Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has sent emissaries to Kenya and Somalia, seeking to have them resolve their maritime border dispute without worsening fragile diplomatic ties in the Horn of Africa.
Officials in Nairobi and Mogadishu said Abiy, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), the region's security prefect, had scheduled a meeting for this week between presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Mohammed Farmajo for July 13.
However, the meeting was still subject to confirmation from the two heads of state.
The revelations came amid intense speculation that Somalia was open to an out-of-court settlement, a path it avoided by taking the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2014. The matter is set for ICJ hearing on September 9.
Late Tuesday, however, President Farmajo’s office said "we unequivocally deny a change of the position of the Federal Government of Somalia on the ongoing case at ICJ."
"The office of the attorney-general will investigate the sources of this propaganda and the fake news it embodies," Abdinur Mohamed Ahmed, the Somalia presidency's director of communications, said .
Senior Somali government officials, however, said the Ethiopian prime minister had been working behind the scenes to broker a truce amid pressure from key international players like the US and the UK.
Igad and its partners fear the maritime dispute could undermine co-operation in the fight against terrorism and sea piracy in the Horn of Africa. An earlier bid this year by Abiy failed after Mogadishu insisted on having the dispute resolved in court.
Ethiopia, which has interests in Somali ports and shares defence cooperation with Kenya, wants the dispute settled amicably, to avoid stalling other areas of cooperation.
On Tuesday media reports in Mogadishu had indicated that President Farmajo was willing to delay — not withdraw — the case at ICJ and allow "negotiations under special arrangements."
Nairobi also sought to downplay reports of a change of heart in Mogadishu, saying there was nothing official.
"We will need to verify," Kenya’s Foreign Affairs principal secretary, Macharia Kamau, said.
There has been mounting diplomatic pressure for Kenya and Somalia to accept an out-of-court settlement, a position that Nairobi prefers.
The dispute arose from a 2014 case in which Somalia sued Kenya, seeking to redraw the sea boundary from the current eastwards extension of the land border, to a diagonal one towards the south east.
Should Abiy prevail in his efforts, the case could be delayed to allow for a joint committee of the two countries to table proposals on the solution.
In 2009, technocrats from the two countries drew an MoU that the Somali Parliament rejected, prompting Mogadishu to file the case at ICJ.
The ICJ ruled the MoU was a valid bilateral agreement but went ahead to admit the case for hearing on the grounds that alternative means had not been exhausted.
To postpone the case, the two countries would need to write a joint letter seeking leave for an out-of-court settlement for consideration by judges.
Analysts say this would give both countries time to calm tensions that have expressed themselves in sideshows over diplomatic passports and suspicions over relations with the break-away Somaliland.
"A solution cannot be found in these tense moments. So, asking to delay, as opposed to withdrawing, the case will buy time for a solution by other means," Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa analyst, said.
For President Farmaajo, Dr Abdisamad said, withdrawing could be seen him portrayed as a sell-out by critics of his foreign policy, mostly from federal state governments.
That is the last thing he would want as he eyes re-election in federal elections set for next year, according to analysts.
"The nature of Somali politics means you cant be re-elected. This is usually arranged leadership. He is from Marehan. Maybe they will elect a Hawiye," said Peter Kagwanja, the CEO of the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi. “In addition, he has been very combative, aligning himself with Qatar so this has been forced on him by the stronger political players in Somalia."
Two weeks ago, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma told an audience in London that Somalia was being pushed by foreign commercial interests.
“We believe this issue is the surest demonstration of the effects of western commercial interests in the context of a fragile country,” Dr Juma said during her lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence policy think-tank.
She said such interests would only delay the settlement of the case.