Africa Needs a Stronger Voice On Resolving the Red Sea Crisis

African countries’ call for diplomatic solutions should be accompanied by AU action to protect the continent’s interests.

The Red Sea crisis is now a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) priority, with three meetings held this year already. Following several months of Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, a coalition of concerned countries launched military operations on 11 January to degrade Houthi maritime capabilities in Yemen.

The Houthis’ campaign started shortly after the Israel-Hamas-Gaza conflict escalated in October 2023, in an apparent show of solidarity with Palestinians aimed at pressuring Israel into a ceasefire. After missiles against Israeli targets were intercepted by the United States (US) Navy, the Houthis started targeting ships – often with no link to Israel – sailing near the Yemeni coast.

The attacks – using missiles, drones and attempted boardings – have plunged the Red Sea into turmoil, with many companies halting shipping through the Bab-al-Mandab strait. This prompted the creation of the multilateral US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian and other naval deployments by countries such as France.

UNSC Resolution 2722, adopted on 10 January, demanded that the Houthis cease attacks and release all seafarers held hostage, noting the right of member states to defend their vessels. Whether the 11 January counter operations are in line with Resolution 2722 has garnered international attention, including from Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Algeria, the three non-permanent African UNSC members (A3).

The A3 emphasised the need for a diplomatic resolution, referencing the lack of a ceasefire in Gaza as a root cause. They also highlighted the humanitarian aspect, urging measures that prevent further escalation. Sierra Leone supported Resolution 2722, but Mozambique and Algeria abstained, citing insufficient recognition of links to the Gaza conflict.

The A3’s stance recognises the broader implications of the Red Sea crisis on international trade and regional peace. But the three countries should re-engage with the issue, considering the major strategic importance of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden for Africa. There are several reasons why it’s inadequate for the A3 to predicate the Houthi intervention primarily on the lack of a ceasefire in Gaza.

The Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, dominate northern Yemen, the southern Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait – a strategic maritime choke point because so much high-value global shipping chooses this route. And it’s here that the Houthi have started to squeeze.

Houthi attacks put East Africa’s grain and fertiliser imports from Ukraine and Eastern Europe at risk

The attacks are causing many ships to be rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope, with disruptions to supply chains and higher costs. The immediate impact will be on Egypt’s economy, which relies heavily on Suez Canal revenues. A prolonged decrease in canal traffic and income could strain its economy and stability. Egypt hasn’t been outspoken on the issue – perhaps out of fear that its populace would interpret that as tacit support for Israel over Palestine.

Africa is already facing difficult economic challenges. The effect on global supply chains will be higher costs and lower availability of goods across the board. Increased shipping costs due to longer routes or heightened insurance premiums can have a cascading effect on global trade and economies. This rise in expenditure trickles down to customers and imperils vital economic growth and recovery.

Houthi attacks could have security and environmental repercussions all around Africa. Attacks on oil tankers or accidents due to navigational errors carry the risk of oil spills that can devastate marine ecosystems and coastal communities’ livelihoods.

The high risk of Western Indian Ocean pollution from oil and other hazardous substances has already prompted questions about the adequacy of African countries’ contingency plans. More vessels calling at African ports, many of which are already congested, could result in further delays, accidents such as oil spills during bunkering, and even wrecks.

As ships slow down to await orders, there will be many opportunities for pirates to strike again

Grain and fertiliser from Ukraine and Eastern Europe form a significant part of East Africa’s total food imports, and the Houthi attacks put these at risk. Longer transit times will raise food prices and reduce availability.

The World Food Programme (WFP) also ships some grain to Somalia. Pirate attacks on WFP vessels in 2008 were the tipping point for international action against piracy. As naval task forces and governments focus on the Red Sea Crisis – and vulnerable ships pause or slow down to await orders – pirates will have many opportunities to strike again.

Although some Somali-based pirates appear to have attacked several ships over the past few months, a resumption of piracy on the scale of the 2008-2012 attacks is unlikely. Substantial counter-piracy capacity remains in the region, even if currently redirected towards the Yemen situation. More naval capacity is expected in the area too.

The call for diplomatic solutions requires the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) to play a greater role in helping African states navigate these uncharted waters.

Unlike its fellow G20 members, the African Union has been silent on the matter

Unlike its fellow G20 members, the AU has been silent on the matter. A PSC meeting should be convened to, at the very least, hear recommendations from African initiatives such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) and the Addendum to the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) New York Memorandum on Good Practices for Interdicting Terrorist Travel.

Although DCoC member states have been slow to implement the code, and its amendments aren’t legally binding, it has an established information and coordination platform. DCoC actions – this year steered by South Africa – and GCTF measures are likely to become more necessary the longer Houthi attacks persist. These steps could help coordinate counter-piracy initiatives and deter other groups from copying the Houthi strategy to commit acts of terrorism, smuggling or trafficking.

Preventing the spread of such practices, especially by groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and Mozambique, is critical. The proliferation of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen that end up in the Horn of Africa already threatens regional security.

The PSC will likely be hamstrung by concurrent problems in the Horn, such as the Somalia-Ethiopia dispute and Sudan’s civil war. Nevertheless, a united African response through sustained A3 and PSC calls and actions is needed to promote diplomatic solutions to the Red Sea crisis.

Timothy Walker, Maritime Project Leader and Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

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