Somalia has said it will bring its long-standing maritime border dispute with Kenya to the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a move that could end years of bilateral wrangling over potentially vast offshore oil and gas reserves. The dispute has been a major source of tension between the two countries, particularly following Kenya’s decision in 2012 to award exploration licenses in the contested area. Although the court action could pave the way for future investment, a verdict is likely to take several years, leaving a high degree of uncertainty over existing operations in the region.
The Somali Federal Government (SFG) said on 28 August it would bring the dispute to the ICJ as diplomatic negotiations with Kenya had failed to make progress. The contested region covers a triangular body of water of more than 100,000 square kilometres, which could include a significant portion of the estimated 440 trillion cubic feet of Somalia’s offshore gas reserves. Mogadishu claims the sea border should continue along the line of the land boundary, while Nairobi argues it should follow the line of latitude due east, giving it more territory. Both countries have agreed to recognise the court’s ruling, which would be final and binding.
The disagreement has been a significant source of bilateral tension in recent years. The situation escalated in July 2012 when Kenya unilaterally awarded seven deepwater blocks to Italy’s Eni and French company Total in the Lamu Basin, four of which are in the disputed waters. Although this came after the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2009 that supported Kenya’s claim to the disputed waters, Somalia’s parliament has since rejected the agreement and claims Nairobi’s decision to award licenses was illegal.
The escalation of the dispute to the ICJ is unlikely to bring about a quick resolution. Similar cases have frequently taken years to resolve, and the Kenya-Somalia dispute is particularly complicated by the divided and unstable nature of Somali politics, which can impede decision-making in high-level international disputes. Regional authorities in several parts of Somalia have repeatedly challenged Mogadishu’s authority over the allocation of natural resources, including the Juba Federal State in southern Somalia, over which Kenya wields significant influence. The case would be at further risk of delay if the current Somali government were to collapse. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud only narrowly avoided a parliamentary petition demanding his resignation in May, and with ongoing threats from the militant group al-Shabaab and competing regional jurisdictions, it is uncertain that the current SFG will outlive the duration of the case.
The ongoing impasse presents considerable uncertainty to companies already active or looking to commence operations in the region. Kenya has already stated that companies will be unable to drill in their respective blocks until the dispute is settled, although exploration activities have already begun. The case will also delay Kenya’s plans to begin a new licensing round for eight other offshore blocks, all but one of which are in the contested area. Without an agreed boundary, Kenya is also prevented from extending its claim to the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, threatening the long term expansion of the country’s oil and gas sector.