West African Risk

Maritime insecurity in West Africa is fast becoming a major area of concern, particularly given the increase in piracy and armed attacks upon shipping and trade. Altogether 19 incidents of piracy and armed attacks have already been reported in 2012 according to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS).

West Africa: Confronting the Sources of Maritime Insecurity

West African states have attempted to pre-empt the emergence of piracy by increasing their capacity to deter and prevent illegal activities. For instance, in response to attacks off its coastline Benin has recently purchased fast, armed patrol craft and other West Africa countries are likely to do the same. However, amidst this concern over West African piracy that could mimic piracy around the Horn of Africa, it is vital that one of the major sources of maritime insecurity that could lead to piracy and armed attacks in both regions be kept in mind, that of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Major media investigations, including those by Al Jazeera in Sierra Leone and the UK’s Guardian in Senegal, are slowly increasing the awareness of IUU. Any increase in insecurity amongst West African fishing communities as a result of IUU fishing, is likely to also affect food and human security, and has the potential to lead to increasing political, economic and social instability unless it is redressed.

In this regard confronting the problem of IUU is vital. Expanding populations in the region have resulted in an increasing reliance on fish and maritime resources for the fulfilment of dietary needs. As populations increase, pressure also increases upon fishing communities to maintain the supply to match the demand. Small-scale fishing boats land the majority of fish, but these are being forced to compete with large-scale industrial fleets from numerous countries that operate regardless of local or international laws and regulations. The ships tend to be large, fairly efficient trawlers, capable of catching, freezing, storing and transporting large quantities of fish without the need to dock or offload in neighbouring ports. As maritime resources are depleted this is likely to increase the pressure on inland fishing resources in lakes and rivers.

Research done by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) already indicates that West Africa’s once fertile fishing areas are being rapidly depleted. Local artisanal fishermen are also facing increasing risks from staying out to sea for longer time periods in unseaworthy vessels to ensure they catch enough fish.

Better regulation, monitoring and management of maritime resources are required and the ability to report and alert authorities must also be improved. Furthermore, greater transparency in the negotiation of fishing agreements and the prevention of corrupt licence acquisitions is desperately required. In addition to preventing illicit activities, finding a solution that increases human and state security also needs to be located at the supra-national level. A notable example cited in research such as Padraig Carmody’s The New Scramble for Africa is that fishing agreements between the European Union (EU) and West African states should be criticised for being unfair as they permit the extraction of massive quantities of fish without due regard to the needs of local communities or the environment. According to the Monday 2 April 2012 Guardian article ‘Senegal’s fishing community will act on foreign fleets if government doesn’t’, one large trawler, it is calculated, can catch as much as 250 tonnes of fish a day, roughly what 50 pirogues might catch in a year, illustrating the huge disparities involved.

Moreover the inability of communities and states to improve their maritime security has led many to draw parallels with maritime insecurity around the Horn of Africa. With no other recourse Somali fishing communities formed ‘coast guards’ ostensibly to deter IUU and hazardous waste dumping, which subsequently developed into a rackets and ultimately piracy largely aimed at capturing crews to secure hefty ransoms.

However a number of caveats reduce the likelihood of a similar situation in West Africa. Firstly, West and Central African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and states possess better capacity to create and institutionalise integrated maritime security strategies. Secondly, these would build upon a longer history of maritime engagement; existing organisations such as Maritime Organisation of West and Central Africa (MOWCA) would therefore play an expanding role. Thirdly, continental programmes are in place such as the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD)’s Partnership for African Fisheries, ensuring that the problem is increasingly well researched and publicised, whereas Somali piracy in a context of widespread indifference and ignorance.

Finally, the geostrategic importance of West Africa is forecast to rise given the reorientation of U.S. oil strategy, which foresees African producers as major future sources. Any destabilisation of the region will be noted almost immediately thanks to improved reporting. Moreover, the context for Somalia piracy was contingent on the fact that the Somali state collapsed in 1992, leaving no central authority in place to regulate maritime sovereignty and activity.

The response from key local, continental and global stakeholders to West African maritime insecurity is reasonably encouraging. In 2011 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2018 in recognition of the increasing awareness and importance attached to West African maritime security. The Resolution called upon Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) to respond by developing an integrated maritime security strategy. At present the two organisations have signed a memorandum of understanding upon the completion of their Maritime Safety and Security Conference held in Benin from the 26th to the 29th of March 2012.

Additional maritime security conferences are scheduled for 2012 that focus upon the prevention of piracy, but stakeholders must not lose sight of the fact that human insecurity should be a core concern and one of the key emerging problems is the insecurity of fishing communities all along the West African coast.

In a context of often deficient state capacity, one in which some state agents and agencies are complicit in corruption agreement and the soliciting of bribes – the power to grant fishing rights and licences can be lucrative – a serious effort is needed to create the necessary political will to increase human security. At present it is hoped that this will not only occur as the result of disgruntled and impoverished fishing communities undertake high profile attacks on shipping in the area. While this would certainly attract continental and global attention, it could already be too late by then to expect that fishing stocks could recover, or that judicious and prompt solutions for maritime insecurity in the region can be found.

Timothy Walker, Consultant, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

Source: All Africa

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