Somalia’s government misplayed its hand at a conference in London

Michael Rubin
Michael is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

Somalia’s government misplayed its hand when, at a February 7 conference in London, it allegedly auctioned off oil and gas blocks in waters Somalia and Kenya dispute prior to an International Court of Justice’s decision on the maritime boundary. Perhaps President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed—commonly known as Farmajo–believed his gamble wise: he could raise revenue in the hope that the disputed waters contained energy deposits and either use the prestige of the oil companies to lobby for his claim or simply walk away with the money if the justices found in Kenya’s favor.

In reality, Farmajo is damaging Somalia’s always tattered reputation, undercutting a relationship upon whose repair Somalia’s stability depends, and ignoring ample international precedent. Consider two other recent maritime disputes involving the potential for oil and gas finds:

Turkey has asserted a maritime claim in Cypriot territorial waters based on Turkey’s sole recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a country no other state recognizes and whose existence the European Union and broader international community considers illegal. In 2011, Egemen Bağış—a close aide to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a former minister for EU affairs—threatened to use the Turkish Navy against other NATO members in order to prevent international companies from operating in Cypriot waters. Bağış was a blowhard and his reiteration of a dubious claim did little to dissuade energy firms from working with Cyprus, but they did tarnish Turkey’s reputation in international business and diplomatic circles.

Then there is Lebanon. In May 2000, Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon.  The United Nations certified Israel’s withdrawal as complete but, after gas reserves were found elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Lebanon—whose debt to GDP ratio is close to 150 percent—disputed its maritime boundary with Israel, and tried to sell exploration rights in the 860 square kilometer zone. While the French energy giant Total ultimately backed out of the disputed block, Beirut’s claim reinvigorated Hezbollah’s resistance rhetoric in a way that undermined the broader sovereignty of the Lebanese state.

Back to the Somalia-Kenya dispute. Ultimately the Court will make its judgment but, even then, it is unclear both that Somalia has the ability to defend its waters and that Kenya will concede if the case goes against Nairobi. By allegedly auctioning blocks off now, however, it is Somalia that appears to thumb its nose at the International Court of Justice process which it initiated. The sale while there is legal lack of clarity over the disputed sea shelf undermines Mogadishi’s already atrocious reputation for business climate. Nor does Somalia’s actions make sense while still dependent upon AMISOM—and Kenya’s contribution to it—for basic security. Farmajo may see oil as a means to rescue Somalia’s moribund economy, but production of oil absent capacity can actually make matters worse. Perhaps a wiser course would be to let the ICJ process continue until its end. The Somalia government should know, that after decades of disaster, quick riches and short-term cash can come at a price too high to bear.

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