Today, 13 March, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission will inaugurate the multinational maritime coordination centre (MMCC) for a maritime zone known as Pilot Zone E.
Taking place in Cotonou, Benin, this marks an important step in the implementation of the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS). It is solid proof of member states’ commitment to solving the critical issue of maritime piracy, along with other illicit activities at sea. Pilot Zone E is considered the most dangerous maritime zone in West Africa, and stronger protection efforts are needed in this area, which encompasses Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo.
Once inaugurated, the centre in Cotonou will coordinate joint activities between the four states. This includes patrols, information sharing, training and drills. In accordance with the guidelines set out in EIMS, the centre is required to report to the Regional Maritime Security Coordination Centre of West Africa. It will also work with the multinational maritime coordination centres of Zones F and G, thereby completing the maritime security architecture at the sub-regional level. Zone F includes Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, while Zone G is made up of Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal.
An initiative of the ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman, the new coordination centre is part of a series of actions that was agreed on at the 24 and 25 June 2013 Yaoundé summit. At this important meeting, the heads of state and government of the Economic Community of Central African States, the Commission of the Gulf of Guinea and ECOWAS adopted a common policy to respond to piracy and maritime insecurity.
Member states also initiated their own actions, in addition to those taken by the Commission. Despite severe challenges in combatting Boko Haram in the north of the country, Nigeria, for instance, is searching for a sustainable solution to piracy and oil theft in the southern Niger Delta region. According to a report in Nigerian newspaper, Leadership, the country intercepted more than 84 ships conducting illicit activities in its waters in 2014.
According to Nigerian Chief of Naval Staff, Usman Jibrin, the country loses 433 billion naira (2 billion USD or 1.313 trillion FCFA) to oil theft each year, and is now equipping itself with increasingly larger patrol boats.
The Ghana Navy demonstrated its ability to secure Ghanaian waters in January this year, when it retrieved the hijacked Nigerian oil tanker, Mariam. This was despite a bad start to 2015 given the 14 January hijacking of the Panama-registered Ocean Splendor. The navy arrested the eight heavily armed people who had hijacked the Mariam a week prior, and released the ship’s nine crewmembers. This act of bravery is also proof that cooperation among regional states can successfully combat acts of piracy; which is one of the new coordination centre’s objectives.
In most other ECOWAS member states, there have been similar dynamics in the fight against maritime insecurity. Benin (which provides the Zone E centre), Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Guinea and Senegal are adopting national maritime strategies in line with EIMS. These states are establishing maritime authorities responsible for coordinating state action at sea, and are equipping themselves with patrol boats and remote surveillance systems to monitor their maritime domains.
While piracy, armed robbery, illegal fishing, oil theft and other threats at sea are still far from being eradicated, these actions suggest that ECOWAS and its member states are serious about securing their maritime domains in a cooperative manner.
Having said this, more work lies ahead for the ECOWAS Commission. It must now focus on finalising its maritime security architecture. The installation of the Regional Maritime Security Coordination Centre of West Africa should prove to be a strong justification for the Interregional Coordinating Centre (ICC), inaugurated on 11 September 2014 in Yaoundé. The ICC bridges the Regional Maritime Security Coordination Centre of Central Africa and that of West Africa.
The ECOWAS Commission urgently needs to designate two host countries for the future multinational maritime coordination centres for Zones F and G, which will be established based on the lessons learnt from the centre in Zone E. In order to have a more harmonious maritime security system at the core of ECOWAS, the member states that are currently developing national maritime strategies need the Commission’s technical assistance.
The international community and all other actors in the maritime industry must increase support for these efforts, as they will also benefit from improved maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. Certainly, the region already benefits from the support of organisations such as the European Union and the International Maritime Organisation; and that of several countries – notably France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and China. However, assistance should go beyond the writing of strategies, training courses, and simulation exercises. The region also needs to increase its material resources in terms of naval assets and maritime aviation capabilities if it is to respond appropriately to brutal maritime attacks.
With the inauguration of the Zone E coordination centre, ECOWAS is taking a decisive step in implementing EIMS. However, it should not stop here, and it is imperative that all the beneficiaries of maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea provide continued support. This will greatly assist West African states in freeing themselves of the threats posed by pirates and other criminals who operate in their maritime domains.
Written by Barthelemy Blede, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Dakar