Somalia is once again embroiled in political turmoil. Opposition leaders from the Horn of Africa nation say they no longer recognize the authority of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known by his nickname “Farmaajo,” after his term expired on February 8 without political agreement on the way to elections to replace him.
Somalia’s most recent political stalemate, and the way it ultimately resolves, will have significant consequences not only for the country but also for its neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia.
Kenya and Ethiopia have been heavily involved in Somali politics since the country’s independence in 1960. For decades, they have pursued a united policy towards Somalia to counter Pan-Somali irredentism.
Pan-Somali irredentism, or “Soomaalinimo”, refers to Somalia’s vision of establishing a unified “Greater Somalia” comprised of British and Italian Somaliland (now both officially part of Somalia), French Somaliland (now Djibouti), from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. , and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) in Kenya. In the first years of independence, Somalia waged wars against its neighbors to extend its sovereignty over all these lands, leading Ethiopia and Kenya to sign a bilateral defense agreement to protect their territories.
However, Kenya’s 2011 military intervention in Somalia upended Addis Ababa and Nairobi’s decades-old alliance against Mogadishu. The decision by the two neighboring countries to support opposing parties in the Somali Autonomous Region following Jubbaland’s presidential election in 2019 further heightened tensions. Now, as Somalia works to hold new elections and end its political crisis, Ethiopia and Kenya are also looking for ways to expand their influence over the nation’s reluctant political leaders.
To understand the importance of Somalia’s current leadership race to Kenya and Ethiopia, it is necessary to examine the region’s long history of interstate rivalry and conflict.
The Shifta War 1963-1967
In the early 1960s, after British colonial authorities granted FND administration to Kenya, ethnic Somalis living in the region began an armed uprising with support from Mogadishu to secede from Kenya and join Somalia.
In December 1963, just weeks after declaring independence from Britain, the Kenyan government responded to the ongoing skirmishes by declaring a state of emergency in the region. Then Kenyan Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta made it clear in his emergency announcement that Kenya views the NFD as part of its territory and any conflict in the region as domestic.
In the following months, as it became clear that Mogadishu was unwilling to give up its irredentist claim on the NFD, the Kenyan government closed ranks with another nation suffering from Somalia’s desire for expansion: l ‘Ethiopia.
In 1964, Kenyatta, now Kenya’s first president, signed a mutual defense agreement with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to contain Somali aggression. The two nations renewed this pact in 1979 and again in 1989.
The Ogaden War 1977-78
In Kenya, Mogadishu simply supported local armed groups to pursue its irredentist ambitions, but in Ethiopia it launched a full-scale war.
In 1977, the Somali National Army invaded Ethiopia in an attempt to annex the Ogaden region, inhabited in Somalia. The invasion could have served its purpose, if only it had not taken place in the context of the Cold War.
At the time, both the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States extended their respective spheres of influence throughout the Horn of Africa and paid particular attention to Ethiopia and Somalia.
Despite its support for Somalia before the war, once the conflict broke out, the USSR encouraged Somalia and Ethiopia to find a negotiated solution to the dispute – a move that frustrated Somali President Siad Barre. In response, in November 1977, he renounced the 1974 friendship treaty between Somalia and the USSR. He also ordered all Soviet advisers to leave the country within seven days, ended Soviet use of strategic naval facilities on the Indian Ocean, and severed diplomatic relations with the USSR’s main ally, Cuba.
With this, the USSR and its allies began to transfer personnel and weapons to Ethiopia, which effectively shifted the balance of the war in Ethiopia’s favor. Barre expected his decision to sever ties with the USSR to result in increased support from the United States. However, this did not happen and Barre ordered his forces to withdraw to Somalia in March 1978.
Ogaden’s defeat sparked massive political unrest in Somalia and sowed the seeds for the collapse of Barre’s government, and indeed the Somali state, in 1991.
Somalia Peace Conferences
Following the collapse of the Barre regime in 1991, due to a lack of central authority and persistent internal conflicts, Somalia began to be classified internationally as a “failed state”. This designation sparked multiple regional and multilateral efforts to resolve the country’s crisis.
Kenya and Ethiopia have been at the heart of these efforts. The two countries hosted numerous conferences on Somalia during this period and intervened militarily in the country. At the time, Addis Ababa and Nairobi were working together to push for the formation of a new Somali government that would not be a threat to their political and security interests in their immediate neighborhood.
In 2004, the efforts of Kenya, Ethiopia and other regional powers to bring peace and stability to Somalia resulted in the formation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the election of Abdullahi Yusuf as new president of Somalia. This result pleased both Kenya and Ethiopia. Yusuf, who fled to Ethiopia after participating in a failed coup attempt against Barre in 1979, had been a trusted ally of Addis Ababa for decades.
Yusuf, who was seen by most of the Somali population as an Ethiopian surrogate, however failed to unite the nation. As internal conflict continued to ravage the country, he announced his resignation in 2008.
Yusuf’s exit from the Somali political scene and the TFG’s consequent loss of control over most of the country paved the way for the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) – an Islamic legal and political organization established to put end to anarchy and internal conflicts in Somalia.
The ICU has introduced a minimum of stability to the country after decades of war, especially in south-central Somalia. Many Somalis welcomed the rule of the ICU not because they were ideologically attached to Islamism, but because they were tired of endless conflicts and unsuccessful international efforts to bring peace to the country.
However, the rise of the ICU disturbed Ethiopia and in December 2006 it sent its troops to Somalia to oust it from power. If the Ethiopian forces were successful in defeating the UCI, it led to increased instability in Somalia and in the region as a whole. The armed group al-Shabab quickly increased its influence in the region and Somalia entered another period of conflict.
In October 2011, following a series of cross-border attacks by Somali-based al-Shabab fighters against foreign nationals and aid workers in Kenya, Nairobi deployed its troops to the semi-autonomous region of Jubbaland in southern Somalia.
The incursion angered not only Mogadishu, but also Kenya’s main regional ally, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa was wary of Kenya’s presence in Jubbaland, as it believed that military intervention could give increased power to the Somali Ogaden clan occupying the region – the same clan that has long waged a separatist war against Addis Ababa in the region. Ethiopian region of Ogaden via the Ogaden. National Liberation Front (ONLF).
In addition, Kenya has formed an alliance with Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, also known as Madobe – a controversial militia commander from the Somali Ogaden clan. Madobe had fought the Mogadishu government as an al-Shabab ally for years and was involved with fighters believed to support the ONLF.
In 2012, Madobe’s militia, backed by Kenyan troops, succeeded in expelling al-Shabab from the Jubbaland capital, Kismayo, which is also a strategic port city. Over the next two years, Madobe presided over the clan reconciliation in Jubbaland and in 2015, with support from Kenya, he was elected president of the semi-autonomous region.
Madobe’s growing power in Jubbaland and the alliance with Kenya made Ethiopia feel vulnerable. As a result, he threw his weight behind the Mogadishu government, overturning its decades-old policy of supporting regional governments against the center to limit its powers. It also marked the end of the Kenya-Ethiopia alliance against the irredentist pan-Somali threat.
Tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia returned to the surface in August 2019, during Jubbaland’s presidential election. Kenya once again backed outgoing President Madobe, while Ethiopia allied with Somali President Farmaajo, who was pushing for Madobe’s ouster. Madobe ultimately won the election, but Mogadishu refused to accept the result.
After the election, Alan Duale, then Majority Leader of Kenya’s National Assembly, and Yusuf Haji, who served as Minister of Defense during Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, traveled to Jubbaland to attend at the inauguration of Madobe.
The plane carrying the Kenyan government delegation flew directly to Kismayo, against a directive from the Somali federal government that all international flights go through Mogadishu. This decision further strained relations between Mogadishu and Nairobi.
In March 2020, the ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Nairobi escalated again, as fighting between Jubbaland forces and the Somali National Army spilled over into Mandera County in Kenya.
Following the clashes, the Kenyan government issued a press release calling on the Somali government to end “unjustified provocations” on Kenyan territory. On March 5, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo agreed to resolve growing tensions between the two countries and called for increased cooperation in the areas of border security, diplomacy and trade relations. .
The assurances of the two presidents prevented another military conflict between Kenya and Somalia. Nevertheless, the decades-old conflicts in the Horn of Africa are far from resolved.
In this context, the outcome of Somalia’s upcoming presidential race will be crucial in determining the ever-changing power dynamics in the region. If the outgoing President Farmaajo, who moved closer to Ethiopia during his tenure, manages to retain power, Kenya’s influence in Somalia and the region will decline further. But if Farmaajo loses and is eventually replaced by someone more sensitive to Nairobi’s interests, Ethiopia may be the one that needs to devise a new strategy to ensure its security and protect its regional interests.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.