Africa can learn maritime lessons from its small island states

The African Union and African states should recognise the achievements of organisations like the Indian Ocean Commission.

On 24 January, the French frigate Nivôse seized 444 kg of methamphetamines and heroin worth more than €40 million from a dhow in the Mozambique Channel. This is the latest demonstration of how transnational organised crime is spreading in the Western Indian Ocean.

The implications for safety and security along Africa’s long and largely unmonitored coastline are serious. Much of the heroin trafficked between Afghanistan and Europe for example runs across the Indian Ocean along the infamous southern route.

Onshore conflicts pose a significant maritime threat too. The Capo Delgado, Mozambique, insurgency has increasingly developed a maritime component, with the potential for future maritime terrorism or piracy. The Western Indian Ocean also suffers from illegal fishing and exploitation of other natural resources at sea, threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities.

While all African coastal states are affected, the small island developing states – the Seychelles, Union of the Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar and Réunion (France) – are bearing the brunt as they lie on the front line of maritime threats in this region.

Africa’s island states in the Western Indian Ocean

Africa’s small island states in the Western Indian Ocean

(click on the map for the full size image)

A key problem for these island states has been that efforts to address maritime instability by the African Union (AU) and African states didn’t always reflect their interests. Small island states have had to struggle on their own, punching above their weight to confront maritime threats. The limited recognition of their efforts has been interpreted as an indication that their needs aren’t a priority for Africa. So they’ve tended instead to build stronger ties with non-African countries.

But this seems poised to change. Recent developments reveal island states to be major players in regional efforts against organised crime at sea and other maritime problems. The active involvement of international organisations and partners, especially regarding finance, helped these ongoing efforts.

Two factors explain the growing role of small island states. First, maritime problems are difficult for any one country to tackle alone. The transnational nature of these threats means the solution requires law-enforcement cooperation, intelligence sharing and coordination across borders. States such as Seychelles and Mauritius have positioned themselves as important role players and reliable focal points for international counter-piracy efforts.

Second, island states tend to have limited resources, so the expense of acquiring the capacity and means to address maritime threats is mitigated somewhat by their network of partnerships.

Small island states have struggled on their own, punching above their weight on maritime issues

As a result, maritime initiatives in the Western Indian Ocean have proliferated. Two inter-governmental organisations stand out. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) comprises 23 states bordering the Indian Ocean from Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Oceania and Europe. It enables cooperation among governments, academia and civil society on maritime security, trade, disaster management, the blue economy and tourism. IORA has great potential, but has been slow to incorporate maritime security into its work.

The second organisation is the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), which has gradually assumed a pivotal role in setting up maritime governance and security architecture. The IOC’s original members – Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar – were later joined by Réunion (France) and the Union of the Comoros. The IOC is the only intergovernmental organisation comprised exclusively of island states, which has enabled it to focus on their interests and challenges.

Although the IOC isn’t recognised by the AU as a regional economic community, it collaborates with and helps steer maritime security efforts of other regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African Community and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa under the European Union-funded Maritime Security Programme.

Island states are becoming major players in regional efforts against organised crime at sea

The IOC’s effectiveness extends beyond its members’ interests. It currently hosts the secretariat for the United Nations’ Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The IOC has also established regional networks for maritime information sharing and coordination in Madagascar and the Seychelles.

It’s also worth noting France’s role in these regional maritime efforts – as the recent seizure off Mozambique shows. Despite its presence being controversial for many African states, France has positioned itself as a key player in the region by working through its overseas territory, Réunion. France joined IORA in 2020, and takes over from Comoros as IOC chair from March 2021.

The pivotal role played by France in the Western Indian Ocean reveals a gap in Africa’s approach to maritime security. The AU can address this by recognising the success of the IOC, and by supporting the organisations involved.

While the IOC works closely with regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community and IGAD, and coastal states such as Kenya, no African country or organisation has ever had observer status at the IOC. An AU presence as an observer may assuage some African governments’ fears that foreign states are impinging on their territory.

France’s pivotal role in the Western Indian Ocean reveals a gap in Africa’s maritime approach

The AU’s 2018 nomination of former Seychelles president Danny Faure as blue economy champion is an important acknowledgement of small island states’ value in achieving Africa’s maritime aspirations. The AU must now include these states in its decision-making structures to benefit both parties. Closer cooperation would support the AU’s overall goal of increasing wealth creation in a stable and secure African maritime domain.

Another opportunity to work proactively with the Western Indian Ocean’s small island states may come when SADC approves its new maritime security strategy. Protecting our seas and reaping development benefits from their vast potential is a common goal for all the continent’s countries. Africa’s small island states have useful lessons and experiences to share.

Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT, ISS and Denys Reva, Research Officer, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

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Image: Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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