The challenges facing East African maritime security are many, and without viable measures taken to combat growing sea-born threats, the region is destined to remain in a state of instability and war. The absence of a formidable naval power in the area has allowed illicit smuggling activity to flourish in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, and has also allowed state and non-state actors to manipulate the lawlessness to their own advantage, leading to increased insecurity in the region. Looking past East Africa’s most publicized maritime problem, piracy, I would like to discuss two equally threatening, but less well-known issues, currently inhibiting its stability.
The first major issue that arises due to inadequate regional naval capabilities is the widespread smuggling of illicit arms, drugs and people into, out of and throughout East African countries. The influx of drugs, munitions and other illicit goods, arm and fund terrorist organizations and militias not only on Africa’s Eastern coast but in the rest of the continent as well. Somalia’s al Shabaab, Kenya’s al Shabaab affiliate, al Hijra, and the Congolese rebel group M23, are all examples of groups sustained through illegal maritime smuggling.
Weapons enter the region not just through the vulnerable Gulf of Aden and the Somali coastline, but also through considerably more stable and peaceful countries like Kenya and Seychelles. Once ashore, illicit materials easily find their way through the hands of corrupt government officials to destabilizing, violent actors. New intelligence estimates point to growing cross continental smuggling networks between groups like al Shabaab and North Africa’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, heightening the importance for a secure Eastern shore.
Human trafficking, another dangerous issue, further highlights the permeable nature of the regions’ maritime borders. According to the International Organization for Migration, in the first four months of 2012, 43,000 migrants traveled from East Africa, through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, to Yemen. This constant flow of migrants in and out of the region allows for a massive human smuggling market.
In recent news, there have been reports of the success of the NATO fleet in reducing piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. But under Operation Ocean Shield, NATO vessels are strictly tasked with counter-piracy measures and are unable to intervene in the practice of illicit trafficking occurring in those same bodies of water. While good work is being done to prevent piratical attacks, illegal smuggling of people, munitions, and other goods remains unchecked.
Kenya’s Unilateral Maritime Power and its Consequences
The second problem that surfaces is due to an uneven balance of power. Kenya possesses the overwhelming naval advantage in the region, allowing it hegemonic rule over maritime boundaries. Kenya has 23 ships in its fleet, which were mainly acquired through Western allies such as the United States, France, Spain and Great Britain. Kenya’s offensive capabilities are limited and its fleet only has two amphibious assault vessels, which were most recently used to attack the terrorist-held Somali city of Kismayo in September 2012. While the Kenyan fleet is small when compared to international standards, it is far more powerful than any other East African country.
Kenya’s Southern neighbor, Tanzania, has a navy that consists of seven attack vessels and twelve patrol vessels obtained from the Chinese between 1969-1971. Tanzania’s navy is effectively untested and would likely be unable to engage in any meaningful military action to secure its coastline. To Kenya’s north, Somalia has no navy to speak of, and has been reliant on the Kenyan naval power in helping secure key al Shabaab stronghold’s along Somalia’s Southern coast.
The absence of another equal, or at least, threatening East African power in the Indian Ocean allows Kenya to exert undue control over its maritime neighbors. Kenya and Somalia are in the middle of a maritime border dispute that is currently leaning in favor of Kenya. The Somali government believes the border should be drawn perpendicular to the coastline, whereas the Kenyan government wants the border to be drawn along the line of latitude. Complicating the issue are potential underwater oil reserves and existing oil licenses granted by both countries for exploration in the disputed area. Kenya continues to push for exploration agreements with private companies, despite the inability of the two countries to delineate an agreeable maritime boundary, aggravating an already tense relationship.
Further irritating Kenyan and Somali border relations, are corrupt Kenyan Navy officials who have taken advantage of Somalia’s fledgling central government and have begun to encroach on its sovereignty. A UN report released in July 2013, asserted that following al Shabaab’s defeat in Kismayo, the Kenyan Navy took over control of the port. It now controls all goods coming into and going out of Kismayo, and corrupt Kenyan officials collect revenues from the port that should instead be managed by the Somali government. Kenyan Navy personnel even flouted the UN ban on charcoal exports from Kismayo, despite protestations from the Somali government and international organizations.
Kenya’s unilateral maritime power allows corrupt individuals to adhere to their own rules of engagement and many times disregard international norms, infringing on neighboring countries’ maritime, and land-based sovereignty. This severely threatens stability in the region as this manipulation of power creates tenuous and volatile relationships with other East African nations and the international community.
The First Steps
When thinking of possible solutions to help increase naval power and maritime security in East Africa, it is hard to imagine viable near-term options. Some governments have taken steps to try to address maritime vulnerabilities. Kenya passed a law in 2010 formerly recognizing human trafficking as a crime. Also in 2010, the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland established the Puntland Maritime Police Force. It was first created as an anti-piracy body but it has had some success in intercepting arms, drugs and human smugglers. These measures are good first steps, but broader, regionally agreed upon action must be taken.
It is hard, however, for these countries’ governments to justify spending money to secure their nations’ maritime borders, when the there is no certainty of peace on land. But of course, it is necessary to understand that without maritime stability, that peace cannot be assured.
Breuk previously worked at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, and published articles on issues relating to security in the Horn of Africa. She received her B.A. in International and Comparative Politics from Brown University and is currently studying in North Africa.
For nations with a global outlook, the ability to respond to contingencies around the world has often been a mix of necessity and choice. Nations dependent on overseas trade or empires for their livelihood have found it a requirement to establish on distant shores the means to protect their prerogatives. Such foreign footholds have proved no less useful to nations that choose to pursue active foreign policies driven by humanitarian, religious, ideological, or expansionist aims. Imagining a country that requires extra-territorial basing for both reasons likely doesn’t conjure up images of moose and ice hockey, yet 21st-century Canada definitively qualifies on both counts. And it’s got a plan to secure that capability.
Canada is a maritime nation. While admittedly three quarters of Canada’s trade is still with the U.S., 20% of that travels by sea – as does 97% of the rest. However, it’s Canada’s foreign policy choices and commitments that makes it stand out as a truly global nation. In the past decade alone Canada has been involved in combat and peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Libya, counter-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, non-combatant evacuation (NEO) operations in Lebanon, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) in Haiti. The experiences of the new century have left a legacy of lessons the government is eager to leverage.
In 2008, Canada’s military set out to determine how it could quickly and efficiently ratchet up to full-scale crisis operations in the far-flung corners of the globe, yet do so in a manner befitting Canada’s fiscal and resource realities. The solution hit upon in 2010 was a constellation of “operational support hubs,” to be established in up to 7 worldwide locations where existing transportation facilities and infrastructure could support a contingency influx of Canadian troops and logistics. 4 C-17 Globemasters acquired by Canada’s armed forces in 2007 provide the rapid airlift capabilities while the storage facilities nearby will be rented to preposition equipment.
In tangible terms the plan really requires only a few dedicated personnel stationed at each port to maintain relationships, monitor the conditions of the facilities and equipment, and act as advanced husbanding agents in the event of a crisis. The heavy lifting is the advanced diplomatic work of brokering the deals. So far Canada has 3 deals in hand: Kuwait has agreed to act as an intermediate staging terminal allowing up to 3,000 troops, Germany is making available a portion of the Cologne-Bonn International Airport, and Jamaica has signed up for a yet-to-be-named location. Additionally, Singapore has been mentioned as a likely location, which would accord with its recent granting of foreign basing rights to others. There has been more difficulty for Canada in securing an agreement in Africa, as some reports indicate an East African hub (in Kenya or Tanzania) has run into the same fears of colonial permanence that sent the U.S. military’s AFRICOM HQ to Stuttgart, Germany. A West African hub may prove more welcoming, as other reports also suggest unnamed potential hosts look forward to possible training opportunities, but that would bring the count only up to 5 and leave ready access for counter-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean noticeably lacking.
Despite the political uncertainties (including the potential that a host government could always renege on its agreement if the crisis issue was domestically too sensitive), the “Maple Leaf Model” of basing agreements and power projection may prove ideal for many nations in the new century. It’s debatable whether countries today have more or less active foreign policies than they did, say, 100 years ago, but in the age of globalization few are without important, if not vital, interests abroad – and in many cases, overseas. The more familiar model of permanent, fully staffed, made-to-order facilities is impractical for the great majority of countries to affordably cover their bases, so to speak. The U.S. model, which mixes such bases with armadas of prepositioned equipment and its own mobile bases, aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, is even less so. The small footprint, low costs, and opportunity for increased diplomatic ties of the Canadian way should be attractive to the many countries that want to maintain an ability to protect their interests abroad and conduct an active foreign policy.
It is possible there may be a first-mover advantage as nations that have already signed agreements with a one or two “active” powers may not want to risk a domestic backlash against “appeasing foreigners,” but it is just as possible a few host countries may decide to make an industry out of their perceived logistical and situational attractiveness and market their services to a broad swath of interested nations. Time will tell the extent, but expect to see other nations follow in Canada’s footsteps, if not moose tracks.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.