Introduction

For the past two decades, reports on the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) have been at the forefront of global news. The focus of these reports has not been on its abundant natural resources, which are highly coveted, or its increasingly strategic status as a maritime trade route. Instead, the reports have been on the rise of maritime insecurity in the region. While the Gulf of Guinea is not “the most dangerous maritime zone in the world,”1 it remains an area where the scale of threats is an increased cause for concern. The growing vulnerability of this region, against a backdrop of booming oil and international shipping, has fueled a consensus around securing the region against maritime threats and related risks. States, regional communities, and international institutions have devised multiple initiatives to secure the maritime zone. A closer look at the strategies deployed, however, reveals duplications, overlaps, interference, conflicts of interest, and even competition between various stakeholders, all of which point to an uncoordinated and rather counter-productive approach towards combating maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. Through an analysis of the policies and actions of various actors involved in combating maritime insecurity, this study examines the challenges facing the Gulf of Guinea and proposes recommendations for concerted and effective action.

    1. Navigating the Waters: Challenges in Securing the Gulf of Guinea

The rising rate of maritime piracy has made the coastal states of the Gulf of Guinea prioritize the issue of securing their maritime region. Based on a strategic and utilitarian vision of the ocean, these states have struggled to build a real maritime identity. The relatively poor conditions imposed on national navies, compared to the better resourced national armies in Africa, has been long reflected in the tilted balance of military power. The trend has been gradually reversed since 2007. In response to an upsurge in attacks on ships and kidnappings, the coastal states of the Gulf of Guinea implemented various measures, such as providing national navies with more equipment and weapons, stepping up maritime patrols, setting up maritime surveillance zones, and building a legal and institutional framework for state action at sea. Since 2013, these initiatives have been strengthened by the construction of integrated maritime strategies on a national level.

With this in mind, Côte d’Ivoire set up an institutional framework that comprises four levels: a strategic level steered by the National Safety Council (CNS); a coordination, implementation, and monitoring/evaluation level comprising three main bodies: the Prime Minister, the Interministerial Committee and the Permanent Secretariat; an operational level steered by the main Maritime Operations Center; and a sectoral level comprising all services involved at sea. Despite these advances, there is still a lack of inter-administrative collaboration or even the creation of a genuine platform dedicated to this purpose, as in the case of the General Delegation for the sea2 in Cameroon. The creation of such a structure was recommended at the Yaoundé Summit3, which is closely in line with the 2007 decrees strengthening the action of the State at Sea and the text from the Prime Minister of Cameroon instructing the setting up of a national committee for the facilitation of international maritime traffic (FAL Committee).

The fight against maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea also reveals ambiguity between the actors involved. In Cameroon, two forces coexist and embody the secular arm of the State at Sea: the national navy and the BIR-Delta. While the latter force was particularly effective in the early days of the fight against maritime piracy, the second force was distinguished by its active (and even more effective action). However, the coexistence of these two forces poses a problem due to the duplication of missions.

    1. Regional Complexities in the Fight against Maritime Insecurity

The states of the Gulf of Guinea took steps to combat maritime insecurity and develop a blue economy within the framework of what is known as the Yaoundé Architecture. This collective policy response was the fruit of a long and complex cooperation process carried out between 2009 and 2013 by 26 states.

The Yaoundé Process has been highly applauded on the international arena. Commentators praised it as an unprecedented initiative that could serve as an embryo for regional integration by sea. However, ten years later, people are more skeptical, and the Yaoundé Architecture is at the heart of a heated debate. Critics point to the intrinsic limits of inter-regional cooperation in the Gulf of Guinea.4 While they insist on the need to reform the Yaoundé Process, the question of leadership has not been addressed. Who should take the lead in combating maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea? This is a pressing question at a time when the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU)) is inviting itself into the debate on maritime safety. The institutional competition between the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) and the Maritime Organization for West and Central Africa (MOWCA) attest to the fact that the field of maritime security is still fairly fragmented. Competing regional initiatives characterize the battle for peace dividends. This is exacerbated by foreign intervention, which plays a significant role in the current conflicts.

Drawing upon insights garnered from conducting field-based research, international stakeholders are often accused of interference, and promoting their own agendas by marginalizing regional institutions. This observation has raised the question: who defines security policies in Africa? J. Herpolsheimer puts it so well: “The whole evolution of maritime security efforts and initiatives in the Gulf of Guinea cannot be understood without the involvement of international actors, such as France and the US, who have actively sought to influence processes of (re-) spatialization in the region(s).”5

The United States, France, Great Britain and China, to name but a few, are major actors in maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. The United States, for example, is the fundamental pillar of inter-regional cooperation. Under their impetus, the first rapprochements between ECCAS and ECOWAS took place in 2011. The two institutions were invited to reflect, with the support of the African Union (AU), on the possibilities for collaboration. This request met with a positive response from the three institutions, which held a series of meetings to establish a framework for their cooperation. These exchanges were also financed by the United States.

However, during these meetings, the United States reportedly insisted that only maritime piracy should be discussed. China, for its part, refused to allow attention to be focused on illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. From this perspective, the relevance of the structures put in place could be questioned. Clearly, in an environment where African states are still struggling to build a holistic vision of the sea, the structures set up with the support of foreign actors are becoming instruments of projection for powers driven by a desire to secure their competing national and economic interests. This trend has served to reinforce the balkanization and domination of the African continent.

    1. Enhancing Security in the Gulf of Guinea: Recommendations for Concerted Action

In the fight against maritime insecurity, states are the cornerstone of any strategy. National maritime strategies therefore need to be clear, precise and unambiguous. This is why coordination structures and processes, whether already in place or still to be set up (as in the case of Cameroon), need to specify the roles and responsibilities of the various actors involved.

In this respect, the more elaborate Ghanaian model could provide some food for thought. Ghana has set up a simplified national maritime strategy that clearly specifies the roles and missions of each actor in the maritime chain. The habit of working together can only be acquired by setting up strong independent structures, freed from all political considerations and driven by a vision of state action at sea. There is a close correlation between the defense and security issues arising from maritime insecurity. This correlation calls for some improvements, which will make the Navy versatile and able to switch from maritime defense missions to safety missions. The implementation of these various measures will enable a better rationalization of resources and the construction of a clear maritime vision for greater independence of states.

The reform of the Yaoundé Architecture is  currently a crucial challenge for overcoming the limitations of regional cooperation in maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. The reform, which must be inclusive, should focus on clarifying the responsibilities of the various organizations and institutions involved in the Yaoundé architecture. This would involve a careful assessment of existing structures, decision-making processes, and coordination mechanisms to identify gaps and overlaps.

There is also an important need for the Gulf of Guinea states to build real strategic autonomy. International actors certainly provide valuable expertise and tools, but it must be understood that the security of the Gulf of Guinea countries is not their primary objective. That is why it is necessary to build strategic and naval intelligence that takes into account national and intra-regional capabilities to address the challenges on the ground. Furthermore, coastal states must transcend their narrow focus on national sovereignty to set up a genuine basis for regional integration and collective strategies for securing the Gulf of Guinea.

Conclusion

The fight against maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea faces complex challenges. For an effective securing of the Gulf of Guinea, it is imperative that states develop a coherent collective maritime vision, strengthen their capabilities, build strategic and naval intelligence for greater independence, and strive for a more harmonious regional integration. Faced with the geopolitical challenges unfolding in the Gulf of Guinea, only innovative thinking and concerted action with help of Gulf of Guinea states effectively tackle these emerging maritime challenges and ensure stability and prosperity in the region.

 

Endnotes

  1. MICA Center, Annual Report (2020), 14.
  2. The General Delegation for the Sea is the coordinating body responsible for directing state action at sea and on navigable waterways. Established by Decree N° 2007/290 of November 1, 2007, it, along with the National Committee for the Sea and the Maritime Conference, constitutes the state action bodies at sea at the national level.
  3. In June 2013, the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC), convened in Yaoundé, Cameroon, to establish  a common regional strategy for the prevention and suppression of illicit acts within the maritime domain of the Gulf of Guinea. The Yaoundé Summit culminated in the signing of three key instruments : the Code of Conduct, the Declaration of Heads of State and Government, and the Memorandum of Understanding between the regional organizations. This compendium of instruments inspired the development of the Yaoundé Architecture.
  4. For more detailed and in-depth analysis of the Yaoundé process, read : Okafor-Yarwood, Ifesinachi, and Pigeon, Maise. Stable seas : Gulf of Guinea. Technical Report, 2020.  Tisseron, Antonin. “Lutte contre la piraterie dans le Golfe de Guinée. L’Architecture de Yaoundé : Dix après, au milieu du gué.” Étude 104, IRSEM (2023).
  5. Jens Herpolsheimer, “Transregional conflicts and the re-spatialization of regions « at sea » : the Yaoundé process in the Gulf of Guinea,” Comparativ, Vol. 28, n°6 (2018) : 77, https://doi-org/10.26014/j.cop.2018.06.04.
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