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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Explained: The Indian Ocean border dispute between Kenya and Somalia

Kenya has said it will not take part in proceedings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its maritime border dispute with Somalia. What is the dispute, and what bearing does it have on bilateral relations?

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 16, 2021 7:27:57 am
International Court of Justice, Kenya and Somalia, Kenya and Somalia dispute, Indian Ocean border dispute, Indian Ocean border dispute explained, Kenya dispute explained. Somalia dispute explained, indian expressThe International Court of Justice. (AP Photo/File)

In a move that is set to further undermine stability in East Africa, Kenya has said that it will not take part in proceedings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its maritime border dispute with neighbouring Somalia, the BBC reported. Nairobi has accused the top UN body of bias.

The move comes after Somalia’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Kenya in December, after it accused Nairobi of meddling in its internal affairs.

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The maritime dispute is said to form a crucial part of the diplomatic quarrel between the two countries.

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Where is the disputed area?

The main point of disagreement between the two neighbours is the direction in which their maritime boundary in the Indian Ocean should extend.

According to Somalia, the sea border should be an extension of the same direction in which their land border runs as it approaches the Indian Ocean, i.e. towards the southeast.

Kenya, on the other hand, argues that the territorial southeast border should take a 45 degree turn as it reaches the sea, and then run in a latitudinal direction, i.e. parallel to the equator. Such an arrangement would be advantageous for Kenya, whose coastline of 536 km is more than 6 times smaller than Somalia’s (3,333 km).

Why is this area important?

The triangular area thus created by the dispute is around 1.6 lakh sq km large, and boasts of rich marine reserves. It is also believed to have oil and gas deposits.

Both Somalia and Kenya have accused each other of auctioning off blocks from this area, Al Jazeera reported.

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How have Kenya and Somalia tried to resolve the dispute?

After negotiations to resolve the issue bilaterally failed, Somalia in 2014 asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to adjudicate. Kenya resisted, arguing that the world court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, based on a 2009 argument between the two neighbours that Kenya said amounted to a commitment to settle the dispute out of court.

However, in February 2017, the ICJ ruled that it did have the right to rule in the case, and in June 2019 said that it would begin public hearings. These hearings never took place, as Kenya successfully applied to have them postponed thrice– the last one being in June 2020, when it cited difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest date scheduled for the hearing announced by the ICJ was March this year, but Kenya asked for a postponement for the fourth time in January. After protests from Somalia, the ICJ agreed to hold hearings from March 15.

ICJ rulings are considered binding, although the international tribunal has no powers to ensure enforcement, and many countries are known to ignore its verdicts.

What bearing would this have on bilateral relations?

In recent years, relations between Somalia and Kenya have sharply deteriorated.

In 2019, Somalia criticised Kenya after the latter blocked the entry of two Somalian legislators and a minister after they landed at Nairobi airport, and proceeded to deport them. Last year, Kenya accused Somalia of an “unwarranted attack” on its territory during a conflict between Somalia and regional forces. Somalia refuted the accusation.

In December, Kenya hosted the leader of Somaliland, an entity that has declared independence from Somalia since 1991. Somalia responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Kenya, accusing it of interfering in its domestic affairs– claims that Kenya denied.

Despite the many points of disagreement, the two countries remain allies in their fight against Al Shabaab, an Islamist terror organisation that has launched several attacks in both countries over the past decade.

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