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Ruto uses back channels to ease Ethiopia, Somalia tensions

Sunday March 3, 2024

Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) and President William Ruto holding talks at state house Nairobi, Kenya on February 28, 2024. PHOTO | PCS

Kenya’s President William Ruto has engaged a higher gear for back channels to ease tension between Ethiopia and Somalia, motivated by business fervor in both countries.

And, from this week, both Addis and Mogadishu are expected to tone down their public rhetoric against each other, sources privy to the discussions indicated.

President Ruto hosted both Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who were in Nairobi on different missions. Dr Abiy was on a state visit while Mohamud was attending the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea-6) at the Unep headquarters in Nairobi.

Security and economic issues in the Horn of Africa featured prominently in their respective meetings with the Kenyan leader.

“The two leaders discussed ways and means to expand close partnership on a wide range of issues, including further developing bilateral economic and security ties to the benefit of both the people of Somalia and Kenya,” said a dispatch after Dr Ruto and Mr Mohamud met at State House, Nairobi.

Diplomatic sources told The EastAfrican, Kenya’s desire was to ensure the dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia does not boil over. Since January, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu have bickered publicly after Ethiopia signed an MoU to access the sea with Somaliland, a breakaway region whose independence from Somalia has never been recognised abroad.

Kenya tried to mediate but Somalia declined to hold any talks until Ethiopia ditched the MoU. Ethiopia insisted, however, that the pact was for business reasons, not annexation of Somali territory.

By Thursday night when both leaders departed Nairobi, the consensus was that they should no longer discuss it in public.

“It is important that they do not raise tensions by continually criticising each other in public,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the back channels. “There will be a meeting in the near future at a venue to be agreed so that we continue engaging.”

Ruto’s intent to resolve the issue was clear when he met with Abiy Wednesday. A dispatch from the meeting said they had agreed to respect sovereignty and territorial boundaries of peers in the region, a revealing decision for the Horn of Africa.

Meeting at State House, Nairobi, the two leaders vowed to maintain peace, security and stability within the continent “as a necessary condition for economic growth and development,” a joint communique stated, without referring to the Somalia issue by name.

“Accordingly, they affirmed their commitment to recognise, respect and uphold sovereignty and territorial integrity of state, and to reject unconstitutional changes of government as well as interference in domestic political processes of African countries by external interests.”

After their respective trips to Nairobi, Abiy left for Dar es Salaam while Mohamud left for Antalya, Turkey.

But the Nairobi Declaration may be both face-saving and self-shielding, especially for the Ethiopian side. It could be a political coup for Nairobi, which sees the tiff as an opportunity to enhance its diplomatic credentials, while tying both countries to better relations for its own commercial interest.

Win-win-win outcome

For Ruto, respecting territorial integrity pleases Somalia but also ensures Kenya’s offer for Lamu port is the most immediate alternative to Ethiopia’s ambitions for sea access.

Diplomatic sources indicated that Ethiopia already feels it has sacrificed substantially for Somalia’s stability already including deploying troops and cooperating on border security and hence shouldn’t be suspected of trying to dismember Somalia.

In truth, Somalia has bickered with both Ethiopia and Kenya in the recent past, alleging interference in its internal affairs as well as territorial integrity.

Somalia even sued Kenya and won at the International Court of Justice over a maritime boundary. Yet both Nairobi has lately been instrumental in pushing for Somalia’s admission into the East African Community, seeing it as an important step to help it rebuild.

Yet that declaration too was self-shielding for Ethiopia. Facing constant internal rebellions from militias, Ethiopia has been forceful in cracking them down, earning itself criticism from mostly Western countries on human rights violations especially the detention of journalists.

The visit was significant to iron out forgotten issues between the two sides. They said they will enhance bilateral cooperation in trade, investment, agriculture, tourism, health, fisheries and transport.

Dr Abiy had arrived in Nairobi Tuesday evening and was received in person by his host at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the first time Ruto has done so to a leader of another country. They exchanged a camaraderie hug in the rain before moving to other routine rituals for arriving leaders at the airport.

After their meeting, they re-announced exemption of Ethiopians from paying the fees for an online visitor arrival management system, known as ETA.


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