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Avast there: a US Navy search and seizure team chasing suspected Somali pirates. US Navy

Africa’s plan to police violent seas is more hope than strategy

Maritime security is fundamental to economic development all over the world, from local to regional up to international levels. The sea-based trading system, developed mostly by states with maritime borders, offers access to and distribution of energy resources, raw materials and all kind of products around the world. Almost 80% of today’s international goods are transported in ships’ hulls, along established supply chains that ensure the secure flow of goods to international markets.

Maritime security is therefore one of the most significant dimensions of global and human security in general. It poses multidimensional threats to global security, and in turn has major effects on such essential issues as food, energy and economic security.

For the last decade, Africa has been the epicentre of international maritime insecurity. Piracy and armed robbery at sea has re-emerged in the modern era off the east and west coasts of Africa alike, and gained international media attention because of the human and financial damage inflicted. But we have also seen other breaches of maritime security on the rise in Africa’s seas: illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, toxic waste dumping, and human, weapons and narcotics trafficking.

After years of struggling with these problems, the African Union (AU) has formally adopted the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime (AIM) Strategy, a long-term approach to collectively address all maritime crimes in both AU members’ territorial waters and surrounding international waters.

The AIM strategy is a highly encouraging signal. It demonstrates a recognition of the importance of maritime insecurity to the continent’s development and long-term growth, and the political will to back it up. Given that that the European Union, for example, still lacks a similarly collective approach or any official strategy for long-term action against such crimes, it is an even more impressive achievement.

It is built on the fundamental principles of the human security approach, meaning it aims both to address the root causes of insecurity and to improve the everyday lives of member states’ citizens. Also note worthy is the AIM’s specific referral to the importance of secure seas for landlocked countries (assuming that the term “landly connected countries” refers to them), given that their dependence on adjacent coastal states for their overall development and economic growth is generally overlooked.

Fingers crossed

Despite its noble foundations, plenty about the AIM is open to question. The establishment of the Combined Exclusive Maritime Zone of Africa (CEMZA) and the AU’s vision of “a common African maritime space without barriers” sound positively utopian. The idea of regional capacity-building based on non-existing assets and mechanisms is more of a wish list than a feasible objective. The treaty’s stated aim of providing support to weaker states so they can achieve the targets is welcome, but not very likely to happen, given that a vast procurement budget has to be raised and allocated first.

Most of the coastal states in maritime-insecure regions lack the infrastructure and means to suppress maritime criminality, and hence offer a fertile ground for it to flourish. But even if these fragile states’ financial issues are resolved, they must still improve their ability to develop sustainable policing mechanisms and to fully contribute to the implementation of the AU’s plan.

Beyond economic issues and restrained budgets, the complexity to address insecurity stresses anew the nexus between land based and offshore activities. The jigsaw includes transnational organised crime networks, which are orchestrated by individuals on land; corruption and violence add more obstacles to law enforcement. The coastal states’ capabilities are further undercut by well-known links between criminal networks and the military and police of various states.

For all that it is couched in utopian political rhetoric, the strategy’s focus on human security is at least in part a response to the daunting reality of these obstacles, and to the thwarted regional cooperation and poor local governance that obstruct maritime policing today. But on the other hand, the prominence given to human security also means that the AU’s plan does not rely solely on equipment and asset procurements, and instead recognises the importance of a comprehensive approach, with cooperation at local, regional and international levels.

In the end, the 2050 AIM Strategy does not really deserve the term “strategy”. The means it needs to achieve its objectives are simply not currently available, and the optimistic target of meeting those objectives within the next 35 years is not enough to deal with maritime crimes that desperately require shorter-term action. But despite these weaknesses, the AIM could form a useful blueprint for other, better-resourced international actors (such as the EU) to build on. In and adopt similar human-centric approaches, promoting burden and information sharing, collective action and focus on the root causes rather than the symptoms of maritime insecurity.

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