Bob Dewar
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Africa’s leaders must see their marine space as important for its economic potential, not just as a security threat.
Fishing boats in Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo by Getty Images.Africa’s coastlines are an under-exploited resource, which could enhance social and economic stability. Photo by Getty Images.

Reversing traditional ‘sea blindness’ is a no-brainer for African development; 70 per cent of African countries have coastlines, and even land-locked countries need safe seas for trade. Africa’s coastlines are an under-exploited resource, which could enhance social and economic stability. Higher per capita food supply from fish would reduce hunger and improve nutrition. Sustainable tourism could be developed, demanding healthy marine bio-diversity, which in turn requires the protection of more marine areas.

Encouragingly, the next African Union summit in Togo on 15 October signals a new ambition to move Africa’s maritime agenda beyond security. It complements the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goal 14, which challenges the world to act urgently to restore healthy, productive and resilient oceans and seas, and reflects the emphasis placed on the ‘blue economy’ by some of Africa’s coastal and island states. The AU has already highlighted these issues in both its Agenda 2063 and its 2050 Integrated Maritime Strategy, but the summit provides an inflection point: Africa’s governments now need to generate the political will to implement maritime development ideas effectively.

Strategic economic importance

To capitalize on the potential of the sea, coastlines need to be factored into development planning. Coastal communities in Africa bear the brunt of climate change and ocean acidification, and the focus of policy-makers in African governments does not always encompass those living on the peripheries. Overfishing and pollution can combine to push them into crisis, worsening the challenges of insecurity and migration.

There are nonetheless examples of innovative new thinking in Africa that could help the emergence of national ‘blue economies’ on the continent.

In the western Indian Ocean there is encouraging news about gross marine product and the asset base that underpins that. The ‘blue economy’ dimension is relatively new for policy-makers but some countries are showing the way with innovative financial experiments, such as Seychelles’ issue of a debt for marine conservation swap and its intention to issue a ‘blue bond’. Others are looking at tourism through a sustainable lens. For example, nine countries, including Senegal, Tanzania and Mozambique, supported by the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Programme, have been the focus of study on how to conserve eco-systems while reducing negative impacts from coastal tourism.

The African Union, African Development Bank and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa have all begun to look at ‘blue economy’ policy options and can help build coherent strategy models to assist regional and country planners.

If the oceans’ marine resources are to remain healthy, policy should aim at sustainability and generating benefit from ecosystem services, rather than focusing solely on extraction. This approach has been seized positively by island and coastal states like Kenya and Seychelles, which have seen success by integrating the ‘blue economy’ agenda into joined-up cross-governmental action.

Dual priorities

But other African countries seem to be waiting for evidence of impact on jobs and GDP before they act.  And even if the right policies are put in place, the development, safety and security of seas remain fundamentally a challenge of governance. Weak national capacities in providing effective law enforcement including coastguards, and weak compliance with international and national laws about boat registration, permits, fisheries and quotas undermine progress. Fisheries agreements with foreign governments can be a source of corruption. Few crimes in the maritime domain come to court in African countries.

Some of Africa’s regions have been putting more effort into tackling dangerous piracy, trafficking and illegal fishing in recent years. Important agreements for regional cooperation have been signed for East and West Africa. And low-cost collaboration between eight eastern African countries through the FISH-i Africa initiative is hitting illegal fishing operators, including those targeting tuna. But insecurity and crime remain an issue, including in the Gulf of Guinea.

The dual priorities of marine security and development should be pursued in concert. Local, national and international efforts towards a healthy, productive, sustainable ocean space will only succeed if basic security is guaranteed. And healthy, prosperous coastal communities can help mitigate security threats including piracy and illegal migration.

Thirty African heads of state are expected to attend the AU Extraordinary Summit on Maritime Security, Safety and Development in Lomé. These leaders must realize the urgency of a shift in strategic planning, to see the marine space as important for its economic potential, not just as an arena for countering security threats.

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