to another axis in the Horn of Africa that mainly consists of Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan,[3] in addition to Somaliland, which seeks to fully disengage from Somalia.

The motives and concerns of the Somali government

With the approach of the Somali elections, the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is wary of Kenya's support for the opposition. At the same time, the Somali government accuses the Kenyan side of supporting the Jubaland region. This was evident in the recent elections that took place in the region in August 2020, when the central government sought at the time to overthrow the region’s leader Ahmed Madobe and install a loyalist to it. This scenario was repeated in more than one federal state during the term of President Farmajo. Mogadishu has accused Nairobi of supporting Sheikh Madobe in the elections, but the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs described these accusations as "unsubstantiated" and "unfortunate".[4]

However, what sparked the current crisis between the two sides is that Kenya hosted Somaliland President Musa Bihi Abdi. The Somali government announced cutting diplomatic relations with Kenya one day after the start of a visit by Bihi to Nairobi. In fact, the Somali government is facing great dissatisfaction at home, and demonstrations continue in Mogadishu calling for the change of the election committee that is loyal to the current president. Therefore, many observers believe that President Farmajo chose to fabricate a diplomatic problem with Kenya to divert attention from the complexities facing him at home.

Therefore, it could be said that Somaliland appears to be the most prominent winner from the new crisis between Kenya and Somalia, given that Kenya is the second country with which the Somali government severed its diplomatic relations, as it had previously severed its relations with Guinea after the Somaliland president visited it in July 2019.[5] However, what is striking is that Somalia did not show the same response to similar visits that Bihi made to Djibouti, Ethiopia and other countries, which reinforces the assumption that the recent step by the Somali government is related to President Farmajo's desire to appear as a defender of "Somalia's sovereignty" in order to invest it in the upcoming elections.

Since the negotiations held in mid-2020 in Djibouti, the Somaliland issue has been gaining momentum in the region.[6] This move by the Somali government gives more regional attention to Somaliland. On his recent visit to Kenya, the President of Somaliland Musa Bihi concluded with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta several agreements aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between them, including in the areas of trade and diplomatic cooperation, and the start of direct flights between Nairobi and Hargeisa. It was also agreed to open a Kenyan consulate in Hargeisa in late March 2021, and to raise the representation of Somaliland in Nairobi.[7]

Potential paths of the crisis

President Farmajo thus bets that the patriotism of his citizens would dominate his government's decision to break its relationship with Kenya. The new crisis is likely to be part of his election campaign, given that fabricating a strong diplomatic crisis with Kenya would divert Somali public opinion from the controversial election commission issue. It might even portray Farmajo as a national hero. Thus, the latter tends to portray his government's crisis with the Kenyan neighbour as centering on national sovereignty. On the other hand, Kenya insists on supporting the Jubaland region that is adjacent to its border strip, considering it as a buffer zone against the attacks by the jihadist movement Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen.

As for Somaliland, it considers the current Somali-Kenyan tension as an opportunity that must be seized to achieve some political and economic gains, improve its regional standing, and rally support for its demand for international recognition.

The IGAD summit, which was held extraordinarily in Djibouti on 20-21 December 2020, discussed the recent tensions between Kenya and Somalia.[8] However, no more than calls for calm came out of this summit, as was expected. In a press statement during his return to Mogadishu, the Somali Foreign Minister said that it was agreed to calm the situation between the two countries. However, he added that, to this end, his government stipulated that the IGAD organisation form a committee to follow up on the accusations made by Somalia against Kenya, including the establishment of an armed front on the Kenyan-Somali border to undermine Somalia’s stability.[9]

Therefore, it is possible that manifestations of the crisis between the two sides will continue in the coming period, especially in the light of Somalia's insistence on accusing Kenya of establishing a militia within its borders, and the fraught electoral situation inside Somalia. However, the two sides are likely to keep the crisis’s profile low, given the interconnected interests on the borders and the existence of the common al-Shabaab threat, as well as Kenya's hosting of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees inside its territory.

With regard to Somalia, its pursuit of the decision to cut diplomatic relations with Kenya could mean more security instability, especially after the US recently announced the withdrawal of its forces from Somalia, a step that is expected to give the al-Shabaab extremist movement an opportunity to escalate its terrorist operations in Somalia, and in the Horn of Africa as a whole.

Kenya has 3600 troops in the peacekeeping African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The majority of these are stationed in the Jubaland region bordering Kenya. In 2012, Kenya contributed to the expulsion of al-Shabaab from the provincial capital Kismayo, and has been rehabilitating and training the Jubaland army ever since. As mentioned earlier, Kenya seeks to make the Somali region of Jubaland a buffer zone against the attacks of the militants of al-Shabaab movement, which has already launched several deadly attacks inside Kenya.[10] As a result, Kenya began building a 708 km long border wall on the Somali border.

With regard to the new crisis, the Kenyan government has so far only stated that it would establish a committee to assess the crisis with Somalia. The Kenyan government spokesman Cyrus Oguna told the media that it is necessary to maintain diplomatic and commercial relations between the two neighbours.[11] However, in general, Kenya is not expected to withdraw its forces from Somalia before the actual withdrawal of the AMISOM mission scheduled at the end of 2021. There are other cards in the hands of the Kenyan government, which it can resort to if it decides to escalate with Somalia. Kenya has threatened for years to close the Dadaab refugee camp, which is the third largest refugee camp in the world, housing a quarter of a million Somali refugees. In case it decides to implement this threat, this would constitute a disastrous choice for Somalia.[12]


Much of the developments of the diplomatic crisis between Somalia and Kenya will depend on the results of the upcoming Somali elections. The Kenyan government seems to be waiting for February 2021 to decide on its options and steps in this regard. This is understandable, considering that the rise of a new administration in Mogadishu may lead to presenting a different view on the regional policy that is contrary to President Farmajo's current approach of antagonising Kenya. Given Somalia's need for Kenyan forces to participate in the AMISOM mission to achieve peace and security in the country, it would be unwise for Somalia to clash with Kenya or any other country in its regional periphery.


[1] Suhaib Abdul Rahman, “How does the khat trade shape the economic map in the Horn of Africa?”, Hafryat, 4 June 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/38k0E4N

[2] Suhaib Abdul Rahman, “What are the motives of the diplomatic crisis between Somalia and Kenya?”, Hafryat, 10 June 2019. Available at: http://bit.ly/3nAinLI

[3] Ingo Henneberg and Sören Stapel, "Horn of Africa Cooperation: Mixed responses to new regional bloc," The Africa Report, 9/9/2020, available at: http://bit.ly/3anAgJS

[4] AGGREY MUTAMBO, "Kenya denies Somalia's accusations after envoy forced out," The East African, 30/11/2020. Available at: https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/news/east-africa/kenya-denies-somalia-accusations-3214564

[5] "Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Guinea over Somaliland", Africa News, 04/07/2019. Available at: http://bit.ly/3ragCqI

[6] KEVIN CHERUIYOT, "Raila asks AU, UN to allow divorce between Somalia and Somaliland", 15/12/2020, available at: https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-12-15-raila-asks-un-to-allow-divorce-between-somalia-somaliland/

[7] "Kenya to Open Consulate in Breakaway Somali Region’s Capital", Bloomberg, 16/12/2020, available at: http://bloom.bg/2KjQTLE

[8] "Igad Summit in Djibouti, devoted to Ethiopia, the Kenya-Somalia dispute," Africa News, 21/12/2020. Available at: http://bit.ly/37FEEC6

[9] James Wanzala and PSCU, "Explore dialogue, AU advises on Kenya, Somalia tensions," The Standard, 21/12/2020. Available at:  http://bit.ly/2WD7EUR

[10] See, for example, Suhaib Abdul Rahman, “Nairobi attack: Al-Shabaab is re-spreading terror in Kenya”, Hafryat, 27 January 2019. Available at: http://bit.ly/2WEJmtL

[11] Sahra Eidle Nur and Kennes Bwire, "Despite Somalia Severing Ties, Kenya Says It Won't Expel Somalis," Voice of America (VOA), 16/12/2020. available at: https://www.voanews.com/africa/despite-somalia-severing-ties-kenya-says-it-wont-expel-somalis

[12] Suhaib Abdul Rahman, “Why does Kenya plan to close the world's third largest refugee camp?”, Hafryat, 22 October 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/37v66m5

Latest Scenarios