Fewer pirates, different risks: Africa needs to rethink its approach to maritime security

To avoid becoming obsolete, the Djibouti Code must take into account emerging threats along Africa's coastline.

With incidents of maritime piracy declining and greater awareness of new maritime security threats, the shape and governance of various counter-piracy initiatives and institutions will come into question this year. These typically draw on a narrow definition of maritime security, which emphasises counter-piracy and the repression of armed robbery at sea.

However, a critical transition is underway whereby the notion of maritime insecurity is being redefined. Security infrastructure and institutions such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct also need to adapt to this expanded definition. In order to fully protect the African maritime domain, other destabilising issues that cause harm to human security are now being reconsidered. These include illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; human trafficking; the smuggling of narcotics; and circumventing sanctions through the shipment of contraband goods and weapons. To combat and overcome these challenges requires a cooperative and, ultimately, an integrated approach.

The way that Africa defines the notion of maritime insecurity is changing

This expanded notion of maritime insecurity is reflected in the 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIMS), which was adopted at the 22nd Annual African Union (AU) Summit in January. The strategy provides member states with many ambitious goals, and signatories and stakeholders now have a vision to work towards – such as establishing a Blue Economy in African waters before 2050. However, it also presents a complex challenge: how should they respond to both the apparent decline of African piracy and the emergence of new threats, while at the same time striving to achieve long-term maritime goals, and this in a context where piracy has been the main, sometimes only, concern?

Elsewhere in Africa, the various issues and threats affecting the African maritime domain are already being revised. A code of conduct similar to the Djibouti Code was signed in Yaoundé in June 2013 between the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It is notable for expanding its definition of maritime security to include more than just piracy. So, where does this leave the Djibouti Code and counter-piracy efforts?

The Djibouti Code risks becoming a multilateral counter-piracy instrument that actually has few pirates to fight or incidents to share. In response, signatory states are currently preparing for a May 2014 ministerial review to expand its scope, while also creating a new member state owned or steered governing structure. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has now held two sub-regional meetings – in Mombasa in December 2013, and Djibouti in February – where these issues were discussed.

The code, which was signed in Djibouti in 2009 between African and Asian states bordering the West Indian Ocean, is one of the most extensive transnational efforts for combatting piracy and armed robbery at sea. It has since been signed by 20 of 21 eligible states and is steered by the IMO’s Project Implementation Unit.

As signatories, states are expected to review their legislation, support capacity-building efforts and share information on piracy. It is a very technical code as it also encourages members to focus on training, reviewing and harmonising piracy legislation, trust building and creating infrastructure that enables information sharing.

The Djibouti Code remains non-binding, which has proved crucial for wide adoption by eligible states. However, it is important that signatories realise its enormous potential for improving maritime security – especially given concerns over the maritime environment and maritime-based transnational crimes such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, arms smuggling and human trafficking.

The Djibouti Code may become obsolete if it doesn’t expand its concept of maritime security

To combat these threats and efficiently utilise current infrastructure – such as the information-sharing centres in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Yemen – requires a revision of the Djibouti Code, possibly drawing on ideas found in the ECCAS-ECOWAS code. It is questionable whether such revisions are in fact possible as member states were initially drawn together to counter piracy and armed robbery; an issue that was agreed to pose an international problem and which made cooperation necessary.

In addition, the code remains vulnerable to competing regionalist interests and contexts. The Djibouti Code comprises African states from five regional economic communities (RECs), as well as Asian states. Drawn together around a common and international threat, they otherwise lack a history of sustained political cooperation or a security culture.

Arguably, if the Djibouti Code does not also move in a similar direction for an expanded concept of maritime security, it risks becoming obsolete or irrelevant. However, from an African, regional and security studies standpoint, the Djibouti Code represents a laudable starting point upon which to build future maritime security capacity.

African maritime stakeholders now need to collaborate and contribute towards the successful implementation of the 2050 AIMS, as well as become involved in both creating and implementing national and regional integrated maritime strategies. There are crucial lessons to be learnt from the process, as successful implementation depends on well-established information-sharing networks, which in turn should be underpinned by trust, technological compatibility and reciprocity.

East African RECs sorely lack an integrated maritime strategy similar to that of ECCAS, ECOWAS and SADC. As many members of the various RECs – such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); the East African Community (EAC); and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – are also signatories to the Djibouti Code, it is likely that continued participation and implementation could enhance cooperation and integration in other sectors of the African maritime domain.

The future shape of the Djibouti Code should be monitored closely. It will prove indicative of how all stakeholders intend to respond to emerging concerns over the governance of the African maritime domain.

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

Media coverage of this ISS Today

Officer of the Watch

Related content