Kenya, Somalia: an African hot spot coming off the boil

One tense and uneasy area of Africa -- the border region between Kenya and Somalia -- looks as though it may soon come off the boil. A cordial meeting between Somalia's President Siad Barre and President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya at the recent Organization of African Unity summit in Nairobi seems to have brought about a very welcome easing of tension between the two countries.

And Peter Oloo Aringo, a high-level Kenya government minister, just flew to Somalia to put more substance into those improved relations. He is working to establish contacts between Somalia and Kenya in trade and commerce.

One signal that President Barre, who appears to be under pressure from many groups in Somalia to make peace with Kenya is personally eager to create a rapprochement comes in an interview in a Kenya newspaper, the Standard, written by its editor in chief, George Githii.

Barre said in the article that officials of both countries were meeting along the border "to devise ways of ending banditry" and that the meeting had been successful. He reported that Somalia is stepping up efforts to identify "criminals and subversive elements operating against Kenya."

President Barre also said that the easing tensions should be followed up with the creation of areas of cooperation such as removing travel restrictions and promoting trade links.

This kind of talk has not come before from any Somali leader. President Barre even went on record as saying: "We in Somalia have no claim whatsoever on any part of Kenya's territory. It is, of course, a historical fact that there are people of Somali origin in Kenya but we regard them as Kenyans."

The Kenyans are eager to believe all this because Somalia is a natural -- though not very rich -- market for Kenyan goods and commodities such as timber and cement, which at present are imported by Somalia from Europe, Asia, and the Far East. Besides, the Kenyans are deparetely anxious to stabilize the long desert border, which occupies hundreds of security troops and police in expensive operations against Somali "shifta" (bandits), who raid into Kenya for cattle and other booty.

Other factors enter into this search for a rapprochement, such as the American negotiations with both Somalia and Kenya for mobil strike force. The former Soviet naval and air base at Berbera, in northern Somalia, is already being prepared for American occupation.

The Kenyan port of Mombasa is already virtually an "rest and recreation area" for the US Navy, with ships coming and going. Sources say the Americans are naturally eager for better diplomatic relations between Kenya and Somalia.

Sources in Somalia say there is evidence of a growing pro-Western stance, parallel with Kenya's historic friendship with Britain, America, and Western Europe, and with it a shift from totalitarian, scientific socialism to a more open private enterprise society.

The Navy deal, anyway, will bring the Somalis much closer to the United States, and with it, they hope, a considerable influx of development aid desperately needed by this very poor country.

What seems certain is that the Somalis will never again flirt with the Russians, who, in their 11-year occupation, brought them tanks and other military hardware, but nothing in the way of economic or social development. The Soviet period in Somalia ended in a fierce Somali dislike of the Russians, and their eventual exodus (into neighboring Ehtiopia) under severe Somali pressure.

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