Africa’s coastal nations are fighting a rising tide of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, piracy, and drug smuggling.
A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says local, regional and international criminals are taking advantage of poverty and corruption to transform African waters into “the world’s biggest transnational crime scene.”
“The under-policed ocean is central to the business model of organized crime networks,” the ISS report said.
West Africa, for example, is the world’s epicenter for IUU fishing. The scourge costs the region $10 billion a year, according to the Stimson Center, a think tank.
China is by far the worst IUU fishing offender in the region and across the globe. In West Africa, Chinese illegal fishing thrives due to inadequate fisheries enforcement capacity and official corruption, according to the Stimson Center.
The center’s researchers argued in a recent report that IUU fishing in the region will continue to pose challenges unless China helps initiate changes and slows its demand for fishmeal and fish oil.
“Any solution to combat IUU fishing and improve fisheries management in West Africa must include the [People’s Republic of China],” Stimson’s researchers wrote. “Similarly, any solutions to the threats posed by foreign fleets and fishing enterprises in West Africa must include local and regional stakeholders.”
Illegal fishing isn’t just a West African problem. In South Africa, abalone poaching is linked to the spread of crystal methamphetamine and other drugs. Chinese criminal networks typically poach and smuggle abalone to Hong Kong, which imports about 90% of all dried South African abalone.
Piracy once was largely confined to Somalia until government and private actors at the regional, national and international levels combined forces in about 2013 and the threat gradually diminished, the ISS report documented.
But West Africa has replaced the Indian Ocean as the most dangerous region for seafarers globally. Pirate attacks in the region spiked in about 2019, when 62 of the 75 seafarers taken hostage onboard or kidnapped for ransom worldwide were abducted off the coasts of Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo.
As in Somalia, international efforts led to years of declining pirate attacks. There were 81 in 2020, 34 in 2021 and just three last year, but the threat is resurging. Officials reported five incidents in the first quarter of 2023 and nine in the second quarter, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau.
Many of the region’s pirates come from the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, where the two most important economic sectors — fishing and farming — have been destroyed and many people are looking for other sources of income, according to Kamal-Deen Ali, executive director of the Center for Maritime Law and Security Africa in Accra, Ghana.
“When you have an environment where you can easily recruit criminal networks because they have livelihood concerns, then this is a major problem to confront,” Ali told Deutsche Welle. “And this is the reason why other countries in the [area] must also look at our coastal communities closely, especially when it comes to fisheries.”
In the early 2000s, West Africa emerged as a key transit hub for cocaine and other drugs enroute from South America to Europe. Similar trends soon emerged in East Africa, where Afghan heroin and methamphetamines move across the Indian Ocean.
As narcotics increasingly pass through Africa, their consumption on the continent is increasing.
Corruption is “intrinsically linked to the continental drug trade,” according to the ISS, which labeled Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria and Senegal, as well as Central Africa, as new cocaine hot spots.
Drug runners also exploit the hard-to-police waters of East Africa, including the island states of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, the French island of Réunion and the Seychelles, which has the highest per capita rate of heroin use in the world.
“So many drugs are transmitting that some of it ends up on the local market,” Yann Yvergniaux, a senior analyst at Trygg Mat Tracking, a nonprofit organization that provides fisheries intelligence to countries and organizations, told ADF last year. “Some involved in the trade do recreational drugs. It’s horrible. In Seychelles, some shipping boat owners told me they can’t find young crew members anymore because they’re all on drugs.”
The major port city of Mombasa, Kenya, also has emerged in recent years as a major transit point for cocaine from Latin America and heroin from Asia en route to Europe.