A Human Security Approach to Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea

By Dr. Ian M. Ralby

The Gulf of Guinea – the coastal portion of West and Central Africa – is one of the most dynamic regions of the world in terms of both maritime criminal activity, and proactive efforts to counter maritime crime. The waters of the Gulf are plagued by a wide array of challenging threats including piracy, armed robbery at sea, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, trafficking of all sorts, dumping and other environmental crimes, and oil theft. But maritime crime is not a new phenomenon in that part of the world. The first ever resolution by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that addressed piracy was in 1983, focused on West and Central Africa, and since 2012, the Gulf of Guinea has eclipsed the Horn of Africa as the principal area of concern for seafarers and vessels engaged in legitimate maritime commerce. As complex as the threat picture is, however, the approach to addressing maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea may prove to be a model that other parts of the world emulate. Rather than focusing solely on the symptoms of insecurity, the national, regional and international actors have sought to holistically tackle the root causes of insecurity, promoting both freedom from fear and freedom from want. Interdiction of illicit maritime activity on the water remains a key element, but the states recognize that simply stamping out the “bad” is not sustainable. They must, at the same time, seek to improve governance and create “good” alternatives to maritime criminality by enhancing human security on land and at sea in tandem. Remarkably, however, they have gone further than just making human security principles a part of their policy; the 25 states of the Gulf of Guinea have taken affirmative steps to legally bind themselves to a human security approach to maritime security. While realizing this legal framework poses ongoing challenges, it continues to evolve toward becoming an operational reality.

Africa is a continent completely surrounded by water. Since the end of colonialism, however, most coastal states have suffered from what has been termed “sea blindness.” In other words, with pressing concerns about development and governance on land, the littoral states have largely ignored their maritime territory. Over the last decade, however, coastal, island and archipelagic states, in part thanks to the harm to their economy caused by maritime crime, have begun to overcome their sea blindness. Navies, coast guards and maritime police throughout the region have greatly increased their capacity, and political will has been directed toward maritime initiatives. But as law enforcement efforts have improved, so have the criminal modalities. In the first half of 2016, the region saw a dramatic increase in piracy targeted at kidnap for ransom, signaling a new phase of maritime threats. Even amid this change in the operational environment, however, the states continue to take steps toward binding themselves to a human security approach to maritime security.

The concept of human security is grounded in the notion that the security needs of the people are different from the security needs of the state, and therefore need to be addressed directly. As US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr. famously said at the creation of the UN:

“The battle of peace has to be fought on two fronts. The first is the security front where victory spells freedom from fear. The second is the economic and social front where victory means freedom from want. Only victory on both fronts can assure the world of an enduring peace.”

This dual notion of freedom from fear and freedom from want is at the heart of current maritime security efforts in West and Central Africa.

The relationship between human security and maritime security has received relatively little treatment in academic literature, but as Bueger writes, “human security has…several maritime dimensions, which stretch from the security of seafarers to the vulnerability of coastal populations to maritime threats more broadly.” Turning specifically to Africa, Gilpin argues that the maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea “undermine economic activity, hinder the movement of goods and services, and make it difficult for these countries to attain their development goals.” In other words, the maritime security problems and the insecurity born of underdevelopment on land exist in a symbiotic relationship.

It is against this backdrop of maritime threats and development challenges that 25 heads of state[1] came together in June 2013 to produce the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a document that specifically anchors itself in notions of peace, security, disarmament, development, poverty eradication, and environmental protection. While the Code is focused on maritime insecurity, it advocates a whole-of-government approach to addressing such maritime threats. In other words, the Code is as applicable to legislators, prosecutors, and ministries of finance and tax, as it is to the coast guard or navy. This inter-ministerial approach to maritime security is, functionally, a human security approach, as it not only seeks to tackle the physical security matters, but addresses the legal, institutional, economic and societal conditions that can sustainably reduce the impetus for illicit activity. The fact that the 25 states have sought to share in that process collectively is noteworthy, but even more significant is that they have committed to eventually turning the voluntary Code into a legally binding instrument.

Now more than three years since the Code was signed, the effort to transform it into a binding multi-lateral legal agreement remains ongoing, but two of the region’s constituent maritime Zones have taken considerable steps towards making human security a legally binding objective for their own maritime security operations. On the one hand, Zone E[2] has developed an extensive legal agreement that is intended to guide cooperative operations on the water. Unfortunately, however, it is not yet operational. Zone D,[3] on the other hand, is a model that the world should look to for how states can cooperate to produce an effective human security approach to maritime security. Since 2009, Zone D has worked, subject to a simple Technical Accord, as a single unit to patrol the maritime domain of the four states collectively. By sharing their resources they have managed to limit the spread of criminality emanating from the Niger Delta into their waters and prove that joint law enforcement operations between neighboring states can help facilitate a collective improvement in maritime institutions. Indeed, Cameroon’s whole-of-government process for addressing maritime matters has become the benchmark for the region.

West and Central Africa will continue to face difficult challenges of all sorts for years to come, but the region’s approach to addressing recent maritime challenges deserves credit. The architecture of maritime security cooperation, in addition to being strategically ambitious, has been grounded in the notion that maritime security and development are inextricably connected. As Dean Gilpin wrote nearly a decade ago, “A shared investment in maritime security (which is a ‘public good’) would have far-reaching human security benefits, and positive global implications.” Today, as the states of the region continue to make such an investment, the early signs of positive returns are evident. In February 2016, the states of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and São Tomé and Príncipe, together with the US and France, participated to varying extents in the first cooperative effort of significant scale to successfully interdict the pirated tanker, Maximus. While the case also highlighted numerous areas for improvement, it is a success story in a region that desperately needs positive momentum on which to build. Now with that momentum, the Gulf of Guinea has the chance to proceed with developing a legally binding and operationally functional human security approach to maritime security.

[1] Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

[2] Comprised of Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo.

[3] Comprised of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Ian Ralby Headshot_Resized
Dr Ralby is an Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the US Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a ‘Key Opinion Former’ on Maritime Security at NATO and the CEO of his own consultancy, I.R. Consilium. He earned a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an M.A. in Intercultural Communication at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a JD at the College of William and Mary; and an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in Politics and International Studies at St. John’s College of the University of Cambridge.
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