Africa’s long coastline and strategic location on the borders of the world’s major sea lanes pose a challenge to maritime security efforts. A new report issued by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies outlines some of the maritime threats challenging Africa as well as the global community, from smuggling to piracy, and suggests that science and technology can help solve these problems.
Security, economic and humanitarian interests, including long-term access to energy, are all at risk from Africa’s lack of adequate maritime security. “The threats coming up the West African coast really have an enormous potential for huge instability,” General James Jones (ret.) told IPS News late last year. Jones served as US President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) report says there are a number of main reasons why Africa struggles to meet its maritime security challenges. Exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which reach out 200 nautical miles from a coastline, are difficult to monitor because of their size and a lack of resources. For instance, off West and Central Africa, there are less than 25 medium sized vessels available for maritime patrol. Another problem is that many African countries invest heavily in land-based forces and neglect maritime units. Other serious problems are a lack of funding, poor political will and corruption.
The ACSS suggests that science and technology solutions can overcome many of the problems related to African maritime security. For instance, the report suggests that relatively low cost sensor networks and ocean drogues be used instead of patrol boats and research vessels to monitor coastal activity relating to illegal fishing, gun running, drug smuggling, oil spills and so forth. It notes that 115 data-collecting ocean drogues supplied by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been deployed around Africa since 2008 and that a related deployment of meteorological sensors across the coasts of West and Central Africa will be completed by 2011.
The report cites the use of cell phones in Africa as an example of how the continent can successfully use technology to rapidly develop. In most of Africa, cell phone technology leapfrogged landline development, giving phone access to entire populations within a matter of years.
“Strategic investment in science and technology offers a solution to overcome resource constraints,” the report notes. However, it adds that science and technology in Africa is worthless unless proper training and maintenance is put in place, as a lack of support often renders much technology useless after a short period.
The Centre suggests that one way for African governments to enhance maritime security is to work in conjunction with their universities and research institutions. Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius and Nigeria are just some countries that have higher education institutions that conduct oceanographic research. Meanwhile, South Africa conducts research on surveillance and ship identification through the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
However, South Africa is the only country in Africa that has successfully developed a dedicated government institution for funding research, the report says. “South Africa has the most sophisticated program for leveraging civilian research to the benefit of national security.” The CSIR in particular is capable of supporting research that benefits both civilian and military interests. Some of the maritime security initiatives at the CSIR include its Earth Observation department, research on optics for naval patrol vessels and the development of sensor networks and unmanned vehicles.
“Instead of leaving operational security forces to deal with technology on their own, CSIR is providing the scientific partnership needed to comprehensively and efficiently monitor South Africa’s waters,” the report says.
The report goes on to recommend several ways in which science and technology can be used to improve Africa’s maritime security, including the creation of a feasibility study on maritime security; including research institutions and initiatives in maritime security efforts, and investing in areas of science and technology where African research expertise already exists.
“We must always remember this is an African problem that will require African solutions and the will of governments to solve,” said Admiral Henry Ulrich (ret), who commanded US naval forces in Europe and Africa from 2005 to 2007. “It’s not one size fits all; it has to be tailored to (each) country,” he told ISP News. He added that equipment, science, technology and other resources are necessary for maritime security but that efforts also need to be made to curb corruption, provide better governance and promote economic development.
As the backbone of international commerce, oceans and seas are vital to African peace, security, economic development, transportation, trade and environmental and scientific research. More than 92% of global trade and 70% of global crude oil is moved by sea, according to the African Union, while about 90% of Africa’s trade is conducted via the sea.
The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) report notes that there are many threats to maritime security. Piracy is a big issue, with the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reporting that over a thousand hostages were captured in 218 attacks of the East African coast in 2010, which is double the number of incidents in 2008. Furthermore, experts anticipate an increasing number of kidnappings at sea this year.
Although Somalia gets most of the publicity regarding piracy, armed robberies of local and international vessels in Nigerian waters remains a serious challenge. A report by the Washington-based Atlantic Council released in December last year said that the Gulf of Guinea has become second only to Somali waters in term of the number of attacks against ships. The report, entitled Advancing US, African, and Global Interests: Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain, warned that the Gulf of Guinea may even exceed the number of attacks off Somalia’s coast.
Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing by mostly European and Asian fishing fleets is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa bout US$1 billion every year, according to the ACSS report. It adds that the catch from IUU fishing deprives locals of food, floods international markets, depresses prices and discourages legal and environmentally sustainable fishing practices around the world. Furthermore, some Somali fishermen resorted to piracy to keep unauthorised fishing vessels out of their waters as well as vessels dumping toxic waste off their coast. Toxic waste dumping remains a problem in Africa as governments are either paid to accept toxic waste from foreign countries or are unable to stop illegal toxic waste dumping.
The ACSS says that Africa’s $1 trillion per annum maritime economy (representing 90 percent of African commerce) is hampered by illicit trafficking, including a multibillion dollar black market in weapons. It estimates that illegal logging accounts for up to 70% of Africa’s timber harvest and that counterfeit medications make up half of all medicine sales in Africa. In addition, narcotics traffickers are now moving an estimated 50 to 60 tons of cocaine through West Africa to Europe every year.
Other security threats that are detrimental to the African economy include attacks on the oil sector in Nigeria that have cost billions of dollars in lost revenue and damage to infrastructure. The attacks have helped destabilize prices globally and environmentalists estimate that as many as 546 million gallons of oil have been spilled since oil exploration began in Nigeria in 1966 – the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year. Many of the spills can be traced to oil thieves and sabotage, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
The instability in Nigeria, the region’s most important oil producer, has caused concern around the world, ISP News reports. As most oil and gas in the area is produced along the coastline or, increasingly, offshore, maritime security is especially important. While securing the flow of energy resources is vital to world interests, enhancing maritime security in the area is also very much in the interests of local populations on a range of fronts, according to the Atlantic Council report.
The report said that international governments should give much more attention and resources to strengthen the weak West African governments along the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea in order to protect their territory and coasts from drug and human traffickers, terrorists and other threats. The report warned that current economic and political conditions were creating a “fertile environment where illicit groups including acolytes of radical Islam can readily win new adherents”.