Stirring the Somali waters: Toward a maritime oil war?


Source: The Inkerman Group

For many armchair analysts, East Africa appears to have enough problems. Plagued by pirates riding the waves of the Indian Ocean, and bullied by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants that threaten the very foundation of Somalia, the region has been a constant focal point for insecurity. To be fair, the pirates are starting to let up. Moreover, the latest reports paint a picture of an al Shabaab on the decline – at least for now. However, a looming fight over oil and gas could threaten to undue any transition toward stability in the region, particularly when it comes to Somalia’s relationship with Kenya.

Setting the Scene For Trouble

The latest East African scandal began with a seemingly innocuous clarification by the Somali Government. Amid a weekly council of ministers gathering on 06 June 2013, officials decided to embark on the contentious topic of Somalia’s maritime borders. By meeting’s end, the ministers had agreed to make “null and void” the 2009 maritime borders Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Kenya and Somalia’s now-defunct Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Adding fuel to the fire, the Somali Government, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, officially ‘extended’ the country’s sea territory by 200 nautical miles, and also defined the continental shelf as part of its maritime boundary.

To the outside observer, this move may seem like a trivial declaration. Indeed, Somalia and Kenya have been fighting over this very issue since 1972. However, when given the fact that those 200 extra nautical miles could lead Somalia to join the Indian Ocean hydrocarbon bonanza and simultaneously pit Nairobi and Mogadishu in a fight over potentially lucrative reserves, this announcement is far more consequential.

Boundary Bickering

So what, exactly, is the 2009 MOU? And better yet, why is Somalia keen on supposedly ‘expanding’ its maritime boundaries? Whilst the general theme of the MOU revolves around the issue of nation’s contested maritime borders, the exact details and ultimate outcome of the memorandum depends on which country you ask.

For Kenya, the MOU had settled matters once and for all. Nairobi officials believe that the April 2009 agreement signed by then-Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula, and his former Somali counterpart, Abdirahman Warsame, allowed Kenya – not Somalia – to officially demarcate its maritime borders to include the approximately 200 nautical miles off the coast of the Horn of Africa. More precisely, for Nairobi authorities, the MOU extended the Kenyan boundary east to approximately the 45° line of latitude.

Naturally, Somali authorities offer a different view of the MOU signing. For them, the memorandum only amounted to Mogadishu giving the “O.K.” for Kenyan authorities to submit their version of the East African map. In other words, Somalia sees the MOU as simply an ‘agree to disagree’ document. In Somalia’s defence, this argument is not out of line, given that in order for a country to officially submit its boundary map to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, it must provide proof that it has “cooperated with its neighbours”. For Somalia, then, this document is only proof that it ried to ‘cooperate’. In the end, however, the Somali parliament rejected Kenya’s views on the Indian Ocean boundaries in August of 2009; and the East African neighbours have been squabbling over a body of water roughly 23,600 miles in area ever since.

Joining the Hydrocarbon Bonanza

For Somalia, the fight over the maritime demarcation goes far deeper than a quest for seaside riches. It is also a matter of pride. The view among many Somalis is that their country has been taken advantage of, not only by Kenya, but by international firms which they have accused of capitalising on their decades-long lack of central government for their own financial gain. When Kenya authorised another round of oil contracts in July 2012, this time to include the disputed Eni-controlled L21, L23, and L24 blocks, Somali authorities were quick to cry ‘imperialism’. In particular, an angered Abdillahi Mohamud, who manages the East African Energy Forum, claimed that these oil blocks, as well as the Total S.A-controlled L22, the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation-bought L5, and Statoil-run L26, were all sold off “illegally” by Kenyan authorities. Noted Mohamud: “These offshore oil blocks are solely owned by the Republic of Somalia as stipulated in the 1982 UN Common Law on the Sea (UNCLOS). Kenya’s move to sell these oil blocks violates international law”. Indeed, for a country which only recently managed to achieve a presidential election following decades of bloodshed, Kenya’s oil block sell-off was not exactly a morale-booster.


Pride aside, the financial ramifications of the border demarcation is clearly of importance as well. Whilst the exact amount of hydrocarbon reserves in the 23,000 square miles of water remains unknown, some reports have estimated that, when combined with its reported onshore reserves, Somalia could have as much as 110 billion barrels of oil. With regard to offshore gas, in total the East African region is believed to have 440 trillion cubic feet of recoverable reserves. Clearly any slight ‘cheat of hand’ with regard to the Somali boundaries with Kenya could spell billions of dollars in lost revenue for the fledgling government in Mogadishu.

The Way Ahead

The never-ending maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya is, by now, well understood. Indeed, since 1972, the two countries have been lobbying the UN to see their side of the ‘Indian Ocean’ story. Reports of possible pirate political involvement aside, for the most part, this disagreement has only been a war of words. Going forward, it remains to be seen whether the two nations will engage in a full-scale violent confrontation over the hydrocarbon-rich sea. If such an event were to pass, however, Kenya is believed to have the upper hand. Indeed, Nairobi has already secured enough powerful allies, including Norway, France, and the US (all of which have stake in the Kenyan-authorised offshore oil blocks), that would conceivably make a Kenyan victory a ‘sure thing’ from the start.

This is not to say, however, that the Somali Government will not try to change the Kenya-as-East African-powerhouse narrative. To be sure, in 2012, the Somalia Government went ahead and announced that it, too, would auction approximately “308 newly delineated oil blocks”, without seeking a cooperation agreement with Kenya. Of course Somalia does not want to anger its neighbour. In their weekly meeting on 06 June 2013, cautious ministers did state that, whilst they would seek to implement changes to their national territory, they are looking “forward” to working with Kenya, and “the government of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta Kenyatta”.