It is not surprising that African countries bordering the Indian Ocean see themselves as 'gateways' or entry points to the continent. The coastal towns and communities of South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique have for centuries had complex and dynamic cultural and economic links with their counterparts along the Indian Ocean Rim.
Today, with the global liberalisation of trade and investment, these countries increasingly seek to position themselves between Africa's interior and the broader world, and particularly the fast-growing economies in Asia.
These were some of the key points raised by Ambassador Martin Kimani, SAIIA's Distinguished African Visiting Fellow, during his Speaker's Meeting at SAIIA on 28 August 2013. His talk, entitled 'Bridging Africa and the Indian Ocean Rim', focused on the geopolitics that underpin the economic and security interests of Kenya vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean Rim.
He outlined the increasing percentage of global trade and traffic represented by Rim countries, with approximately 30% of the world's trade and 50% of the world's container traffic currently passing through the Indian Ocean.
Their geopolitical importance gains even greater impetus considering that some of the world's most important 'choke points' (such as the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandab, through which a large percentage of world energy shipments pass) are to be found in the Greater Indian Ocean.
Ambassador Kimani emphasized that the African members of the Indian Ocean Rim need to take advantage of their geographic position to benefit from the flood of investment and trade that has created such prosperity among their Asian and Middle Eastern counterparts.
Their ability to act as effective bridges between their landlocked neighbors, such as Uganda and Botswana, and the growing economies of the Rim will determine whether this becomes a story of success and growth, or one of failure.
For Ambassador Kimani, the significance of the growing economic might of Asian countries (such as China, India and the 'Tiger' economies) has meant new demand for African minerals and hydrocarbons, as well as new markets and investment sources.
To link their geographic advantages to these opportunities, African countries will need to be both ambitious and strategic. Critically, he argued, they will need to become more competitive in terms of offering themselves as viable locations for greater value addition, particularly in regard to the mineral, oil and gas, and service sectors.
Landlocked and coastal states also need to acknowledge their reciprocal relationship, as the economic and infrastructural development of one state necessarily affects the other. The creation of a clear African political and economic Indian Ocean strategy needs to be inclusive and serve the interests of the region as a whole.
The story of Africa's participation in the Indian Ocean will not be limited to trade and investment, Ambassador Kimani noted. The Rim is also politically volatile, with strong linkages both culturally and in terms of the movement of people meaning that violent political movements can rapidly sweep through the region.
The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, for instance, notes that 42% of the world's conflicts could be associated with Rim countries. Although the causes of these conflicts may vary, many are associated with high levels of poverty and corruption, weak institutions, competition over scarce or non-renewable resources, and above all, weak or failed states not only in coastal countries, but landlocked ones as well.
One of the security issues that has garnered much attention has been piracy, particularly in regard to the risks it presents to shipping and the strategic 'choke point' at Bab el Mandab. The pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden reveal some of the security dynamics that will need to be taken into account by African countries on the Rim. Their presence has been driven both by state failure and the operation of international criminal networks.
In response, countries have been required to work together to help Somalia build a viable state while an international naval presence works to deter pirates.
Kenya's 2011 military intervention in Somalia through Operation Linda Nchi was multi-dimensional, in that it sought to halt attacks on Kenyans by terrorists in Somalia while also securing the country's north in order to aid its economic strategies. That it was a regional operation, led by countries in East Africa, demonstrates the extent to which economic and security challenges and solutions are intertwined. This understanding will be key to allowing the African countries on the Rim to become significant players when it comes to trade and investment.
Ambassador Kimani concluded that for African coastal nations to become an effective bridge in economic and security terms between the vast opportunities of the Indian Ocean Rim and the developmental aspirations of Africa, strong regional direction and vision will be required from the continent's leaders.
Matshaba Mothiane is a SAIIA-KAS Scholar for 2013. She is currently studying for her Master's Degree in Politics at Wits University.