Kenya has raised the ire of Somalia by awarding offshore oil and gas exploration blocks to multinational companies in contested waters, and while the mainstream Western media glosses over this as a simple irritant for Kenya, Total and ENI, the move will give new impetus to Somali piracy and threatens to open up another frontline in the Somali conflict.
Kenya is perhaps being a bit hasty in its excitement over oil, having discovered its very first commercially exploitable oil inland in the Rift Valley earlier this year. While that find is not contested, its decision to award three exploration blocks to Italy’s Eni and one to France’s Total in coastal waters claimed both by Kenya and Somalia is questionable.
Not only is it illegal to award these exploration blocks without a territorial dispute resolution, but the timing will be viewed as suspicious in Somalia, where Kenyan forces are presently attempting to establish their medium-term military credentials by fighting the terrorist group al-Shabaab alongside African Union (AMISOM) troops and the Somali transitional government (TFG).
It is plausible that Kenya was hoping that its very successful assistance in pushing al-Shabaab out of the Somali capital Mogadishu and a number of other key bases and strongholds would give it carte blanche to act on oil exploitation in contested coastal waters. But TFG officials who are beholden to Kenya firepower are nonetheless unimpressed by Kenya’s move. Somalia’s interim deputy energy minister has gone on the record as saying that the awarding of the four blocks was illegal and that the TFG would take up the issue with the United Nations.
Of course, for the multinational oil companies, there is no contest. Kenya is East Africa’s largest economy and is relatively stable compared to its neighbors, whereas Somalia has been languishing in a state of anarchy for nearly three decades that has turned into an Islamic insurgency, as well as a hotbed of piracy on the high seas.
While the mainstream Western media is keen to paint this as a no-contest situation for Kenya, the legal status of those coastal waters and any potential UN arbitration is only a small part of a larger matter.
Somalia needs Kenya to deal the final blow to al-Shabaab and to allow the TFG, whose mandate expires on 20 August, to proceed with organizing proper elections and giving the country its first government in over two decades. Kenyan forces descended on Somalia in part to protect Kenya’s borders from infiltration and its coastal resorts from armed rebels. Securing its foothold on the Somali coast, however, also offers the benefit of securing its claim to oil in contested waters.
“Kenya is clearly holding most of the cards, here, but this is a dangerous game whose timing is a bit off. The transitional Somali government requires as much support from the various influential clans as it can muster in order to defeat al-Shabaab and lessen the chance of any future insurgencies of a nationalist flavor. Kenya’s move to sideline Somalia over these oil exploration blocks risks skewing alliances at a pivotal point in the conflict,” Michael Bagley, president of Jellyfish Operations, which manages an intelligence network in Somalia, told Oilprice.com
Kenya would do good to remember that Somalia is not just the TFG and al-Shabaab, and it will have other forces with which to contend. While the TFG may allow Kenya to move forward with its oil exploration deals without putting up too much of a fight, a number of groups will not.
By. Charles Kennedy