Media diplomacy and the Kenya-Somalia maritime territorial dispute

Doreen Muyonga


The emergence of new forces propelling International Relations that are pervasive, disruptive and unpredictable has forced governments to adapt to soft ways of statecraft (Ardesina 2017, 5). Diplomatic manoeuvrings are increasingly being supported by the media due to its capability to frame issues and disseminate them worldwide on real-time basis. The concept of media diplomacy also associated with Archetti (2012), Cohen (2012), Duncombe (2017), Eban (1996, Gilboa (2001, 2006), and Muyonga (2015), among others, epitomizes TV role in world politics. This chapter adapts the definition of media diplomacy by Duncombe (2017, 550), and Muyonga (2014, 17), which is the use and/or misuse of TV by actors in world politics to advance personal interests. It is also aimed at marshalling public support on issues significant for state survival.

Media diplomacy has also been used interchangeably by terms like soft power diplomacy (Nye 2011), telediplomacy (Ross 2007), Mediatization of diplomacy (Pamment 2014), Real-time diplomacy (Seib 2012) and 21st-century statecraft (Simunjak and Caliandro 2019). In this age of media diplomacy, the world has been treated to a fine-choreographed foreign policy which Gilboa (2001, 5) alludes to as the “CNN effect”. It will be remembered that CNN’s coverage of the Vietnam War carried horror straight into the living rooms of Americans (Neuman 1996, 20). Additionally, the seizure of America’s Embassy in Tehran set the stage for one of the longest TV-orchestrated foreign-policy saga ever seen before (Gilboa 2006, 10).

The Kenya-Somalia dispute over the ownership of the oil-rich blocks in the Indian Ocean recently escalated and was overblown into a diplomatic war by international media. Kenya expelled the Somalia Ambassador and recalled her Ambassador from Mogadishu following Somalia’s move to auction exploration rights for the disputed territory (Ogila 2019).

This chapter seeks to re-examine the concept of media diplomacy with a view to understand how Kenya and Somalia utilized it as an instrument of statecraft in their ongoing dispute. Although scholars such as Archetti (2012) and Gilboa (2001) have attempted to locate the role of media in foreign policy, they have failed to authoritatively discuss media diplomacy as a core foreign policy tool.

Equally, studies by Gumbo (2017) and Robinson (1996) have minimized the role of global TV in disrupting diplomatic relations among states. They only portrayed global TV as a channel of informing policymakers on events. Therefore, this chapter seeks to make up for some of the flaws of existing studies on the subject by authoritatively demonstrating global TV’s expanding role in aiding states in furtherance of their foreign policy goals.

The chapter proceeds as follows: First, it contextualizes the concept of media diplomacy. Second, a background analysis of the conflict is provided. Third, the findings are critically discussed. Lastly, suggestions on how global TV networks can contribute to the de-escalation of the conflict are provided.

This chapter adopts a qualitative research approach by scrutinizing secondary sources of data to obtain relevant information. Creswell (2003, 115) explains that researchers undertaking qualitative studies intend to gather robust viewpoints relating to human behaviour and the rationale behind it. Moreover, content analysis or rather video-based observation will be used to analyse video footage of selected international TV outlets purposively selected.

Contextualizing media diplomacy: statecraft or stagecraft?

For far too long, military capabilities has been used as means and ends to statecraft (Strobel 1997, 39). However, the 21st century ushered in a new force that is pervasive, disruptive and unpredictable, forcing governments to adapt to soft ways of statecraft (Ardesina 2017, 5). Indeed, diplomatic relations are increasingly being supported by the media due to its capability to frame and disseminate information worldwide on real-time basis.

The concept of media diplomacy also associated with Archetti (2012), Cohen (2012), Duncombe (2017), Eban (1996), Gilboa (2001, 2006), Gumbo (2017) and Muyonga (2014), among others, epitomizes the media’s role, explicitly TV in the conduct of International Relations. Clearly, media diplomacy is certainly not a new concept in the realm of world politics; however, only few scholars have attempted to package it as an integral foreign policy tool. For instance, Gilboa (2001, 2006) discussed media diplomacy alongside public diplomacy and media broker diplomacy as instruments for negotiations. He argued that media diplomacy is the exploitation of the media by policymakers to send signals and apply pressure to actors towards conflict resolution. Additionally, Archetti (2012) sought to explain the impact of new media on foreign policy which is somehow lacking in Gilboa’s literature. Eban (1996), however, explains media diplomacy as the utilization of the media to advance state interests, although he struggled to demonstrate media diplomacy as a survival strategy for state actors. This chapter fills the gap in the existing literature by authoritatively linking media diplomacy to the fuelling of the Kenya-Somalia maritime territorial dispute.

Media diplomacy has also been used interchangeably by terms such as soft power diplomacy (Nye 2011), Mediatization of diplomacy (Pamment 2014), Real-time diplomacy (Seib 2012) and 21st-century statecraft (Simunjak and

Caliandro 2019). Nevertheless, this chapter adapts the definition of media diplomacy by Duncombe (2017, 550), Gumbo (2017, 55) and Muyonga (2014, 17) which defines media diplomacy as the use and/or misuse of TV by actors in foreign policy to advance state interests. It is also aimed at marshalling public support on issues a state deems significant for its survival.

Few scholars are in agreement that only a foolish policymaker can underestimate the influence of global TV' in contemporary statecraft (Gilboa 2006; Muyonga 2015). One wonders why this fact is contestable yet most actors rely on global TV to pass information to domestic and international publics. In addition, Diplomats are increasingly relying on TV to communicate with their counterparts globally (Archetti 2012, 185).

Journalist and diplomats shape world events by disseminating and distorting information. However, journalists provide more information to governments than diplomats since in some cases, the media is a lone channel for communication among rivals. Gilboa (2001, 10) explains that during the Iran hostage crisis, America communicated with the student Islamist group holding the hostages exclusively through the media. He further notes that the US delivered the last ultimatum to Saddam Hussein solely through the media.

Although diplomatic reporting and national intelligence services play a significant role in informing politicians, most foreign policy decisions are influenced by the media. However, this does not mean that media diplomacy is a replacement of traditional diplomacy. It is simply a real-time supplement to classical diplomacy (Pamment 2014, 260).

According to Warren (2014, 6), international media play a crucial role in foreign policy due to their gigantic capacity to relay information instantly and cause information warfare. This epitomizes the interdependence between the media and politicians. Similarly, Shinar (2000, 90) informs that media diplomacy can cause longevity or termination of a conflict. Additionally, Gilboa (2001, 10) informs that the media caused the seizure of America’s Embassy in Tehran to become the longest TV-orchestrated foreign policy drama in world history. These two events ignited discussions on the preeminence of TV in foreign policy. A recent case in point is where America’s Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping have leveraged on the power of TV to dramatize their trade wars.

Scholars like Gilboa (2001) and Archetti (2012) attempted to acknowledge the increasing role of journalists in facilitating negotiations. Gilboa’s (2001, 15) concept of media broker diplomacy exemplifies journalists as key agents in Track 2 diplomacy due to their capacity to bring rival groups on one stage. For example, Walter Cronkite, a journalist, played an integral role in the 1978 Camp David Peace Agreement by bringing together Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Men- achin Begin for dialogue (Strobel 1997, 50). This implies that journalists are key catalysts in global politics.

Wolfsfeld (2004, 90) argues that media diplomacy is characterized by censorship, fabrication of facts to appeal to emotions. Equally, Hacket (1991, 60) posits that propaganda has transformed the media into government puppets. Powerful states have also become more proactive in using the media to propel their ideologies to global publics (Seib 2012, 133). This explains why America and China channel billions of shillings into the media for propaganda. No doubt, global TV presents serious dilemmas for policy makers due to its ability to reshape public opinion and disrupt existing status quo in world politics.

Gone are days when the conduct of diplomacy was a closed board room affair where diplomats engaged with each other secretly. Pamment (2014) notes that the current liberal order has expanded media’s capabilities in an enormous way. Ryan (1991) argues that the media can draw attention to an issue through framing. For instance, the conflict in Darfur was not on the international agenda until the media framed it as a horrifying genocide (Wolfsfeld 2004, 90). This saw the international community intervene. Moreover, Ottosen (1995, 99) informs that a sympathetic media coverage of the GulfWar made it possible for the public to support the war. He adds that the media successfully portrayed Saddam Hussein as a dictator playing in the league of Adolf Hitler hence the need to stop his rogue activities.

The media created a volatile political environment which translated into a devastating diplomatic standoff between Kenya and Somalia. Munene (2019) observes that media’s coverage of the dispute was largely unbalanced and aimed at distorting facts about the conflict. Warren (2014) explains that ever since statecraft was taken hostage by media diplomacy, relations among states have been characterized by theater. He adds that the media has treated the world to “front page foreign policy”, “primetime leaders” and “televised coups”. This means that war zones in international politics have moved from geographical to communication levels.

Background analysis of the Kenya-Somalia maritime territorial dispute

The Kenya-Somalia dispute dates back to 1963 when the British declared Northern Frontier District as one of Kenya’s administrative units (Scharrer 2018). The move soured diplomatic relations between the two states which were eased in 1967 with the signing of the Arusha Agreement that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two states (Bakpetu 2015, 24). Somalia was later entangled in a civil war that devastated its political, economic and social entity. During these hard times, Kenya supported Somalia in several ways: Hosted its refugees, contributed troops to its peacekeeping missions, hosted its parliament in Nairobi, and helped in the establishment of a Transitional Federal Government (Bakpetu 2015, 26).

The rivalry between Nairobi and Mogadishu over the ownership of the resource-rich area is a ghost that has refused to disappear. Otunnu (2018) explains that in 2014, Spectrum UK, a Norwegian company, led the survey in the Southern Indian Ocean Offshore of Somalia and its findings uncovered a huge exploration prospect with vast oil potential (Mathenge 2019). In January 2019, Somalia organized a conference in London aimed at flaunting her oil-rich territory. Mogadishu sought to identify companies that would be engaged in exploration exercises. Kenya expressed its disappointment with Somalia’s action to incorporate the area under dispute as part of its own leading to a diplomatic standoff (Ogila 2019).

In 2009, in an attempt to find an amicable solution to the dispute, the two states signed an MOU which recognized the existence of a maritime territorial dispute between the two states (Oluoch 2019). Although the MOU opened a new chapter of improved diplomatic relations between the two states, there was a turn of events in 2014 when Somalia took Kenya to the ICJ for unlawful operation in her territory (Otunnu 2018, 107). Kenya filled preliminary objections to challenge ICJ’s jurisdiction to hear the case but its plea was quashed (Mathenge 2019). It also filed a counter-memorial which argued that Somalia had since 1979 recognized the maritime boundary along a parallel of latitude until 2014 and that the move was a disregard for the 35 years of recognizing the maritime boundary along a parallel oflatitude (Gathara 2019).

In the most recent diplomatic showdown, Kenya claimed that Somalia had auctioned oil blocs situated in the disputed territory (Mathenge 2019). In a provocative way, it expelled Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya - Mohamud Ahmed Nur - and recalled its ambassador - Lucas Tumbo - from Mogadishu, an action that it later disowned (Ngugi 2019). It also demanded that Mogadishu disowns the findings it had presented at the London conference showing that the disputed area was in its jurisdiction (Ogila 2019).

More dramatic scenes continue to characterize the dispute. Ogila (2019) informs that Kenya has effected a mandatory stopover in Wajir for all planes coming from Mogadishu. She has also pulled her troops from the interior of Somalia towards the shared land border, a situation that has left the region vulnerable (Ogila 2019). Furthermore, in May 2019, Kenyan authorities detained Somalia government officials at the airport under unclear circumstances (Ngugi 2019). As it stands, both states continue to differ on the appropriate mechanism of resolving the conflict. The conflict is far from over, heated allegations and counter-allegations over the ownership of the oil-rich maritime territory continue to dominate media headlines.

Media reportage of the Kenya-Somalia maritime territorial dispute

The explosive involvement of international media in interstate conflicts has provoked unease in scholarly circles. Munene (2019) posits that international media extensively analysed the dispute where damning revelations were made. This raised concerns with many arguing that continued coverage of the conflict could fuel it. It is against this backdrop that this chapter sought to investigate how Kenya and Somalia exploited media diplomacy to advance their foreign policy goals.

On 18 February 2019, CNN’s revealed how senior Somalia government officials had contributed to the fuelling of the conflict. Below is an extract of the

13 2 Doreen Muyonga

news story aired by CNN on the “CNN tonight” programme hosted by Don Lemon.

Somalia’s Prime Minister is to blame for the rising tensions between Kenya and Somalia....Somalia’s president is confident that the dispute will be settled by the ICJ once and for all so that exploration activities can commence without any interruption....

(CNN 2019)

Furthermore, CNN revealed how oil exploration companies associated with Somalia’s Prime Minister, Hassan Khaire, negotiated a deal with the government in which they were awarded the rights to exploit oil in the disputed territory. CNN also indicated that President Farmaajo was under intense pressure from the political class not to agree to be coerced into a negotiated settlement. Moreover, CNN revealed that Somalia has insisted that the dispute will not be resolved by any other mechanism other than the court process. As a matter of fact, it was gearing towards beginning its exploration activities immediately the court rules in its favour.

Themes such as personal interests, law abiding, mutual respect, territorial integrity and self-determination can be located from CNN’s coverage. CNN painted a picture of how the political elites in Somalia had already secured lucrative contracts with government even before the case is determined. It seems that Somalia is confident of a favourable ICJ verdict. It also appears that Somalia perceives a negotiated settlement as a hindrance to its territorial integrity and right to self-determination.

CNN depicts Somalia as less aggressive, strong, progressive and law abiding as opposed to Kenya which is aggressive, hypocritical, a bully, a bad neighbour and non-law abiding. The issue of Kenya arm-twisting Somalia to withdraw the case from the ICJ points towards Kenya being a bully, aggressive and non- compliant to international law. Gathara (2019) informs that Kenya has threatened to forcefully repatriate Somalia refugees as well as prematurely withdraw its troops from the country if Somalia insists on having the dispute determined by the ICJ. This means that Somalia has leveraged on media diplomacy to redeem itself from the standing of a failed state by demonstrating that its foreign policy is consistent with international rules and norms. However, Kenya has used media diplomacy to dehumanize Somalia because of her unwillingness to come to the negotiating table.

CNN also portrays Kenya as keen on securing a positive-sum outcome in the dispute. Warren (2014, 18) observes that mutual respect among actors can only be maintained by a positive-sum outcome. Perhaps Kenya’s ego cannot allow her to be humiliated by a weaker state like Somalia. Similarly, Scharrer (2018) expounds that a zero-sum outcome cannot fully resolve a territorial dispute especially in the case of a strong state vs a weak state. He gives an example of the case of America vs Nicaragua, where the ICJ ruled in favour of Nicaragua, ordering the US to pay reparations. However, the US defied the judgement, withdrew from the ICJ and continued mining on the disputed territory (Scharrer 2018).

Media diplomacy has assisted Kenya to stump its hegemonic status in the region. Besides, Kenya is portrayed as peace loving due to its desire to negotiate with Somalia.

On 10 March 2019, BBC’s coverage revealed that the dispute was being fuelled by international heavyweights and regional politics. Below is an extract of the news story aired by “Focus on Africa” programme on BBC World News hosted by Sophie Ikenye.

Powerful states....dominant international oil companies......regional

states.... are behind the looming crisis between Kenya and Somalia over the ownership of a maritime territory.......

(BBC 2019)

BBC also implicated Western, Asian, Gulf powers as well as regional powers in escalating the conflict. It was revealed that Norway, UK, France, Netherlands, Italy, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar were competing for an upper hand in the resource-rich Somalia. Oil exploration companies such as British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, Italy’s ENI, France’s TOTAL as well as America’s Conoco, Philips, Amoco and Chevron were said to be preying on Somalia.

Themes such as ideology, status quo, hegemony and regional integration are evident in BBC’s coverage. Indeed, powerful actors appear to be taking advantage of the volatile nature of Somalia’s politics and security situation to drive their personal interests. Munene (2019) argues that Kenya’s war in Somalia in pursuit of the Al-shabaab is consistent with America’s global war against terrorism. He also observes that Kenya’s quest to dominate her neighbours politically and economically informs its quest for territorial expansion as well as the initiation of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (LAPSSET) corridor project. How the conflict will be resolved poses as a litmus test to confirm if Kenya is still the region’s hegemon despite increasing competition from Ethiopia. More importantly, media diplomacy has greatly supported Kenya’s struggle to reaffirm its superpower status in the region. Ngugi (2019) explains that territorial expansion boosts a state’s image in the global political arena since it increases the power of the state economically and politically. Furthermore, it is clear that the rivalry between Kenya and Somalia is a resource curse. Both Kenya and Somalia desire to exclusively access the disputed oil-rich territory in the Indian Ocean at all cost.

On 27 March 2019, A1 Jazeera’s coverage of the conflict on the “Inside Story” show hosted by Ray Suarez revealed how the preliminary ruling of the Kenya-Somalia case by the ICJ gave Somalia an early win and that analysts have warned that Kenya could lose the case if past rulings of the court are anything to go by. The headline of the new story read as follows:

Analysis of the preliminary ruling and past ICJ rulings reveal that Somalia is headed for victory in its case against Kenya.....ICJ has a 15 panel of

judges.....eyes are on the ICT president, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf....

(Al-Jazeera 2019)

The coverage of A1 Jazeera also explained how Kenya had lost in the first round of the case at the ICJ when it failed to successfully challenge the courts suitability to hear the matter. Additionally, analysts who spoke on the show illustrated how the area under dispute was in Somalia’s jurisdiction and that Kenya was fighting a losing battle. The news story also explained how the ICJ bench is currently constituted with Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, a Somalia national, as the president of the court and interrogated his possible interference in the case.

In view of the above discussion, it would be accurate for the chapter to argue that media diplomacy has been used to arouse emotions. Robinson (1996) explains that emotions are at the centre of international politics while rational judgement heavily depends on how we feel about a particular actor. The issue of the ICJ’s impartiality is triggered by the fact that a Somalia national is at the helm of the court. Munene (2019) observes that Judge Yusuf’s close relationship with other members of the bench as well as his dismissal of Kenya’s preliminary objections to the case are reason enough for Kenya to worry.

The above analysis showcases how the media can be an instigator of conflict rather than a source for peace. Media diplomacy has been used as a tool for articulation of foreign policy goals by Kenya and Somalia, although these media reports have been sensational in nature, hence fuelling the conflict. Gilboao (2006, 10) confirms that media diplomacy can create a diplomatic catastrophe as well as mistrust among rivals, hence difficult to make manoeuvres.

Media diplomacy: escalation and de-escalation of the conflict

The discussion in the previous section has provoked questions as to whether the media should remain segregated from the unfolding conflict or should it take up the opportunity and be used as a foreign policy vehicle. The findings have shown that the media aided both countries in the furtherance of their various foreign policy goals. Additionally, it was revealed that media reports on the conflict were sensational hence inflaming the conflict. This is in tandem with Wolfsfeld (2004, 91) arguments that the media has the potential of creating a favourable environment for war. In the Israel conflict, the media created a conducive climate for the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin (Duncombe 2017, 560).

Although Ottosen (1995, 100) argues that journalists report what is before them, it is recommended that in cases where there are mounting tensions, their coverage must be sensitive to the dynamics of the conflict. They should strive to advance narratives that can encourage Kenya and Somalia to pursue a peaceful negotiated settlement since such an outcome could be in the entire world’s interest. Airing moderate narratives as opposed to sensational ones could go a long way in easing existing tensions.

International media have the capacity to influence world events due to their agenda-setting power. However, in this case, other than arousing emotions and cultivating a fertile ground for war, the media has failed in rallying the international community to intervene in the conflict. Although the dramatization of a conflict is appealing for news headlines and peace is less attractive to report about, media’s accentuation on drama has been detrimental to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Journalists should aim at positively transforming the conflict by ensuring that the coverage is sensitive to the dynamics of the conflict (Wolfsfeld 2004, 100). As it stands, the media has hampered meaningful dialogue towards resolving the conflict through nonviolent means. The findings have demonstrated that the media can be used as a propaganda vessel. Therefore, there is a need for the media to increase professionalism and build a system of self-regulation. Scholars such as Hackelt (1991), Ryan (1991), Strobel (1997), and Wolfsfeld (2004) confirm that the practice of professional journalism is itself a form of conflict resolution.

The media can contribute to the positive transformation of the conflict by illustrating examples where territorial disputes have been resolved peacefully, for instance the case of the Bight of Bonny. Scharrer (2018) informs that Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe Joint Development Authority was formed when all parties in the dispute came to the realization that a collaborative settlement was inevitable if they wanted to benefit from the economic potential of the disputed area.


This chapter has critically examined global TV’s involvement in the Kenya- Somalia maritime territorial dispute. The findings have revealed that media diplomacy has been a useful tool to both Kenya and Somalia in the furtherance of their national interests. The study has also found that international media’s coverage of the dispute was highly sensational, hence fuelling the conflict and setting a fertile ground for war. However, despite the media providing visibility and elevating the conflict to the world policy agenda, it has not been successful in rallying the international community to intervene in the dispute amidst mounting tensions.

Although the media is not in the business of conflict resolution and neutralizing propaganda, there is a need for a critical reflection on the role of global media in conflict situations. The media should be sensitive to the dynamics of the conflict and emphasize how Kenya and Somalia can benefit from a compromised settlement. The chapter concludes that media diplomacy is an imperative tool in foreign policy. It is a channel used by states to promote their national interests. Therefore, foreign policy goals can be pursued and attained through international TV given the speed and diversity at which it operates.


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