Suspended Flights Further Threaten Fragile Somali-Kenyan Relations

By Natasha Domiro, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme

Against the backdrop of already fragile relations, the Kenyan Government has banned direct flights from Somalia into Nairobi. Tensions between the two neighbours date back to 2014, when Kenya accused Somalia of auctioning off oil, gas and mineral blocks falling within disputed territory along their shared border in the Indian Ocean.

It is also not the first time that the Kenyan Government has ordered flights from the Somali capital to first go through security checks at Wajir, a small town situated in the north-east of Kenya.

Imposed in 2006, the ban was lifted by mutual agreement in 2016. Kenya has defended the decision to reinstate the Wajir security checks, stating that they are purely for security reasons.

The Somali Government, however, claims that the decision is politically motivated and threatens to strain the already fragile relationship.

On 10 May, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) tweeted that there would be ‘No more direct flights from Somalia to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or Wilson airport’. According to the Director of the KCAA, Captain Gilbert Kibe, the decision was ‘purely for security reasons’. The rationale for the security checks is to better ensure the safety of passengers and cargo, as Al-Shabaab militants have taken control of vast areas of Somalia.
Al-Shabaab is an Islamist terrorist group formed in Somalia, which began targeting Kenya in 2008. In 2011, to protect national security interests, Kenyan defence forces entered southern Somalia to create a buffer zone between Kenya and territories held by Al-Shabaab. The number of attacks carried out by Al-Shabaab has risen over the past eight years, in retaliation for the Kenya Defence Force’s incursion into Somalia and the Kenyan presence in the African Union’s (AU) security force in Somalia.
The Somali Government believes that the decision to once again suspend direct flights into Nairobi is politically motivated. It is urging the Kenyan Government to reconsider its stance, as it will only put further strain on their, already fragile, bilateral relations. Somalia said it was ‘deeply concerned’ by the move and regretted that Kenya was being ‘unneighbourly’. The Federal Government of Somalia believes that this restriction will create an unnecessary barrier to trade and the movement of people between the two countries.
The fragile bilateral relationship is exacerbated by a border dispute dating back to 2014. Both countries laid claim to an offshore oil and gas field in the Indian Ocean, along their border. Somalia lodged a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2014, while Kenya maintained that it would prefer to settle the dispute out of court. In 2016, Kenya failed to convince the ICJ that the matter did not fall within its jurisdiction. Somalia wants the maritime border to run diagonally as an extension of the land boundary, while Kenya wants it to run parallel to the line of latitude, eastwards and out to sea from the border town of Kyunga. The quarrel over the oil blocks is straining the ties between the two countries, as are security concerns.

Among African countries, Kenya hosts the largest population of Somali refugees and has troops serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is helping the government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo to battle Al-Shabaab. With the stakes so high, it remains to be seen how long the two countries can afford to remain estranged from each other.
As stated by the Director-General of the KCAA, the suspension of the non-stop flights is not permanent. The suspension is scheduled to be reviewed on 9 August, at which time the Kenyan authorities will decide whether it is to be maintained or lifted.

Any opinions or views expressed  are those of the individual author, unless stated