In what appears to be renewed efforts to support the administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, Kenya last week took an indirect jab at countries engaged in military or trade deals with Somaliland and Puntland, arguing such agreements could weaken the government in Somalia.
It was Kenya’s first direct comment on a raging battle between Gulf powers, led by the United Arab Emirates, which have engaged in a series of manoeuvres aimed at weakening the Farmajo administration.
Officials who spoke to the Sunday Nation say Kenya wants international partners to focus on direct engagement with Mogadishu and support the role of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) in its efforts to train Somalia’s security forces.
The first hint of the message was delivered last week when President Uhuru Kenyatta suggested some foreign entities were damaging the foundation Amisom had laid in Somalia.
“The region is not at peace. Somalia remains troubled, largely by foreign agents who weaken its government, who divide its people, and who threaten to reverse the gains we have so painfully won under Amisom,” he said in his State of the Nation address on Wednesday.
“Through it all, we remember that if our brothers and sisters in Somalia prosper, we prosper; if they are safe, so are we.
"It has been our policy, then, to help them regain the peace and prosperity they once knew.”
The clash between Gulf powers in Somalia is an extension of a battle pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other.
The Saudi bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar last year and embarked on a lobbying campaign to force countries to align with its decision.
Somalia was one of the targets of this effort but the Farmajo government decided to remain neutral. This triggered a series of clashes with the UAE in particular.
The Emiratis have sought to cultivate direct ties with Somaliland and Puntland and reach deals with them for management of ports and security training initiatives, which are seen as undermining the government in Mogadishu.
Kenya views itself as having a direct stake in Somalia because instability there spells trouble in Kenya, including by putting the vital tourism industry at risk.
“A stable Somalia will allow our tourism to grow. Remember we went there after Al-Shabaab targeted our tourism installations,” Prof Maurice Amutabi, a historian and Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, said.
“If they have their own security monitoring the guys from their side, it can prevent them from regrouping,” he said, referring to the reasons Kenya Defence Forces joined Amisom.
The President did not give names in his address but his diplomats have told the Sunday Nation that the jab was directed at the Gulf countries that have taken their disputes to the Horn of Africa.
In late April, Kenyan security officials stopped a political meeting by UAE-allied Somali politicians in Eastleigh, Nairobi.
Sources said the meeting at Sir Ali Muslim grounds was cancelled because it was seen as part of an effort by entities targeting the Somali government.
However, the lead organiser, Abdirahman Abdishakur, a former Planning minister in Somalia, claimed Kenya cracked under pressure from Mogadishu.
In March, the UAE announced it would start training Somaliland soldiers when the two sides reached various agreements, among them to set up a military base, and have an Emirati company run a port there.
Somali MPs later nullified the agreement, arguing it violated territorial integrity.
Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991, runs its own affairs and even gives its ‘nationals’ passports; but has yet to get international state recognition.
The UAE and its allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are involved in a war in Yemen, some 300 kilometres east of Somalia and a military base in Somaliland could aid their war efforts.
However, Somalia is also host to a military base run by Turkey, though this agreement was reached between Ankara and Mogadishu.
So how does that affect the work of Amisom, and Somalia’s stability?
Kenya thinks by dealing with regions, as opposed to the government in Mogadishu, the Gulf powers are fanning turmoil, which would require Amisom to stay there longer.
This was one of the issues discussed at a recent meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), an eight-member bloc that includes Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
“During the meeting, emerging regional peace and security as well as the political economy were discussed.
"It was agreed that fresh and rigorous analyses on the manifestation of the Middle East in the region, the situation in Somalia and South Sudan and the effectiveness of Igad be undertaken to inform Kenya’s overall engagement through Igad,” a read-out from the meeting said.
“It shows that the region is tired and Igad member states are convinced that it is in their best interest to have a peaceful and prosperous Somalia.
"Some Arab countries are undermining the efforts made by Amisom for the last 10 years, specifically the UAE,” Dr Abdiwahab Abdi, a senior analyst on the Horn of Africa with SouthLink Consultancy in Nairobi, argued.
“That will affect the peace and stability in the Horn of Africa,” he added.
The UAE officially denies the charge and its Foreign ministry recently said it recognises one Somalia.
However, it recently terminated a military training in Mogadishu after authorities seized $9.6 million (Sh96 million) in cash in an Emirati aircraft.
Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma, Igad Executive Secretary Mahboub Maalim and other senior officials from Igad countries attended the meeting in Djibouti.
Igad also includes Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda.
Kenya, which has traditionally adopted a stance of non-interference and neutrality in the region, seems to be alarmed that a weakened Amisom at this point could mean a weaker Somalia and hence exposure to more Al-Shabaab attacks.
On Thursday, State House Spokesman Manoah Esipisu confirmed Kenya’s opposition to downgrading the mission, arguing the security situation could worsen.
“Kenya is very much committed to Amisom and has used every opportunity to canvass with development partners not to cutback their assistance.
"The President did this as late as last month at a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the margins of the Commonwealth summit,” Mr Esipisu told the Sunday Nation.
“The wearer of the shoe feels the pinch. We live in a tough neighbourhood and know the consequences of an unstable Somalia.
"That’s why the President is committed to doing everything possible to see a stable Somalia.”
Kenya will continue with its charm offensive to convince troop contributing countries on the dangers of an early exit, a diplomat added.
Today, President Kenyatta is to host new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and it is expected the issue of Somalia will feature.
Next weekend, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh is also expected in the country on the invitation of the President.
Created in 2007 by the African Union Peace and Security Council, Amisom initially had a renewable six-month mandate to stabilise.
Later, the UN Security Council endorsed its existence as a combat mission, with civilian and police departments.
Kenya joined the Mission in 2012, a year after the Kenya Defence Forces entered Somalia in pursuit of Al-Shabaab.
The European Union and the US have been its main financiers, with the EU pumping in about Sh100 billion since its inception as Washington provides logistical support.
The mission was projected to exit Somalia by 2022 and financiers have said they will cut funding.
On Friday, Amisom Head Francisco Madeira would not confirm if Somalia will be ready to run its own operations, but said the withdrawal will depend on Mogadishu's capabilities.
“This process will allow us to judge whether Somalis are ready to take over from us.
"We are not interested, and Somalis are not interested either, to leave this place and lose all the gains achieved,” he told Chinese broadcaster CGTN in an interview.
“The idea is to empower Somalis to be able to continue with whatever we have not finished.”
Mr Madeira spoke as Amisom’s main financiers met in Brussels, Belgium, with Amisom officials to discuss the planned exit strategy, which includes a phased reduction of troops by 5,000 a year, ahead of the deadline.
Amisom has 22,000 soldiers with Kenya contributing 3,664 soldiers.