Kenyan Foreign Minister (FM) Amina Mohamed has advocated for self-determination for the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic’s (SADR) as part of her campaign for chairperson of the African Union (AU) commission, raising the issue of whether she would also push for self-determination or recognition of the Somaliland region as an independent country as well if she wins the January 2017 election.
Kenyan officials and politicians previously have indicated a willingness to strengthen ties with the region. Last year, Mohamed said in an interview that Kenya and Somaliland could cooperate on health, livestock, agriculture, mining, and other issues if an agreement could be put in place. Mohamed, who has family roots with the Darod-Dhulbahante clan in northern Somalia, pointed out that numerous Kenyan nationals lived and worked in the region.
The Kenyan government also has promised to enhance its engagement with Somaliland, though there have not been many tangible results. Earlier this year in May, the Kenyan government announced it would expand its consular presence in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa (which has been in discussion for more than four years), as well as other towns in Somalia.
Lastly, in August 2016, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga stated in an event at Chatham House in London that he personally supported recognition of Somaliland — to the dismay of the Somali government.
It was unclear if this would be part of his platform as a prospective presidential candidate heading into Kenya’s national elections in August 2017, but there has long been a perception among some Somalilanders that an Odinga presidency would bode well for the prospect of recognition.
Security and Economics as the Third Rail
For years, there has been a supposition that Kenya is not willing to recognize Somaliland because it would exacerbate already tenuous cooperation with the Somali government on critical security issues, including the battle against al-Shabaab and now the Islamic State. Kenya’s recognition of Somaliland would probably trigger another effort in the Somali parliament to kick Kenyan troops out of the country, and this would endanger Kenya’s ability to accomplish its foreign policy objectives in Somalia.
The more recent crisis over the khat trade between Kenya and Somalia also showed how bilateral trade presents obstacles to the Somaliland region’s relationship with the Kenyan government.
In July 2016, Meru county governor Peter Munya visited Somaliland to lobby the regional government to reduce import taxes on khat imports, as duties were 200% lower for Ethiopia — where Somaliland receives a majority of its khat.
In exchange for a favorable reduction in import taxes, the Meru delegation told the Somaliland government it would lobby for recognition. Munya stated, “In my deliberations with top government officials, I managed to convince the government to appoint a technical committee to review the duty in exchange of some form of recognition of the Republic of Somaliland by the Kenyan Government.”
In response to Munya’s proposal, the Somali government banned khat from entering Somalia, calling Munya’s statements a threat to Somalia’s territorial integrity. However, the khat ban was confined largely to Mogadishu as regional administrations like Jubaland and Puntland refused to heed the directive.
Despite the lack of a unified response, the ban cost Kenyan traders millions of dollars, hurt the political career of the Meru governor, and possibly worried the Uhuru Kenyatta administration about how the crisis could impact support for his political party heading into 2017 elections.
Somalia finally lifted the week-long ban on 13 September 2016 after high-level talks between Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and the Somali government managed to receive concessions from Kenya related to security restrictions imposed against the country. Kenya agreed to establish a review to make it easier for Somali nationals to obtain visas and to evaluate a way to allow direct flights from Somali cities and Nairobi.
Even though the Somali government generally has limited powers it can exercise without Western donor support, this case showed that its control over Mogadishu airport was enough to extract key foreign policy objectives in this scenario. An OP-ED contributor in the The Star suggested that Somaliland could still wield trade as a weapon to garner recognition. However, the khat case shows that this is easier said than done.
As for Amina Mohamed, her AU chairperson campaign rhetoric has not provided further clarity about her prioritization between self-determination and territorial integrity, as she recently stated:
“My candidature is premised on the firm conviction that Africa is destined to realise its full potential informed by our forefathers’ foresight in establishing the Organisation of African Unity. Among these shared values is the principle of respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination of the African countries and peoples.”
Putting the khat crisis aside, Somalia was actually the first country to publicly back Mohamed’s bid for AU chairperson in November, even though later that month it walked out of the 4th Arab-African Summit in solidarity with Arab countries over the attendance of SADR – the territory for which Mohamed seeks self-determination.
Mohamed may be asked for further clarification about her stances on self-determination heading into the January vote. But as it stands, there is not much evidence that Mohamed or the Kenyan government is prepared to make any significant changes toward its policy with Somaliland.