A row on the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Kenya over a border area inside Somalia called Jubaland took another twist -- as a former militia leader backed by Kenya but not recognized by Somalia flew to a prominent northern city and was received there as the president of Jubaland.
In recent weeks the government of Somalia has been claiming Kenya, an old ally, of quietly and tacitly creating a buffer state out of the territory of Jubaland, one that Kenya would hold sway in.
On July 1 Somali authorities said that Kenyan forces, deployed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping force, were taking sides and should leave, and that they were complicit in a small massacre in May in the Jubaland port of Kismayo that left dozens dead and some 155 wounded.
They also allege that Kenya is backing Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, the leader of a militia called Ras Kamboni, that has fought in Jubaland with Kenyan troops in an effort to drive out the Al Qaeda-linked radical forces of Al Shabab.
Over the weekend Mr. Madobe flew to the Somalian Puntland region, which, like Jubaland, is semi-autonomous and wishes to remain so. In Puntland, Madobe was received with a guard of honor and spoke at a public square, praising his hosts for their semi-independent status and calling Puntland "the mother of Jubaland."
The Somali government, now backed by the US, has steadily said it does not recognize Madobe as the leader of Jubaland; some six warlords now claim to represent the Jubaland area that stretches along the Kenyan border.
Kenya officially denies that it is creating a borderland buffer state, or taking sides in Somalia, or backing Madobe.
Yet there are strong feelings in Nairobi that Jubaland will eventually gravitate towards a Kenyan orbit since Madobe is backed by a number of influential Kenyan politicians of Somali origin.
As the Monitor reported last Friday:
Kenya denies taking sides in Somalia and calls itself neutral, even though many analysts now agree that Nairobi is pursuing a security zone on its border aimed at repulsing militants like the Islamist radical group Al Shabab that are linked to Al Qaeda.
“Kenya has been seeking to establish a ‘state’ so that it can take care of its security interests. It had been neutral on the Somali issues from 1991-2011, but we think this is changing,” says Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Nairobi-based Horn of Africa specialist.
Tensions were exacerbated yesterday by a misdirected letter to the African Union from Fawzia Yusuf Adam, the Somali deputy prime minister and foreign minister, stating that Kenyan forces are not being neutral, and that the Kenyan commander in charge in the Jubaland area is “incompetent.”
The letter, obtained and authenticated by the BBC, was wrongly sent out to “press contacts” in addition to officials of the African Union – and is the first verification of the degree of anger and diplomacy by Mogadishu regarding Nairobi.
Last fall Kenyan troops based in Somalia took Kismayo, a strategic port some 300 miles south of Mogadishu, from the control of Al Shabab, which carries out attacks on Western and international groups on the Horn, most recently exploding a suicide bomb at a UN compound in Mogadishu.
To maintain control of Jubaland and Kismayo, Kenya has been tacitly backing Sheikh Ahmed Madobe. Mr. Madobe is a former warlord whose Ras Kamboni militia supported Kenyan troops since they entered Somalia in 2011 as part of the African Union contingent designed to stabilize Somalia, say officials and analysts.
In May, Mr. Madobe, using his militia as a political base, was elected president of Jubaland at a conference at Kismayo University attended by 550 delegates.
The current Somali government in Mogadishu – now recognized by Washington and the International Monetary Fund – rejected the election as unconstitutional.
Some five warlords in Jubaland currently are calling themselves president of the area; the Somali government does not recognize any of them.
'We are just trying to rebuild'
Kenyan military officials, such as spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna, have stressed that Kenyan forces are neutral and merely trying to promote security and rebuild the country.
Yet “Kenya needs to be cautious," says Mr. Abdiwahab. "There is a complex web of politics involving clans that it must not lose sight of. I am afraid, if it has not understood this, then ... it’s making a political miscalculation that may jeopardize security in north eastern Kenya and parts of Somalia."
For Fred Nyabera, a conflict resolution consultant in Nairobi, the Jubaland buffer zone may be an important idea, but it needs further thinking.
“Kenya needs security along the porous border and I think the buffer zone is important. It will contribute to the security of region including Somalia. The problem is that other actors in the region think that Kenya sees this only as a Kenyan issue,” says Mr. Nyabera.
Nyabera also says that Somalian officials must see the situation from Nairobi’s security perspective.
He warns, however, that if Kenyan authorities don’t make clear a time frame for their troops to leave, that they will be increasingly seen as “an occupying force. They need a clear calendar for exit.”