US pushes Nairobi into anti-Houthi campaign as EA peers steer clear
The US and its allies are applying both pressure and soft power to Kenya to support the war on Houthis in Yemen – and by extension Israel’s war in Gaza – targeting to end a disruptive series of strikes on ships ferrying goods through the Red Sea.
Nairobi has in the past fortnight hosted senior US intelligence and defence chiefs, including Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns and head of the Africa Command (Africom) General Michael Langley. Their visits, about whose outcomes the government kept mum, yielded pledges of security and intelligence cooperation. Gen Langley also visited Somalia and Djibouti, while the CIA boss toured Somalia and DR Congo.
This week, Kenya was the only Horn of Africa country to publicly endorse airstrikes on the Iran-backed Houthi, whose acts of targeting ships in the Red Sea are now categorised by the West as terrorism.
Read: Yemen rebel group attacks’ affect EA shippers
“These strikes were designed to disrupt and degrade the capability of the Houthis to continue their attacks on global trade and innocent mariners from around the world, while avoiding escalation,” said a statement by the White House on Wednesday.
“We condemn these attacks, and demand an end to them. We also underscore that those who supply the Houthis with the weapons to conduct these attacks are violating UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and international law. The January 22 international response to the continuing Houthi attacks demonstrated shared resolve to uphold navigational rights and freedoms, and to defend the lives of mariners from illegal and unjustifiable attacks.”
The statement was endorsed by the governments of Kenya, Guinea-Bissau, Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Poland, Korea, Romania, UK, and US.
The Houthis were not initially considered a threat beyond their country. But since December, they have launched at least 30 attacks on commercial and naval ships passing through the Red Sea, ostensibly to retaliate for Israel’s war in Gaza against the Hamas militant group. Houthis have argued theirs is revenge for Israel’s atrocities on Palestinians.
While the Red Sea shipping route is crucial to Eastern African countries, shortening the importation times from Europe, the Horn of Africa states have steered clear of backing the counter-strikes. Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Tanzania – all of whom may be affected by any maritime insecurity there — have chosen a neutral stance.
Kenya’s cooperation on the Houthi matter is meant to be an insurance policy against local piracy, a diplomatic source told The EastAfrican. But there are fears that it could attract the wrath of terror groups keen to raise their profile by appearing to side with the Palestinians.
Read: Kenya warns risk of attacks over Israel-Hamas war
Last week, the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau advised shippers to remain vigilant as they transit waters off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, as piracy remains a threat.
Attacks in the Red Sea mean ships reroute via the Gulf of Guinea to the southern tip of Africa, adding some 6,000km on their voyages, which brings in the importance of Guinea Bissau in securing that route.
The US considers Kenya an important and influential ally as “East Africa’s most dynamic economy”, which is “a growing regional business and financial hub”.
In 2018, Washington and Nairobi formally elevated their relations to a strategic partnership, prioritising five pillars of engagement: economic prosperity, trade, and investment; defence cooperation; democracy, governance, and civilian security; multilateral and regional issues; and public health cooperation.
In 2022, the two countries started negotiating the Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (Stip), which Kenya hopes will help foster growth and improve its business environment.
Nairobi, meanwhile, is availing itself of Washington’s power of oversight and management of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to ease pressure on debt repayment and rescue the economy.
It has not been lost on observers that, around the period it was hosting the senior US officials, the IMF approved $684.7 million disbursement to Kenya to shore up its ability to repay its first Eurobond, which matures in June.
Read: IMF approves $685m new funding to Kenya
The new funds are part of the $941.2 million from the augmentation/expansion of resources under the fund’s multiyear arrangement with Kenya.
Kenya has lobbied for additional resources from the IMF since last year, citing heightened balance of payment needs from the upcoming outsized maturity amid difficulties in accessing alternative funding from the international capital markets.
Besides leveraging IMF funding, Kenya has been seeking additional concessional funding from other sources, including the World Bank, alongside syndicated loans.
Sources told The EastAfrican that Kenya has agreed to support the anti-Houthi operation for American support for its own maritime and local security apparatus. The US has been campaigning against any direct or indirect support for the Houthis, including through Iran.
But Washington has also been subtle about first seeking to dissuade Houthis off the terror cause.
On January 17, 2024, the US Department of State announced the designation of Ansarallah (Houthis) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), effective February 16, 2024. It said the delayed implementation was to help “change behaviour” of Houthis, rather than punish them.
US former president Donald Trump’s administration had previously designated Houthis as a SDGT and as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), but this labelling was reversed by President Joe Biden soon after he took power in February 2021, due to concerns that the measures could be an obstacle to humanitarian assistance reaching the Yemeni people.
On Thursday, the US and UK designated four Houthi military chiefs, Mohamed al-Atifi, Muhammad Fadl Abd al-Nabi, Muhammad Ali al-Qadiri and Muhammad Ahmad al-Talibi for targeting ships.
Read: UAE, Washington condemn deadly Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi
Americans have used influence, too, imposing a soft power of pledges, military support and financial backing for allies.
In Africa, only Kenya and Guinea-Bissau have publicly voiced support for aerial raids on Houthis. They have coincidentally suffered the pain of sea piracy in the past.
In Nairobi, officials publicly spoke of that military support from the US. Kenya’s Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale, while not discussing the specific content of their meeting with Gen Langley said: “The US has been a critical partner in supporting Kenya’s quest in enhancing peace, security, and stability in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region.”
“The US government has been playing a key role in the support of the construction of the Kenya Defence Forces’ (KDF’s) Counter Insurgency, Terrorism and Stability Operations (Citso) Centre and offering the KDF personnel training opportunities.”
On Tuesday this week, the US, UK and more than 20 of their allies launched strikes against Houthis, warning the strikes will go on until Houthis call off the attacks. In a statement, UK said 24 countries, including the US, Germany and Australia, conducted strikes on Monday against eight targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen in their bid to end the ongoing attacks in Red Sea.
For Kenya, the Houthis are not as a direct threat as the resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia with the threat of a rise in insurance premiums for shipping and hence the cost of importing goods via the Port of Mombasa.
A global naval coalition led by the US and the European Union almost wiped out piracy in the past decade. But four vessels have been attacked by pirates off Somalia since November 2023. Two of them were released while the other two are yet to be freed.
Read: Return of piracy on Somalia waters to push up costs
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to keep hampering the ability of the Houthis to attack ships.
“We are not seeking a confrontation,” he told parliament Monday.
“We urge the Houthis and those who enable them to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations on Wednesday asked Houthi authorities to reconsider their decision to expel US and British nationals working for the world body in Yemen.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, confirmed that the UN had received communication from the Houthi, giving all US and British nationals a month to leave the areas under their control.
“Any request or requirement for UN staff to leave based solely on the nationality of that staff is inconsistent with the legal framework applicable to the UN,” said Dujarric. “It also impedes our ability to deliver on the mandate to support all of the people in Yemen. And we call on all the authorities in Yemen to ensure that our staff can continue to perform their functions on behalf of the UN.”
He said UN staff serve impartially and serve the flag of the United Nations and none other.
The spokesman refused to say how many US and British nationals are working for the United Nations in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.