Defence Intelligence lays out maritime security threats in Africa


The Defence Intelligence division of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has detailed some of the main threats and challenges facing South African navies and maritime security issues in Africa.

Speaking at the Maritime Security Conference 2021 in June, Brigadier General VJS Radebe, representing Chief Defence Intelligence Major-General Thalita Mxakato, noted that the maritime environment around Africa is beset with various forms of maritime crime. “The continent, as we are all aware, is rich in natural resources, over 90% of which are exported through the sea,” he said.

“In the past, African nations have generally not focussed much on protecting their maritime zones, which led to the rampant and illegal exploitation of marine resources amongst others such as oil and fish. The focus of most African coastal states’ militaries has been to prioritise landward defence augmented by air assets while maritime forces have generally been somewhat neglected.

“This fact, when combined with a number of other factors, has resulted in significant deficiencies when addressing maritime security. The lack of maritime security has in turn created the opportunity for the illegal exploitation of the marine environment.”

Radebe noted that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most conflict-prone areas of the world, and armed conflict and maritime crime are linked in a cycle that perpetuates violence and insecurity. “Civil war and other physically violent conflicts facilitate and drive illicit maritime activities. Active conflict creates the conditions illicit networks need to flourish such as low government penetration and weak control of insurgent rhetoric, poor rule of law, proliferation of arms, and additional networks that can be tapped into to support these illicit activities.

“Maritime arms trade and human struggling are especially profitable in environments affected by civil war due to the demand for arms and the volume of refugees fleeing these war-torn situations. Conversely, criminal activities at sea facilitate violent conflict by funding insurgent campaigns. In the Gulf of Guinea, piracy and armed robbery and attacks on commercial vessels are an effective strategy for financing militant groups.

“Since 2008, the movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, has attacked oil infrastructure off the coast of Nigeria. These attacks prompted the government to come to the negotiating table but also financed the group’s continued existence through ransom payments and the sale of stolen oil on the black market.

“In East Africa, long stretches of uncontrolled coastline provide illegal groups with the opportunity to expand their areas of influence from land to sea. This has led to an increase in illegal flows of refugees, weapons and militants crossing the waters to and from East Africa and exacerbates the war between Amisom and Al Shabaab.

“In West Africa, maritime order seems to be threatened more from pockets of lawlessness on land in more capable states including Nigeria and Cameroon than statelessness,” Radebe said. “For example, the densely populated Niger Delta in Nigeria is a central hub for piracy in the region and has developed into a hiding place for illegal armed groups. Maritime security problems in the Gulf of Guinea therefore remain rooted in the lack of effective government institutions and a prolonged sea blindness rather than fundamental absence of institutions.

“These factors have also resulted in increased foreign naval activity around Africa. The US and France have long held permanent facilities in Africa with numerous agreements with African countries to utilise ports and airports for military purposes. The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are now also investing in military infrastructure on the continent. This must be seen in the light of securing African natural resources. The recent discovery of oil and gas around the SADC region particularly Mozambique, Cabo Delgado, will bring with it renewed interest in securing these resources by foreign roleplayers.

“As we speak, there is heightened activity of foreign players in Cabo Delgado, particularly in trying to assist the Mozambicans to try and curb or control the insurgency, but all those players are also motivated by their own national interests. The SADC will benefit from this economically of course but this should not be at the expense of their maritime sovereignty.

“The recent terrorist activities in Cabo Delgado have had a direct impact on the current possibility to profit from its immense resources at sea. This is a result of the inability of Mozambique as a country to protect its own port facilities.”

Radebe noted that poor port security is a general phenomenon in Africa and this has only benefitted maritime crime, as African ports have become conduits for various forms of illicit trade. “African ports regularly receive shipments of illegal arms and narcotics, the illicit trade in endangered wildlife is also facilitated by this poor state of security. As we move further out to sea the situation does not become any better. Poor maritime domain awareness has resulted in an increase in illegal trade moving through the maritime zones, illegal fishing has also increased and there has been numerous incidents of environmental pollution also reported around our waters.”

Rade said the challenges facing most sub-Saharan littoral states revolve around having adequate resources to counter threats. “African navies are traditionally the last in line to receive a portion of their restrictive defence budgets. Most sub-Saharan navies barely have the capability to patrol outside of their territorial waters, let alone operating further out to sea. Maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft are also in short supply. There is a reliance on receiving assistance from external role-players and this is normally at a cost involving rights to natural resources. There have been attempts to increase the interoperability of navies, however, there is little to no interoperability between West and East African navies. They Yaounde Code of Conduct in West Africa and the Djibouti Code of Conduct in East Africa have had some successes in increasing maritime domain awareness but they require much more resources and the ability of navies to respond when required,” Radebe said.

“The threats posed within the African maritime environment are predominately related to illicit trade and require higher maritime constabulatory solutions. The permanent and recurring presence of a significant number of international naval forces indicates the importance of Africa and specifically the Indian Ocean in the international economic environment. By establishing a naval presence on the continent, each country is protecting their interest in natural resources being exported to them.

“While there is no expected likelihood of any of these countries to become involved in conflict with any African state, there is a likelihood that a seaborne conflict could arise between two foreign naval powers within the African maritime space or closely adjacent to it,” Radebe said.

He said it is concerning that, through technology, African states are often able to see many of the illegal activities taking place at sea, “but we cannot adequately respond to them. In terms of the opportunities that we see in all of this, a number of SADC countries have started investing in their navies in order to patrol their maritime zones more effectively. The historical perception of reliance on other nations to assist is slowly but surely diminishing. There is now a definite opportunity for South Africa to conduct joint maritime exercises, amongst others, and at a later stage patrols with SADC partners to promote a more collective approach to protecting our collective maritime environment.

“South African is in the unique position where it can benefit from both the Yaounde and the Djibouti codes of conduct. We could enhance the opportunity of the whole of the SADC by introducing best practices of both protocols.

“By enhancing our regional maritime awareness, it is possible to get more support from the South African defence industry in terms, among others, of sensor acquisition or development. This will have the added benefit of promoting our blue economy initiatives for the region.

“Defence Intelligence will also be increasing its capability to ensure it provides the right type of support to the whole of the SANDF. Its capability provides the right type of support in protecting our maritime zones. As an organisation, we are uniquely placed to be able to direct the SANDF’s efforts as well as the South African government’s security cluster,” Radebe said.