Maritime security in the Gulf: moving towards actionable outcomes

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Maritime security in the Gulf: moving towards actionable outcomes

Lisa Otto

02 Aug 2019

4min min read
  • Piracy
  • Maritime law

n the 24th and 25th of July this year, Accra in Ghana played host to the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEC), where high-profile government officials and intergovernmental staff from around the world gathered to discuss some of the most pressing challenges in maritime security. Ten chiefs of African navies were present, alongside 250 senior officials from various maritime actors, as well as other observers and actors interested in the maritime space. Although being billed as an international exhibition, and while those in attendance hailed from around the globe, the key issues at hand centred around the Gulf of Guinea, with it aiming to offer a platform for stakeholders to discuss and ruminate on these issues. The conference tackled many of the subjects pertinent to the crisis of maritime insecurity in the region, but, from what reporting is available on the event, can be concluded to have been more of a ‘talk-shop’ than an event with concrete outcomes to address what can only be labelled a crisis in the region.  

Key concerns in the Gulf

The Gulf of Guinea faces numerous challenges to maritime security. Most often mentioned among these is the scourge of maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea, and specifically also petro-piracy, which is a common brand of piratical activity in this region. Piracy tends to be used as an umbrella term, but can be understood to include: theft from vessels in port, anchored offshore, or underway; kidnapping for ransom; hijacking (although this is rare in the Gulf of Guinea); as well as theft from offshore oil installations. Recent figures from the International Maritime Bureau show a 70% increase year-on-year in actual and attempted attacks in the region between 2017 and 2018, while, in 2019 there have already been double-digit incident reports. Over the last five years, Nigeria has remained the epicentre of these incidents, being victim of nearly 60% of incidents over this period, with the Congo, and Ghana also experiencing a high number of attacks; the Congo accounted for 10% of attacjs while Ghanaian waters saw 8% of attacks. Oceans Beyond Piracy estimates that this cost West Africa in excess of USD 818 million in 2017 alone. 

However, piracy and armed robbery at sea are not the only maritime threats that the Gulf of Guinea faces. Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, for example, is another major problem off Africa’s West Coast. A 2016 report by the Overseas Development Institute described IUU fishing as being “at the centre of a crisis of sustainability” in the region, and citied an estimate by the Africa Progress Panel that West Africa could be losing as much as USD 1.3 billion per year to IUU fishing. 

These issues were directly addressed by presenters. Dr Kamal-Deen Ali, executive director of the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa, moderated a panel on piracy with speakers including navy captains from Cameroon, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, while an official from Ghana’s Fisheries Enforcement Unit led a session on IUU fishing with panellists from Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources as well as a Ghanaian official. 

"Recent figures from the International Maritime Bureau show a 70% increase year-on-year in actual and attempted attacks in the region between 2017 and 2018."

However, other persistent challenges faced in the region, such as maritime boundary disputes, and smuggling and trafficking of illicit goods, were not discussed. 

Maritime boundary disputes in West Africa are plentiful and have borne negative impacts on inter-state relations, with the dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the Bakassi peninsula being a key example. Many other disputes have lain dormant since the post-colonial era but are being reignited by the discovery of offshore resources, such as the revival of a dispute between the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Maritime research reflects that these disputes have the potential to: hinder the work of regional economic communities (RECs) to address maritime security challenges; render a negative impact on work towards achieving a Blue Economy on the continent; and hamper maritime regime building. 

West Africa is also well-known as a key transit area for a number of organised criminal activities that rely on access to the sea, for instance the smuggling of drugs and trafficking in persons. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has noted that several countries in the Gulf of Guinea along the stretch from Cape Verde south to Benin are a transit point for cocaine between Latin America and Europe, while Nigeria is said to be the main country through which methamphetamines transit. Where migrant smuggling and human trafficking is concerned, the region contains several routes, both land- and sea-based, with the destination often being Europe. The UNODC highlights that the majority of irregular migrants from West Africa are of Nigerian and Senegalese nationality.

From gatherings to action

While gatherings of this kind play an important role in expanding and cementing networks with partners both within and outside of the region - helping to build personal relationships, develop familiarity among officials, and to determine points of convergence and divergence at the level of state policy and implementation - more is needed. Indeed, it remains unclear the extent to which the event rendered positive, actionable outcomes. Media reporting after the event is limited, and does not address in particular the achievements of IMDEC; it can therefore not be confidently said that the conference will lead to any changes in policy or regulation, although some panels did focus on issues around governance, regulation, and interstate and interagency cooperation.

Events of this nature (given that they are abundant in number) must move beyond networking toward actionable outcomes that address the challenges that currently hamper the many regional initiatives in place via the various RECs. These RECs face financial shortages, limits to their human capacity, a dearth of political will, and challenges in terms of the relationships between states. These are the real on-the-ground issues that hamper the full implementation of existing maritime strategies and coordinated agreements, and should thus be the subject of engagement between stakeholders. Once West Africa is able to attend to these impediments, while also addressing state-level inefficiencies, it will be in a much improved position to make inroads toward tackling the challenges of piracy, armed robbery at sea, IUU fishing, smuggling, and trafficking.

(Main image: The Benin navy's anti-piracy team (Force Navale) on patrol in the Bight of Benin. Piracy off the small west African country of Benin has risen sharply and fears are that it is starting to emulate Somalia in its threat to shipping - Jason Florio/Corbis via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.