Johannesburg — The African Union's (AU) deadline for securing the continent's territorial waters - the world's last major geographical region without a maritime strategy - has been set at 2050, a target that may prove untenable.
Without a comprehensive strategy to police, patrol and promote the maritime economy and resources along its 42,000km coastline, Africa loses billions of dollars in revenue annually and leaves itself vulnerable to myriad criminal activities.
"Africa remains the continent that suffers most from illegal and unregulated fishing, maritime terrorism, piracy and armed robbery at sea, poor legal and regulatory maritime regimes, illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking, a lack of effective communication and other technological maritime requirements, and last but not least, unsuitable ships and ports," Annette Leijenaar, Head of the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a Pretoria-based think tank, said in a recent policy brief titled Africa Should Wake up to the Importance of an Integrated Maritime Strategy.
A meeting on the Africa Integrated Maritime (AIM) strategy was held earlier this month in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Leijenaar told IRIN, "It is the right direction, however, action is required through implementable plans that are well coordinated and have the political commitment of African leaders." The AU will also address management of riverine systems, dams and wetlands.
"Like the rest of the world, more than 90 percent of Africa's imports and exports are carried by sea. If one includes the illegal market in military arms and logged forest products, Africa has a maritime economy estimated at US$1 trillion a year, representing 90 percent of its overall commerce," the policy brief said.
Of Africa's 54 states, 38 are either coastal or island nations. Johan Potgieter, a former captain in the South African navy and senior ISS security sector researcher - referring to neglect of maritime opportunities and risks - told IRIN, "Sea blindness is our [Africa's] biggest threat."
Some 70 percent of the continent's rapidly growing population - which currently stands at over one billion people - depend on fish, both inland and coastal, for protein, highlighting the importance of policing and managing the continent's territorial waters.
"I said to a politician, don't look at what it's going to costs you to run a navy. You need to say, 'What is it going to cost me to feed this population when there is no more fish? Where I am going to get the food from?'" Potgieter said.
An October report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, Pirate Fishing Exposed: The Fight Against Illegal Fishing in West Africa and the EU [European Union], observed, "Global losses due to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) or 'pirate fishing' are estimated to be between $10 billion and $23.5 billion per year. West African waters are estimated to have the highest levels of IUU fishing in the world, representing up to 37 percent of the region's catch."
Foreign trawlers have been known to illegally haul up hundreds of tons of fish per day for export to Europe, while local fishermen's catch is typically limited to what they can bring up with 8m-long pirogues.
Anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa in 2011 cost an estimated $6.9 billion, or about two-thirds the annual GDP of Madagascar, an island country that has no naval capacity to speak of.
Potgieter said the relative success of anti-piracy operations off East Africa is having a "balloon effect of pushing the pirates further and further away [to], we suspect, the east coast of Madagascar, [which] is fairly unpopulated, and the pirates will find a safe haven there to set up bases."
Building and maintaining a navy is both a costly and politically fraught exercise. Navies operate out of the sight of the electorate and are easily used by opposition parties in "guns versus butter" debates. Additionally, the procurement of defence systems in Africa has been mired in corruption issues. The price of a naval vessel can start in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and keeping ships on operational duties often requires a compliment of three. The annual running cost for three 80m British Royal Navy patrol vessels is $32 million.
Helmut Heitman, a defence analyst and correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly, told IRIN that Mozambique does not have a naval capacity. The "Comoros has nothing. On the west coast [of Africa], there is very little."
But increasing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has prompted several countries to acquire patrol vessels in a piecemeal fashion to bolster maritime capacity. Nigeria's navy has requested the procurement of 49 ships and 42 helicopters over the next decade. Earlier this year, the country commissioned its first locally built 31m patrol craft, the NNS Andoni.
Neighbouring Ghana acquired two former German Navy fast attack crafts in July, after commissioning four new Chinese patrol boats earlier in the year. Namibia brought in a 100m refurbished Chinese patrol vessel earlier this year, adding to a naval compliment that includes harbour and inshore patrol boats.
There is also a growing trend towards aerial reconnaissance over the ocean, especially in West Africa, with Ghana and Nigeria acquiring aircraft for monitoring and addressing piracy.
Heitman said, "It's not just about buying ships. It takes three generations of officers to build up a competent navy. So 30 years [the 2050 AIM goal] is a reasonable timeframe. [However,] a ship without an aircraft is pointless. An aircraft without a ship is also pointless."
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, is also finding greater currency as an option for policing territorial waters. Potgieter said, "You don't need a warship to fight a pirate... If you use a drone, you can have 18 to 24 hours of flight time. But it is not necessarily cheap." The price tags for drones range from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars.
"But you still have to send a boat out to make the arrest, and this is where the problem starts. If we detect something on the other side of Madagascar - collaboration becomes important - and maybe the French are better suited to help... But we have to start talking to one another," he said.
Developing coastal security is one step toward protecting continental waters. Creating the required legislation for individual AU members states to cooperate on a continental level presents another set of time-consuming complications.
"Maritime security and policing management is an inter-departmental/agency function that is extremely difficult to coordinate and achieve. Among other [issues], it requires good governance, an industrial infrastructure, technological competence, effective information-sharing mechanisms and political commitment. Few African countries, if any, meet these requirements," the ISS policy brief said.
Leijenaar said developing a domestic maritime strategy involves numerous government departments, from environmental affairs to tourism and defence, and these ministry's first have to be aligned at a country level, then at a regional level and finally at the continental level.
Each country has to sift through memoranda of understanding and protocols signed by each department and then change conflicting legislation, "a small task that can take five to ten years," Potgieter said. "Then [to] get it through [each country's] parliament - some of these things will take you ten years."
And that's before countries can begin to address the issue of "hot pursuit" through neighbouring territorial waters. "Most countries will still not allow your ships to go through their waters unless you have permission in advance," Potgieter said.
"The importance of assuming collective responsibility for Africa's maritime domain (ADM) is essential - within national governments, regions and Africa," he said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]