Africa's maritime security wish list for 2015

2014 was an important year for African maritime security, and one of several improvements. For many, maritime security is synonymous with piracy, and the fight against piracy remains the most notable area of success.

The 2014 annual report of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) shows that reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea in African waters have continued to decline from 2011. This offers the encouraging thought that the threat is diminishing, and that improvement is likely to continue.

Given even these incremental advances, what do we wish to see in the African maritime domain in 2015? And how feasible might these wishes be?

This year, the number and severity of piracy and armed robbery incidents must continue to decline. The IMB-PRC recorded 55 attacks in 2014 – down from 79 in 2013 – in African waters or attributed to African pirates. Of these, 41 took place in the west, in the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean seaboard, and 12 occurred off the Horn of Africa or along the Western Indian Ocean seaboard.

Some estimate that only 50% of all incidents in the Gulf of Guinea are reported

The other two incidents – both cases petty theft in port – occurred respectively in Morocco and Mozambique. A small caveat is necessary: this is only what is reported to authorities. Some estimate that only 50% of the total incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, for instance, are reported. Maritime security pundits and researchers are now facing a balance of probability problem, as the lack of evidence about the nature of attacks makes it difficult to identify successful countermeasures.

Of the evidence that is available, and the IMB-PRC remains the best source, only 29 incidents conform to the legal definition of piracy (as occurring outside of territorial waters), while 26 incidents occurred to a vessel that was either berthed or anchored, and therefore within the territorial waters of various states. Most of what we assume are pirate attacks are therefore, technically, cases of armed robbery – often minor thefts of stores and equipment from ships docked in ports such as Pointe-Noire in the Congo, or anchorages such as Lagos.

Labelling every incident as piracy – without distinguishing it from armed robbery at sea – is not only erroneous, it could also have major repercussions for maritime security spending and policy decisions worldwide. In this way, what are often domestic problems are externalised to become solely international ones.

This points towards a need to enhance the capacity of security and judicial elements within countries, so that criminal acts can be deterred and responded to within ports as well as in territorial waters. This would significantly reduce both the risk and cost of sailing to and through African waters, where insurance premiums, risk payments and loss of income from delays remained high in 2014.

Most of what we assume to be pirate attacks are cases of armed robbery

One solution could be creating or enhancing coast guards, as well as assessing how states are implementing best practices and standards as stipulated in the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. The expansion and support of maritime information-sharing centres, such as the Yaoundé-based Interregional Coordination Centre for Maritime Security, which was opened last year, would greatly assist authorities in monitoring their waters and warning others of potential risks.

This, in turn, will assist those African stakeholders who are starting to prioritise maritime development interests, rather than maintaining a narrow security focus. South Africa’s ‘Operation Phakisa’, launched in 2014, is one of many development projects that aim to have maritime-related economic activities contribute substantially to gross domestic product. These will be important to monitor for others wanting to expand and invest in the maritime economy.

Coordinating maritime policy will be the biggest issue for stakeholders. States are increasingly prepared to work together, which is evident on regional, continental and international levels. These include regional economic communities (RECs) such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), and some of its bodies such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UN Security Council (UNSC) also reaffirmed its commitment to securing Somali waters by passing UNSC Resolution 2184 in November, thereby renewing the various counter-piracy missions off Somalia for 2015. African states and stakeholders have become increasingly proactive, drafting and implementing numerous national, regional and continental strategies, such as the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS) and the AU’s Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS 2050).

However, a distinct lack of progress in both northern and eastern RECs in drafting maritime strategies remains a concern. Meanwhile, the South African Development Community maintains the confidentiality of its strategy, despite the transparency evidenced elsewhere.

When reflecting on 2014, there is a good story to tell, but it is not the only one

There is also a marked difference between these and earlier African and international efforts, which were easily criticised for their piracy-centric focus, problems with coordination and lack of African leadership. The first two of these criticisms are being partly remedied with exercises such as Obangame Express – the United States Africa Command’s annual naval exercise, which was hosted by Nigeria in 2014 with 11 participating African navies. More African-led and initiated exercises will be needed, though, to remedy the third criticism.

This wish list is already substantial: a further demonstrable reduction in piracy, observable improvements in port security and the territorial waters of African countries, improved maritime economic development and continual international cooperation. Yet more could be added, without it becoming unfeasible, if we take our soundings from the IMO theme for World Maritime Day 2015 – which is ‘maritime education and training’.

This urges us to expand the maritime sector with new schools, institutes, scholarships and funding to train new generations of African seafarers at places such as the Regional Maritime University in Accra, Ghana, and the South African International Maritime Institute in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. National strategies can be used to guide this development, as well as those of RECs and AIMS 2050. The latter anticipates the need for a broad pool of talented seafarers to bring objectives such as expanded fishing fleets, thriving shipbuilding industries and African-flagged vessels to transport African goods to fruition.

When reflecting on 2014, there is a good story to tell, but it is not the only one. For so many people, the story of Africa’s relationship with the oceans remains a tragic one that includes the plight of refugees and trafficked people, which increasingly leads to hundreds of Africans drowning as they try to reach Europe in overcrowded boats.

Other long-term issues that remain overlooked include maritime boundary disputes, disagreements over the location and extraction of resources, and the impact of illegal fishing and environmental harm caused by climate change. Optimism could be easily stifled in the face of such concerns. However, considering the potential for African maritime success envisioned within AIMS 2050 and EIMS, 2014 and 2015 can certainly become the years where feasible prospects for anchoring Africa’s future prosperity and peace emerged.

Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria