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Africa’s Maritime Security Experts Weigh In on Red Sea Attacks

File image courtesy Houthi Military Media
Video still courtesy Houthi Military Media

Published Dec 22, 2023 2:28 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua

 

For almost a decade, a civil war has dragged on in Yemen, with the rest of the world unperturbed by its progress. However, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war appears to have created a conducive environment for Yemen’s Houthi faction to make a bigger debut on the global stage.

Last month, Houthi rebels started attacking merchant vessels in the Red Sea, claiming that it is a form of retaliation for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Since then, missile and drone attacks have been a near-daily event in the area. The impact of the security problem has been substantial, with hundreds of vessels now opting to avoid the Red Sea region and the Suez Canal.

As maritime security expert Dr. Ian Ralby aptly observed in an interview with TME, “The Red Sea security issue is not going to be a quick fix. With the Houthis now enjoying global attention and international navies getting involved, we should expect this to be a long-term problem.”

The question though is whether naval missions - like the recently launched U.S-led Operation Prosperity Guardian - will fully respond to the evolving security threat in the Red Sea. Indeed, Operation Prosperity Guardian is a much-needed response at such a time when merchant shipping requires a security guarantee to transit the Red Sea.

But what constitutes an effective action plan for the current maritime insecurity in the Red Sea?

According to Dr. Ralby, we need to recognize that Houthis have quickly moved from attacking vessels as a show of support for Gaza to more of advancing their own agenda. Ralby added there is a need to divorce the two issues and treat the Houthi attacks as an affront to the global economy, as opposed to taking sides on the ongoing Israel-Gaza war.

To a great advantage, there also exist mechanisms for regional stakeholders in the WIO (Western Indian Ocean) to engage on matters of maritime security. The IMO-led Djibouti Code of Conduct/Jeddah Amendment (DCoC/JA) is such a platform. Established back in 2009, the DCoC and its Jeddah amendment have been able to galvanize support for regional maritime security among its 20 signatory states.

The DCoC/JA jurisdiction spans the WIO and the Middle East, regions which are critical to resolving the current security stalemate in the Red Sea. Early this week, the DCoC Steering Committee convened a special meeting bringing together regional navies and a host of other maritime security stakeholders.

A notable recommendation adopted at the meeting include a proposal to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution on the Red Sea matter, the same way it addressed piracy off the coast of Somalia. At the moment, there appears to be a lack of a uniform approach from all involved nations on how to secure the Red Sea. A UNSC resolution would be helpful to bring all parties on board.

In addition, Africa’s participation is paramount as vessels re-route around the continent. Some areas such as the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Guinea are still affected by maritime insecurity. Kiruja Micheni, Project Manager for the DCoC, reiterated this point in an interview with TME, saying that DCoC is on standby to provide a collaborative platform for regional states in WIO. Under the DCoC framework, regional and international players have an opportunity to rally together to safeguard safety and security of navigation in the Red Sea.

With DCoC involved in suppression of the Somali piracy, Kiruja pointed out some lessons that could be valuable for stakeholders in the Red Sea. The most important one is establishing unity of purpose among nations, which provided coherence of approach in dealing with the Somali pirate threat.

Another important lesson is on information sharing, an area of expertise regional states in WIO have been able to develop through the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre in Madagascar (RMIFC)and the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination in Seychelles (RCOC). These centers were established under the Maritime Security (MASE) program by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), primarily to bolster maritime domain awareness among nations in the region.

“To be frank, we do not expect RMIFC and RCOC to play a leading role in resolving the Red Sea maritime insecurity. However, the two centers could work with the major international naval forces already deployed in the region. In concrete terms, there could be regular exchange of information between these organizations, monitor the situation, analyze the possible impact to the region and if need be, mobilize action from experts,” said Raj Mohabeer, Head of Maritime Security at IOC.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.