Photograph — Euractiv.com

The Chief of Naval Staff of Ghana, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone as well as the Chief of Coast Guard of Liberia and the high Commander of the National Gendarmerie of Burkina Faso, met on the 25th of July 2019, in Accra, Ghana. There they signed a Memorandum of understanding (MoU) for joint maritime operations in the ECOWAS maritime zone. The MoU will provide among others, an important response to threats to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.

The Gulf of Guinea, on west Africa’s southern coast has been described as the world’s most pirate-infested sea. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports 72 attacks last year on vessels at sea between Ivory Coast and Cameroon—up from 28 in 2014. Earlier this month 10 Turkish sailors were kidnapped by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea while their ship was sailing from Cameroon to Cote d’Ivoire. 

The proliferation of criminal activities such as illegal fishing, piracy, kidnappings for ransom, illegal oil bunkering and drug trafficking in the Gulf of Guinea presents an impediment to free flow of goods across the region and the development of the blue economy of ECOWAS countries. In response, there has been a concerted effort from ECOWAS countries to reverse this trend and improve maritime security in the region.

ECOWAS’ Integrated Maritime Strategy

In June 2013 ECOWAS Heads of States in conjunction with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) adopted the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and MoU at their summit in Yaoundé, Cameroon which established a new Inter-Regional Architecture composed of five interconnected Multi-national Maritime Coordination Centres (MMCC) and 17 national maritime Operations Centres.

In 2014 when the Heads of States met in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire, they adopted the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy. In line with the implementation of this strategy, the portion of the Gulf of Guinea under the jurisdiction of ECOWAS states was divided into maritime Zones E, F and G. Nigeria, Niger, Benin and Togo make up Zone E with the MMCC hosted by Benin. Zone F, which includes Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have their MMCC in Accra, Ghana. While that of Zone G, which groups together Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal is in Cabo Verde.

Thursday’s gathering in Accra was against the backdrop of the Protocol which established the Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC) also for Zone F, which was signed on the 31st of July 2018 in Lomé, Togo by the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS. The signed MoU entails the needed collaboration, coordination and the pooling of resources for collective security in Zone F Maritime Domain and to enhance the work of the existing MMCC.

All MMCCs covering the Gulf of Guinea will serve to coordinate joint patrols, naval drills, training programmes and intelligence sharing among the naval forces. While operational information will be relayed to the Inter-regional Coordinating Center in Yaounde Cameroon, which is ECOWAS’ central maritime security intelligence fusion cell.

National problem, regional consequence

The operationalisation of the MMCCs and growing regional and international cooperation makes it clear that ECOWAS is taking decisive steps to combat criminal activities in its maritime domain.  However, it is important to point out that the criminality plaguing the Gulf of Guinea is not simply a security issue at sea, but a secondary product of state failure and bad governance. As such, poorly handled national problems casting a shadow over the region.

Zone E, which includes Nigeria’s maritime territory is considered the hotbed of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The concentration of criminal activities in Zone E can not be separated from the history of militancy in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta region.

Dr. Kamal-Deen Ali, executive director for the Center for Maritime Law and Security Africa, says piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a complex and evolving threat. He links today’s piracy around West Africa to Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where the economic and environmental impacts of oil production have sparked violence. Some of those who fought against the government and oil companies in the area were granted amnesty and put down their arms, Ali said, while others who were left out, refined their piracy skills. 

Nonetheless, other factors such as favourable geography, legal and jurisdictional weakness, underfunded law enforcement, inadequate security are common to all countries. Tellingly, it would be disingenuous to think that ECOWAS’ integrated strategy will suffice in properly addressing the regional maritime security problems without individual countries getting their affairs in order. The root causes of youth restiveness and militancy have to be dealt with at the national level.

Countries also have to increase their material resources in terms of naval assets, communication equipment and maritime aviation capabilities to complement efforts made at the regional level to overcome maritime security challenges.

The importance of the international community and global maritime industry leaders in combating criminality in the Gulf of Guinea cannot be overemphasised.  Some countries have demonstrated their commitment towards improving maritime security in the ECOWAS region by donating communication equipment, writing of strategies, training courses and simulation exercises. However, this assistance should be upgraded to more comprehensive long term partnerships that focus on capacity building.

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