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Africa should rethink collective security of its maritime domain

 Oil tanker Marlin Luanda catches fire after an attack in the Gulf of Aden on January 27, 2024. [Indian Navy/AP]

The current crisis in the Red Sea following the sustained attacks on commercial ships by the Yemen-based Houthi militants since November 2023 should be a wake-up call for African countries to rethink how to undertake proactive measures to safeguard Africa’s maritime domain and make a significant contribution to the safety and security of shipping lanes and other critical maritime transportation infrastructure in the Western Indian Ocean.

The Red Sea disruptions have ramifications on the critical maritime route that affect the greater Eastern African region due to delayed deliveries of goods, added costs of transportation, and insurance premiums.

Africa is increasingly cognisant of the significance of its maritime domain for the continent’s peace, security, and development as articulated in the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy and the 2016 African Charter on Maritime Security, Safety and Development. 

Due to the current disturbance in the Red Sea and other emerging maritime security challenges in Africa’s oceanic waters, the continent should establish an effective regional multilateral maritime security architecture that can protect its interests in the adjacent maritime spaces.

The Red Sea is of enormous strategic importance as it is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes that plays a significant role for seaborne trade, energy supply, and overall economic security of countries in Eastern Africa, Asia, and other regions.

According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, maritime transport is responsible for approximately 80 per cent of the global movement of goods. The Red Sea is not only an important maritime route connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea but also has undersea cables that form a critical digital infrastructure for the global economy.

Despite the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian’s strikes to degrade the Houthi capabilities, the group’s escalating attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have triggered one of the biggest diversions of major shipping lines in decades to Southern African route that have considerably led to increased time for transit, delayed deliveries, high costs for shipment, and increased insurance premiums. Hence, the Red Sea crisis underscores the vulnerability of global trade due to geopolitical tensions and maritime insecurity along the critical maritime route.

While Africa’s maritime domain has potential for energy, fisheries, trade, port development, logistics and tourism, the current continent’s participation in maritime economic activities is relatively low. Thus, it is critical for Africa to rethink how to secure its maritime domain as well as exploit the resources in its maritime space for the common good of the residents of the continent.

At the peak of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia more than a decade ago, the coastal and island countries on the eastern side of Africa as well as Persian Gulf countries established the Djibouti Code of Conduct in 2009 to contribute to the protection of the vital shipping lanes.  

Maritime insecurity challenges as well as engagement of great powers in the region call for Africa’s effective institutionalised maritime security framework to protect its collective maritime interests and engage with extra-regional powers in securing vital shipping lanes and other critical maritime infrastructure and resources in the region.     

-Mr. Odhiambo comments on governance and foreign policy issues

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