The PSC’s crucial role in securing Africa’s seas

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) will, on 23 July 2021, convene its seventh dedicated discussion on African maritime safety and security issues.

The timing is apt – multiplying maritime security threats, risks and challenges are emerging in all of the seas and oceans surrounding Africa. Notable locations include the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, the Gulf of Aden and down to the Mozambique Channel in Eastern and Southern Africa, and the Mediterranean and Red seas.

The 387th meeting of the PSC in 2013 described maritime security and the Blue Economy as the ‘new frontline of Africa’s renaissance’. The AU Commission, by including maritime issues in Agenda 2063, has made the creation of blue economies in secure African waters essential to its achievement. However, their absence from the PSC agenda since 2019 has, at times, given African maritime safety and security issues the appearance of being marooned instead.

Transnational maritime crimes

Africa’s maritime security challenges and the associated grievances significantly undermine Africa's socio-economic advancement, and contribute to related challenges such as violence and corruption.

Maritime crimes are rarely limited to one country and defy simple, unilateral solutions

These challenges include illegal arms and drug trafficking, and the continual scourge of piracy and armed robbery at sea (especially in West Africa, the location of all 50 crew kidnappings by pirates so far in 2021). In addition, there are the illegal bunkering of oil and crude oil theft; maritime terrorism; human trafficking; environmental harm caused by waste dumping, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and overfishing; and the large number of unresolved or dormant maritime boundary disputes.

Continued instability and insecurity at sea undermine states’ ability to secure trade routes, protect and harness the benefits of their blue economies, and ensure inclusive economic growth and social development for coastal communities. These maritime crimes are notably not limited to one country, and defy simple, unilateral solutions because most are transnational in origin and impact. 

It is thus essential that PSC and all African Union (AU) member states move beyond the simple acknowledgement that maritime insecurity poses severe threats to Africa's security and development agenda. They need to begin crafting and implementing effective responses that connect and complement cross-cutting intervention efforts at national, regional and continental levels.

Implementation of the AU’s maritime strategy

The fact that Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050 (2050 AIM Strategy) continues to fall well behind the ambitious schedule of its drafters, despite numerous AU Assembly and Executive Council decisions and requests, requires urgent attention by the PSC.  

The AU’s maritime security efforts have been beset with major structural obstacles since the foundation of the AU. Departments and agencies have struggled to secure a solid institutional anchorage and sufficient budget allocation for maritime strategy implementation. Africa’s continental maritime security institutions have thus always faced difficulties, but now have an opportunity to come into their own.

In addition, despite receiving sufficient signatures from member states, neither the Revised African Maritime Transport Charter nor the African Charter on Maritime Security and Safety and Development in Africa (Lomé Charter) has attained the required number of ratifications to come into force.

Africa’s maritime security institutions face challenges but now have a chance to become more effectiveBoth charters are essential parts of a future continent-wide maritime security apparatus, as they are legally-binding documents committing signatories to prioritising the attainment of maritime security in their domestic and foreign policies. The AU has recently endorsed Africa's Blue Economy Strategy, although its implementation has only just begun.

Weak mainstreaming of maritime issues

The PSC Protocol tasks the continental body to address security challenges and promote peace and sustainable development on the continent. Yet, as the ISS observed in 2006, the PSC Protocol (2002) and the Common African Defence and Security Policy (2004) ‘[leave] the impression of an Africa without a coastline or maritime zone, let alone broader maritime interests such as trade and maritime resources’.

The issues that comprise these tasks have significant maritime dimensions, and including them would better enable each PSC function through enhanced maritime security. Yet maritime issues have been inadequately mainstreamed into the overall work of the AU. This means there is seldom any explicit reference to maritime security in the crucial structures and building blocks meant to mobilise continental action against insecurity, such as the  African Peace and Security Architecture, the African Standby Force and the Continental Early Warning System.

The AU established a multi-member maritime strategic task force in 2011, consisting of representatives from member states, the AU Commission and the regional economic communities. This task force received a further mandate from the AU Executive Council meeting in Malabo in 2014.

However, it has only met sporadically, primarily because it was not allocated sufficient budget and capacity to convene regular stakeholder meetings. It remained largely moribund until revived by the AU legal counsel in 2018.

Structures meant to mobilise continental action against insecurity rarely prioritise maritime issuesThe task force has since focused on finalising the annexes to the Lomé Charter. As these are now completed and awaiting summit endorsement, the task force can return to its raison d'être. This is to consider the technical details of the 2050 AIM Strategy and propose a road map for the incremental implementation of the strategy in conformity with international maritime law.

Coordinating AU and UN efforts

A crucial first step is for maritime security and transnational crimes at sea to become a regular item in the PSC's discussions and reports. Following this, the PSC should build on the debate this month and become the leading forum for discussing Africa's maritime security. This will depend on unifying AU and United Nations (UN) Security Council efforts.

African countries serving as non-permanent members on the UN Security Council have chosen to raise and address these matters at the UN, rather than the PSC, despite the significant transnational and cross-cutting impacts of maritime crime upon African communities and countries. In the eyes of the rest of the world, this makes the UN Security Council, rather than the PSC, the leading forum for determining how best to fight maritime crime around Africa.

The AU and PSC can start to play their essential role by convening an open-ended African maritime consultative forum or strategic support group that can facilitate periodic reviews of progress in Africa’s maritime domain for the PSC. This is pursuant to Assembly Decision 755(XXXIII), as stated in the 2020 report of the Peace and Security Department of the AU.

A reliable maritime platform can establish a body of experts who coordinate, share knowledge and experience, consult, network, and make recommendations on maritime security, maritime crime, Blue Economy, development, and sustainable use of marine resources.

Once consolidated, such a strategic support group or forum would become a vital vehicle for member states and other stakeholders to determine the most effective ways of supporting the AU in delivering the objectives of the 2050 AIM Strategy and the Lomé Charter.

Timothy Walker, Maritime Project Leader and Senior Researcher 

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