Beyond piracy lies a scorned economy

Armed guard escorts on a merchant ship off the east coast of Africa

The fateful battle in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), between South African soldiers and Seleka rebels focussed significant attention on a region riddled with political and military insecurity.

To the northwest of CAR, in Mali, a joint French–African coalition is fighting under the United Nations banner to oust Tuareg insurgents occupying a large swathe of territory; in neighbouring Niger there was a military coup in 2010 and the government is under threat from the same forces that effected the secession in northern Mali; and in Chad, the government which hosted the CAR peace talks is itself under threat from armed rebel forces attempting to oust the incumbent regime.

The profound insecurities in the region have also spilled into neighbouring territories in the Great Lakes Region and West Africa and contributed to the general destabilisation of the entire area.

Inevitably the policy debates which have flowed from these developments have centred almost entirely on what is called, in military policy terms, ‘landward security’ – troops, transporters, armoured vehicles and mobility – without the concomitant attention on what is happening off Africa’s coastlines.

The ripple effect of landward insecurities doesn’t stop at the water’s edge and Africa’s off-shore landscape portrays its own hubs of insecurity which, potentially, could have more profound implications on the South African economy, and the rest of the continent, than battles in places like Bangui.

In terms of capitalising on the potential for genuine growth in GDP across Africa, landward security is almost inconsequential if goods and services cannot enter or leave the continent and its resources cannot be responsibly exploited. The vast majority of the continent’s exports are transported by sea and it is vital that African leaders do not neglect maritime security.

The most obvious example is the battering which East African economies took from piracy which arose out of the lawlessness in Somalia. A recent World Bank report estimated the cost of that piracy at $18 billion annually.

Multi-lateral international action belatedly has started to improve the position but there is still plenty of work to be done to establish sustainable coherent order at sea in the Western Indian Ocean.

The Stellenbosch University Faculty of Military Science and the Faculty of Royal Danish Defence College, together with Dar es Salaam University jointly hosted a conference last week in Dar es Salaam on the specific issue of Maritime Security off Eastern Africa: Beyond Piracy. The important task of the conference was to help governments along that coastline understand the many constituent elements that make-up a functional and secure maritime environment. Governments need to invest in appropriate equipment, establish effective co-ordination between themselves and continually engage with the governments who have the assets to enforce order.

A critical part of this issue is the protection of the maritime environment from illegal trawling, over-fishing and ecologically damaging practices. The consequences to coastal economies are clear and catastrophic if fishing stocks dry up or the oceans become seriously polluted. The crux of this outlook turns upon proper maritime leadership.

West Africa also has serious problems in this regard. The Gulf of Guinea, with its rich marine resources, for example vast oil and gas assets, is suffering from increased criminality and political instability. In terms of oil spills, the ecological threat in the gulf, into the Niger delta in particular, is truly alarming. It is not difficult to grasp that any serious disruption to that sea-route, comparable to that suffered in the Indian Ocean from piracy, would have massive consequences for both the African oil producing nations and oil consumers.  In a way the focus upon piracy in particular began to shift to the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa.

It will take detailed planning, considered investment and a cohesive determination among all affected nations to prevent this happening.

In the same manner that the insurgent successes in Mali and the CAR shocked the political leadership of some countries into action, the profound threat of economic disruption from maritime disorder should change the maritime outlooks of influential African decision-makers. 

Francois Vreÿ (associate professor at the Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University)

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