Africa’s ocean of organised crime

A lack of state and industry accountability has turned the ocean into the world’s biggest transnational crime scene.

The ocean is central to global illicit trade. Criminal networks plunder marine resources, scour shipping lanes for vessels to hijack, and traverse coastal state waters and the high seas to move commodities to distant destinations.

Covering 70% of Earth’s surface, the ocean is likely the world’s most extensive transnational crime scene. And Africa’s location between multiple global demand and supply markets makes it a significant site of organised crime. Africa’s east and west coasts are major narcotic transit hubs and global piracy hotspots. Deadly migrant smuggling from North Africa is rife, and to the south, marine resources like abalone and rock lobster face collapse due to illegal harvesting.

In the early 2000s, West Africa became a key axis for cocaine trafficking from Latin America through countries like Guinea-Bissau and Mali en route to global consumer markets. Similar trends soon emerged in East Africa, where Afghan heroin and methamphetamines are moved via the Indian Ocean.

Both developments reflect globalisation and the displacement of trafficking routes by law enforcement to lower-risk areas. Although most consignments are destined for onward shipment, narcotics consumption in Africa is increasing, and corruption has become intrinsically linked to the continental drug trade.

The under-policed ocean is central to the business model of organised crime networks

Also in the early 2000s, the Western Indian Ocean experienced a spike in Somali pirate attacks. A massive international counter-effort contained piracy in a few years. However, attacks in the Gulf of Guinea soon escalated, replacing the Indian Ocean as the most dangerous region for seafarers globally, and again leading to international counter-efforts.

Although these crimes and regions are distinct, the under-policed ocean is central to perpetrators’ business model. The struggle faced by African coastal states in protecting their territories from global criminal networks has led to an increase in maritime offences.

African states navigate the inherent difficulties of pursuing criminals at sea by increasing maritime surveillance, building criminal justice capacity and discouraging coastal communities from engaging in crime. These efforts often involve partnerships with other countries, international organisations and private actors. The shipping industry, for example, deploys private security onboard vessels, and non-governmental organisations rescue distressed migrant boats in the Mediterranean and pursue illegal fishing vessels.

Yet policing the sea is difficult, and most African countries have inadequate assets such as ships and aircraft to patrol their maritime domain. Coastal state jurisdiction also diminishes further away from land, and around 60% of the ocean forms part of the high seas – the waters outside national jurisdiction.

Mitigating organised crime at sea is possible, as counter-piracy responses show

On the high seas, with few exceptions, a ship’s flag state must respond to criminal activities onboard that vessel. This requires the will to act and the ability to pursue vessels. Often the assistance of other states is needed. These factors, coupled with unpredictable weather and sea conditions, pit states against better-resourced criminal networks not bound to borders or laws.

Criminal networks exploit states’ limited presence at sea in various ways. Fishing boats tranship illegal catches to avoid port controls, ship-to-ship oil transfers evade sanctions, and vessels sail without discernible flag states or avoid accountability by remaining on the high seas. States may also lack the will to exercise jurisdiction over their waters or vessels, and state or private industry elements may partake in or condone maritime crime.

But mitigating organised crime at sea is possible, as counter-piracy responses show. Piracy declined once national, regional and international state and private actors combined forces. Although counter-piracy focuses on law enforcement, it also seeks to improve criminal justice capacities on land and recognises the need to develop local coastal communities.

The response to piracy also highlights the importance of public-private partnerships. Since the shipping and fishing industries are the most prominent actors at sea, they are vital to safeguarding it.

The transnational nature of organised crime necessitates an equally borderless, cooperative response both on land and at sea. Many African instruments affirm this, including the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, and the Djibouti and Yaoundé codes of conduct. Cooperation in protecting the global commons of the ocean is also evident in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the High Seas Treaty signed in March.

As the most prominent actors at sea, the shipping and fishing industries are vital to maritime security

However, giving effect to these instruments has been challenging, and most efforts result in suppression, not prevention or eradication. Private industry and flag states are often absent from, or play a minimal role in, initiatives to combat maritime crimes that don’t affect them to the same extent as piracy. The large number of counter-piracy actors, especially from the global north, can be attributed to piracy’s perceived threat to world trade.

Crimes like illegal fishing and drug trafficking are (incorrectly) perceived as primarily impacting national rather than global interests. Consequently, there’s little accountability for vessel owners and flag states whose ships are engaged in organised maritime crimes, despite a legal obligation to control their vessels. This has seen maritime crimes expand, bringing a wave of willing deckhands and corruption as everyone seeks to profit.

Tim Walker, Maritime Project Leader at the Institute for Security Studies, says it’s time for a ‘dedicated session at the African Union Peace and Security Council on the implications of organised crime around Africa. The UN Security Council frequently holds such discussions, some of which were initiated by Africa’s three council members.’

This month’s meeting of Africa’s Indian Ocean states to discuss the implementation of the Djibouti Code of Conduct is an opportunity to spotlight organised crime on Africa’s coast. Member states should reassess their collective efforts and identify future priorities. The International Maritime Organization is also electing council members in December. With the council set to expand by 12 states, Africa could field more members and elevate the continent’s maritime interests.

But just as the international community should hold the shipping industry and flag states accountable for illicit activities at sea, African states must prioritise the land-based socio-economic causes of maritime crime. Perhaps once these push-pull factors receive the attention they deserve, we may see a decline in organised crime around Africa’s coast.

Dr Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher, Southern Africa, ENACT, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

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