Just two weeks before Africa’s maritime decision makers were due to meet in early November in Lome, Togo for a summit on security, safety and development, the Togolese government announced that the meeting was cancelled. No new dates were given, and the official explanation was the lack of infrastructure to host proceedings and lodge participants.
This was not just another international conference – the gathering was to have ended with an African Union (AU) extraordinary summit of heads of state. Why was the summit cancelled so abruptly, and what opportunities to improve maritime security have been lost by this decision?
Those close to the summit organisers confirm the reason for the cancellation given by the official communiqué. They refer to the findings of an audit that only 23 of the 160 hotels available to accommodate the expected 5 000 participants meet hotel industry standards. The same sources also mention delays with renovations at the 35-storey hotel planned for the meeting venue.
Not everybody shares this view. Some believe that Togo offered to organise the maritime summit to strengthen its chances of hosting the Regional Coordination Centre for Maritime Security in West Africa (CRESMAO). After Côte d’Ivoire was designated as the host for CRESMAO in May, Togolese authorities lost their original motivation.
Other observers attribute the summit postponement to political reasons. As far as they are concerned, donors are wary of supporting the AU while it is chaired by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and requested that the event be postponed until January 2016 when his term of office ends.
According to these sources, a lack of infrastructure has never prevented Togo from hosting major events. For example, the country recently hosted an international fair in collaboration with the West African Economic and Monetary Union that received thousands of visitors each day.
In the meantime, pirates and other bandits who threaten maritime security have not postponed their activities. After some months of respite, the Gulf of Guinea has once again been struck by acts of piracy. The most recent attack was on 26 November off the coast of Nigeria against the Szafir, a Cyprus-flagged vessel belonging to Polish interests. The ship’s captain and four crew members were taken hostage.
Even the Somali coast, which had become safe thanks to armed guards aboard vessels and naval resources deployed by foreign powers, is once again under threat.
After three years without any attacks by pirates, at least three Iranian fishing vessels were seized and their sailors taken hostage in 2015. On 22 November the Muhammidi, a trawler with 15 sailors aboard was attacked. To free their compatriots, the Iranians opened fire, killing at least 4 pirates.
In addition to piracy, African waters are still the locus for numerous illegal activities such as oil bunkering, illegal migrant trafficking, illegal fishing, trafficking in human beings, drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods. Faced with these threats, the abrupt cancellation of the Lomé conference raises questions about whether political will to ensure maritime security in Africa has waned since the landmark Yaoundé summit in 2013.
This is all the more relevant since it is not the first time that an important African meeting on maritime issues has been postponed, or even cancelled, since the 2013 summit. Last year the ‘uproot piracy’ programme, which was initiated by the 25-nation Maritime Organisation of West and Central Africa, was postponed because of Ebola and later cancelled without any official reason. More recently, a symposium on coastal security and safety that had been on the cards since 2013 and was supposed to take place in November in South Africa was cancelled at the last moment.
The Lomé summit was supposed to provide a progress update on implementing regional measures to combat illicit activities at sea, with a focus on the 2009 Djibouti and 2013 Yaoundé codes of conduct, adopted primarily to tackle piracy along the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Guinea. West and Central African heads of state had agreed that the Yaoundé code of conduct would be binding as of June 2016. Lomé would have been a decisive step before the next meeting on this code.
The summit would also have provided an opportunity for leaders to adopt decisions on issues discussed at the AU ministerial meeting held in Victoria, Seychelles in February 2014. Importantly, an African position on the sensitive matter of migrant flows to Europe that have resulted in hundreds of deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean could have been agreed.
General developmental issues were also on the agenda, in line with the 2050 Integrated African Strategy for Oceans and Seas adopted in January 2014. The Lomé summit was to have helped ‘make maritime space the main lever of African economic and social development’, according to by Robert Dussey, Togo’s Foreign Affairs Minister.
Maritime security and development are key to Africa’s economic growth. But ‘there are no shortcuts in maritime security’, so rather than being a source of politicking and speculation, the summit needs to be prioritised to avoid more missed opportunities. One can only hope that the new date for the meeting – in March 2016 – will hold.
Written by Barthélemy Blédé, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, ISS Dakar