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Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines
Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines
UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties
UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties
The silhouettes of armed men, some pirates and some homegrown security forces, appear on the horizon in the early morning in the semi-desertic plains near the central Somalia town of Galkayo on 18 August 2010. AFP/Roberto Schmidt
Commentary / Africa

Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines

Clashes between clan militias in Somalia’s historically divided city of Galkayo that broke out on 22 November have killed at least 40 people, injured hundreds and displaced thousands. The fighting raises fears that the Galkayo dispute could escalate into a national conflict, and shows how fragile Somalia remains during its incomplete transition to a new constitutional order and peace.

The Galkayo clashes symbolise the folly of the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its international backers – an extraordinarily wide range of actors including the UN, the African Union, the European Union, the U.S., UK, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – who are pushing for the top-down establishment of Interim Federal Administrations without parallel reconciliation processes between clans at a local and national level.

As long as these multiple administrations are not fully constituted and without their specific local political compacts in place, there will be fierce clan competition over their control and undecided borders. Galkayo is a clear example of what happens when peace is neglected over a desire to show progress. To complete Somalia’s transition, a greater focus on bottom-up peace processes rather than driving through top-down short-term political fixes is needed.

A History of Clan Conflict

Galkayo (population 137,000) is divided between two federal states, the Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA), just established in 2015, and Puntland, formed in 1998. Its local divisions also mirror the larger divide between two dominant and historically rival clan families, the Darod and the Hawiye. The Darod (specifically Majerteen-Omar Mahmood sub-clan) dominate Galkayo’s Puntland-administered north, the Hawiye (specifically Habar Gidir-Sa’ad sub-clan) dominate the GIA-ruled south.

The divided city of Galkayo at the border between Puntland and the the Galmudug Interim Administration. CRISIS GROUP

Italian colonial administrators divided Galkayo and its environs into clearly demarcated clan-based zones – via the “Tomaselli” line – as a solution to inter-clan conflict over land. Even the nationalist and declared enemy of clannism President Siad Barre could not overcome this divide during his 22 years in power. After Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, Galkayo became a deadly flashpoint between mainly Darod and Hawiye militia. In 1993, clan warlords signed the Mudug Peace Agreement to divide the city and its key revenue sources – including the airport and main market – between the two main clans. This brought relative peace for the next two decades.

Now neighbouring Puntland feels that the new GIA threatens its authority over populations (especially clans) and the territory (the former Mudug region) it claims to control. It therefore rejected the formation of the GIA, claiming that it was unconstitutional, since it is based on just one-and-a-half states (Galgadud and the southern half of Mudug), while the Somalia Federal Government’s provisional constitution stipulates that two or more regions are needed to form a federal state. When Puntland declared itself a regional state in 1998 prior to any federal constitution it was based on two-and-a-half regions (Bari, Nugal and the northern half of Mudug). Both GIA and Puntland, however, are mostly an expression of the territorial claims of their respective dominant clans, the Hawiye-Habr Gedir and Darod-Majerteen.

Tensions between Puntland and GIA flared up again in September during consultative meetings on the 2016 national elections. Puntland’s President Abdiweli Gaas walked out in protest, claiming the GIA was not a legitimate federal entity. In October, arguments escalated over disputed landing rights when an aircraft landed in GIA-controlled south Galkayo instead of the north Galkayo airport under Puntland’s control – as per the Mudug agreement. But it was Puntland’s construction of a new road, which encroached upon the agreed lines of clan control between north and south Galkayo, that sparked the latest and most serious conflict.

Federal Intervention Generates a Truce – But Not Stability

A week after the clashes in November, SFG Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmake travelled to Galkayo with a delegation including traditional elders, representatives of the international community and presidents of other interim administrations – Ahmed Mohamed “Madobe” of the Juba Interim Administration and Sharif Hassan Adan of the Interim South West Administration.

By 2 December they had negotiated a fragile truce. The agreement stipulated an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of militia from the front lines, return of displaced persons, and, optimistically, a solution to the “Galkayo question”. This first ceasefire collapsed after just one day amid heavy fighting.

Another truce agreed on 5 December is holding, but the situation remains tense. It has national ramifications. Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas accuses federal forces of providing military support to the GIA, whose president, Abdikarim Guled, was a former federal minister and remains close to the SFG president.

Galkayo and Somalia’s Future

In the short term, the SFG must continue to prioritise mediation in cooperation with their international and regional backers to ensure the parties respect the most recent ceasefire. Further violations could undercut its ability to mediate conflict in the future – a critically useful role fulfilled by the otherwise weak Mogadishu government.

In the long term, the SFG – with support from the international community – must work to clarify the status of Galkayo and the numerous other locations nationwide that are disputed between federal entities and their clan constituents. These are issues that the authors of the provisional federal constitution – including Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas, when he was still the federal prime minister – had left deliberately vague.

If the ceasefire is violated for a second time, this clan dispute could escalate into a wider national conflict between related Darod and Hawiye clans, especially because the two clan families remain political rivals on the national stage and are competitors for control of the presidency in 2016.

Even though the SFG’s mandate theoretically ends in August 2016, such targets time-tabled by national politicians and international diplomats are not worth the lives recently lost and potentially others elsewhere. The violence in Galkayo should serve as a reminder that any rush to finalise the federalisation process – without pause over particularly conflict-prone regions, or at the very least planning for deeper reconciliation processes where old disputes still fester – risks undermining the limited progress made in Somalia since 2012.


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Analyst, Somalia
Former Research Assistant, Horn of Africa
Kenyan coastal fishermen fly black flags on their fishing dhows with the message "Save Lamu Waters" as they take part in a demonstration demanding to be heard in a legal dispute between Kenya and her northern neighbour Somalia Tony KARUMBA / AFP
Q&A / Africa

UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties

The International Court of Justice on 12 October handed down a decision mostly upholding Somalia’s claims in a long-running maritime border dispute with Kenya. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias assesses the potential impact on relations between the two countries.

What is the outcome of the court ruling?

After seven years of bitter wrangling between Kenya and Somalia for control of contested Indian Ocean waters, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 12 October issued an eagerly awaited judgment demarcating the two countries’ maritime boundary, ruling mostly in Somalia’s favour. The main disagreement between the parties had centred on how the maritime border should be drawn. Kenya argued that it should run in a straight latitudinal line from the point on the coast where the countries’ land borders meet. Somalia contended that the sea border should run south east, perpendicular to the coast at the point where its land border with Kenya meets the sea. The resulting disputed triangle amounted to 100,000 sq km of maritime space. Much of that territorial sea is believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits as well as rich fisheries.

The judges in the end trod a fine line and gave each party roughly half the disputed territory. The bench unanimously rejected Kenya’s claims that the two sides shared a decades-long understanding of where the maritime border lies. In setting the new boundary, the court, in a split decision, largely concurred with Somalia’s reasoning as to how the boundary should be delineated. The Court also said it had attempted to “attenuate in a reasonable and mutually balanced way” any effect on Kenya’s access to the sea by granting Nairobi a substantial portion of the disputed territory. In practical terms, the court meant that the boundary line would extend south east, but at a reduced angle to the coast as compared to what Mogadishu had originally demanded. The Court meanwhile rejected Mogadishu’s demand for compensation for Nairobi’s historical exploitation of the contested waters, finding that Kenya had not violated its international obligations through its maritime activities in the disputed area. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta quickly rejected the decision, while Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” hailed it as a historic victory.

Initial border claims by both countries delineating the disputed triangular area in the Indian Ocean.

Why did out-of-court negotiations fail?

Both Kenya and Somalia had agreed as far back as April 2009 to settle the matter through negotiations following a Memorandum of Understanding they jointly filed with the UN Secretariat, rather than ruling on boundaries themselves. A senior official who served in Somalia’s foreign ministry in that period told Crisis Group that Kenya never took Somalia’s approaches for bilateral talks seriously at the time and that at least three attempts to meet Kenyan officials over the issue failed. A Kenyan official confirmed this version of events, saying that Kenyan foreign ministry officials were “negligent”, underestimating the seriousness of Mogadishu’s demands.

With political talks stalled, Mogadishu pushed ahead with its case at the ICJ, dragging Nairobi reluctantly into proceedings in 2014. Starting in September 2019, Kenya made repeated representations to the African Union Peace and Security Council, pressing for Somalia to withdraw the case and settle the matter through talks. Judges in The Hague rejected Kenya’s demands to refer the case back to the African Union. Nairobi contends that the court decision, which it says significantly alters the existing approach that many countries take to delimiting boundaries along lines parallel to the equator, could result in a cascade of similar border disputes along the Indian Ocean coast.

The adjusted line, which represents the final border according to the ICJ ruling, roughly splits the disputed area into two.

How has the case affected relations between Somalia and Kenya?

The case has increasingly poisoned relations between Somalia and Kenya – especially over the last two years. Ties nosedived in February 2019 when Somalia held a conference in London to gauge interest in the exploration of offshore oil and gas. Kenya protested strongly, accusing Somalia of auctioning off blocks in the disputed area. Somali authorities denied that the blocks in question were located in the disputed zone. Meanwhile, Mogadishu contended that Nairobi has been taking advantage of the dysfunction in Somalia since the collapse of the state in 1991 to illegally annex Somali waters.

Amid the legal battle, both sides engaged in an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat measures.

Amid the legal battle, both sides engaged in an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat measures. These include a short-lived Kenyan ban on all flights to and from Somalia and a Somali ban on the importation of Kenyan khat, which is an economic mainstay for thousands of farmers in central Kenya. Nairobi has dangled the prospect of recognising Somaliland, whose declaration of independence in 1991 Mogadishu rejects and which no other state recognises. Kenya has also repeatedly threatened to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees.

By the end of December 2020, Kenya and Somalia had suspended diplomatic ties amid accusations from Somali federal officials against Kenya, which has deployed thousands of troops in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to combat Al-Shabaab. These officials claimed that Nairobi was meddling in Somali politics by taking the side of Ahmed Madobe, president of Somalia’s Jubaland state, in his separate dispute with Mogadishu. In March 2021, Kenya withdrew its legal team from the court’s proceedings in The Hague. Kenya claimed that the ICJ, which until that February had been headed by Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, a Somali national, was biased.

Although diplomatic relations were restored between the countries in May after Qatari mediation, Kenya began hardening its stance again as the ruling approached. In what was viewed as an effort to ratchet up pressure on Mogadishu, President Kenyatta on 23 September presided over a ceremony upgrading a military station located near the disputed waters into a full naval base. In an 8 October statement, just prior to the ruling, Kenya denounced the ICJ and what it said as a “flawed” court process. Invoking the memory of Nairobi’s defeat of ethnic Somali rebels who fought to secede from Kenya and join Somalia in the 1960s, a senior Kenyan official also said the country would be as resolute in defending its territorial integrity as it was during that revolt.

After the judgment was announced, positions continued to harden. Kenyatta stated that the court’s judgment would “strain the relations between the two countries”. Leading contenders in Kenya’s forthcoming 2022 elections meanwhile have urged authorities not to cede “an inch of the country”. While some Kenyan officials told Crisis Group they were surprised by the judges’ efforts to find a middle ground, as they expected the judgment to lean more toward Somalia’s position, they said they would still reject the judgment.

Somalia’s political class is treating the decision as a victory for the country, and many are positioning themselves to reap political dividends. In recent weeks, all the main contenders have cast themselves as champions of Somali sovereignty facing off against what they portray as the country’s overbearing southern neighbour. President Farmajo, in particular, has had poor relations with Nairobi since coming to office and almost certainly will look to the ruling for a political boost as he gears up for the delayed elections in Somalia. His opponents, including former Presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, however, say Farmajo merely benefitted from a court case they had set in motion during their respective periods in office and that they deserve more credit.

Strained relations will likely continue to affect efforts by Nairobi and Mogadishu to confront Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency.

Strained relations will likely continue to affect efforts by Nairobi and Mogadishu to confront Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency. Instead of focusing on how to reverse Al-Shabaab’s control of large swathes of south-central Somalia, including Jubaland, Mogadishu has been sending troops to fight forces allied to Jubaland President Ahmed Madobe. Madobe partly relies on the Kenyan military to help him secure Jubaland’s capital and main port, Kismayo. Although, as Crisis Group has reported, the drivers of the clash between Mogadishu and Madobe are internal – the former seeks to centralise power and resources while the latter favours greater devolution – tensions between Kenya and Somalia over the maritime dispute could provoke Kenya to double down on military support for Madobe.

How can Nairobi and Mogadishu rebuild ties going forward?

Both sides have a strong interest in repairing relations. Somalia and Kenya are historically, culturally and economically interlinked. Many citizens of both countries share a common ethnic heritage and the neighbours’ social and trade links have proven deep and enduring. Thousands of Kenyans, particularly teachers and traders, work and live in Somalia. Tens of thousands of Somalis likewise live in Kenya, including many university students who attend Kenyan colleges. The repeated ructions between the sides tend to disrupt the lives of scores of ordinary citizens, and hinder the wider effort to stabilise Somalia, which will require continued involvement by Kenya (a key AMISOM troop contributor) and other neighbours. Despite strong views on the judgment on both sides, especially in Kenya, all have an interest in de-escalation and greater cooperation.

A direct armed confrontation over the maritime dispute is unlikely.

Thus, while in the short run Nairobi and Mogadishu are likely to exchange more barbed words, a direct armed confrontation over the maritime dispute is unlikely, notwithstanding the sometimes belligerent rhetoric. Some Somali officials have privately told Crisis Group that Mogadishu may ask a third country to patrol the oceans to counter Kenya’s claims, but that prospect seems remote as Somalia’s allies are likely to press instead for a more amicable settlement.

Along those lines, the most promising way to manage the risk of confrontation would be talks to agree on a mutually acceptable approach to enforcing the judgment. Qatar, which has good relations with both Kenya and Somalia and as noted above helped mend fences between the two earlier in 2021, has quietly offered to mediate. Nairobi and Mogadishu should accept this offer and use any talks to establish mechanisms for further dialogue. Although both sides have repeatedly promised to revive the Somalia-Kenya Joint Commission for Cooperation – a forum bringing together high-level officials from both sides to discuss bilateral ties – they have taken little action on this front. The two neighbours should restart this platform to regularly discuss their many shared interests and smooth over disputes.