Why ECOWAS Naval Chiefs Agree On Maritime Security

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ECOWAS Naval Chiefs
ECOWAS Naval Chiefs

By Akanimo Sampson

Naval chiefs in West Africa have upheld their commitment to the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS) as part of measures to secure the region’s maritime space and sections which provides for the establishment of Maritime Zones E, F and G as well as all the adopted Acts on maritime security.

Chiefs of Naval Staff of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone as well as the Chief of Coast Guard of Liberia and the High Commander of the National Gendarmerie of Burkina Faso have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for joint maritime operations in the ECOWAS maritime zone, on July 25, in Accra, Ghana.

The MoU signing ceremony which was witnessed by the ECOWAS Commission’s Commissioner for Political Affairs Peace and Security (PAPS) Gen Francis Behanzin, will provide among others, an important response to threats to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.

Majorly, the naval chiefs, coast guard and gendarmerie endorsed the Multilateral Agreement which established the Maritime Zone F and the Protocol which established the Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC) also for Zone F, which was signed on July 31, 2018 in Lomé, Togo by the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS.

The signed MoU entails the needed collaboration, coordination and the pooling of resources for collective security and safety of Zone F Maritime Domain to enhance the work of the existing MMCC as part of measures to galvanize the cumulative strengths of the member states through joint and combined maritime operations against criminality.

The initiatives of the states which is in aid of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), is critical to the emergence and sustainability of their “Blue Economy,” which covers different sectors including fisheries, tourism, transport, trade, offshore exploitation.

The communique released at the end of the meeting further said that the maritime security chiefs reaffirmed their commitment to the Yaoundé Process and their commitments relating to the prevention and repression of acts of piracy, armed robbery against ships and illicit maritime activities in West and Central Africa.

Before rising, they expressed their gratitude to the ECOWAS Commission, the United Nations office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Kingdom Government, Centre for Maritime laws Africa (CEMLAWS) among others for their support for the maritime security processes

ECOWAS Heads of States in conjunction with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) had adopted the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and MoU at their summit in June 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon which also established a new Inter-Regional Architecture composed of five interconnected multi-national maritime Centres and 17 national maritime Operations Centres.

Though the Accra gathering was the first meeting by the naval chiefs the chiefs of coast guard and the chiefs of staff of ECOWAS national gendarmerie states in the maritime Zone F, the meeting was also attended by Ambassadors of the concerned countries and partners as well as Directors and representatives of relevant agencies and institutions.

However, going by the findings of a global research network, the International Growth Centre (IGC) of London, for every $120 million seized by pirates in Somalia for instance, the cost to the shipping industry and the end consumer is around $3.3 billion. According to the London-based Centre, this money is enough to employ well over a million Somalis for a whole year.

This clearly tends to underscore the enormity of the problem of piracy to the economics of Africa, and explains why the naval chiefs and all others are rallying to contain the scourge. Before now, piracy has always posed a particular problem because of the difficulty of securing international agreement over whose responsibility it is to deal with the problem and how the costs are shared.

For centuries, piracy has posed a threat to trade at sea. The threat appears to be worse in West Africa. The region recorded an alarming increase in pirate attacks from 54 incidents in 2015 to 112 in 2018. Last year, there were several cases of hijacking for cargo theft, hijacking to ransom ship and crew, kidnap for ransom, and armed robberies on vessels as well as a combination of all of the above.

In total, there were 60 failed reported attacks, 18 kidnapping cases, 15 armed robberies, nine robberies, five hijackings and kidnapping. Most of these incidents were recorded in Brass (Bayelsa), Bonny (Rivers), Lagos, all in Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Congo, and Cameroon. The number of seafarers affected by piracy and armed robbery also went up last year. It increased from 1,726 in 2017 to 2,012, 15 percent. These seafarers were exposed to violent piracy, robbery cases involving the use of guns, knives and machetes.

As a result of these incidents, the Gulf of Guinea has become the area most affected by piracy and maritime robbery worldwide in 2018. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the Gulf of Guinea is the most dangerous stretch of sea for pirate attacks in the world. The IMB said 62 seafarers were taken hostage or abducted in the area in the first half of 2019, accounting for 73 percent of kidnappings and 92 percent of hostage-takings at sea worldwide.

“For the most part, Nigerian pirate groups are responsible for the attacks on vessels in the wider Gulf of Guinea. Nigerian pirate groups operate and find safe haven in the Niger Delta, with several kidnapped crew members being held in captivity in the delta in 2018. Crew from the Anuket Amber, Ark Tze, FWN Rapide, and the Pomerenia Sky, 20 among others, were held captive in the delta during 2018,’’ IMB stated.

The report cited several reasons for the increase in attacks on shipping on high seas in West Africa. They are: Poverty, political instability, lack of proper law enforcement, a lot of targets, increase in “petro-piracy,’’ which is when vessels carrying oil and gas transportation are targeted. Nigeria’s rich oil and gas fields saw the most attacks in 2018, and the falling number of attacks elsewhere - The rates of piracy attacks has gone down in other notorious parts like the Somali coastline. This downward trend has helped West Africa become the world’s new piracy hotspot.

The high rate of piracy attacks in West Africa is being fought with the Obangame Express, ‘’an annual multinational exercise designed to strengthen maritime security and cooperation, information sharing, and maritime domain awareness in the Gulf of Guinea.’’  There is also the newly approved Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bill, which got President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent on June 24, 2019.

For the Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dakuku Peterside, “This is not just a victory for NIMASA, but also for all the stakeholders in the Nigerian maritime community. We are determined to continue to deliver on our promise to investors and the international community to ensure an increasingly safer and more secure environment for profitable maritime business.’’

Earlier in July, a group of ten Turkish sailors were kidnapped by alleged pirates off the coast of Nigeria. “The threats to maritime security and safety transcend borders and have the propensity to affect international trade hence a threat to one coastal nation is a threat to all nations; coastal or landlocked. The sea is the super highway for global trade and Africa’s quest for a Continental Free Trade Area cannot be successful without a secured maritime domain,” Ghana’s minister for defence Dominic Nitiwul told a major maritime conference in Accra.

The two-day gathering in the Ghanaian capital — which included a delegation from the US navy — also focused on illegal fishing, oil thefts, and human and drug trafficking.

“Today piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea continue to pose a significant threat to regional and international shipping. Threats including illegal oil bunkering, kidnapping for ransom, illegal fishing and drug trafficking are common across our oceans, transnational crimes not only threaten national peace and stability they also come at great cost to the economies’’, Ghana’s navy head Seth Amoama said.

African nations last month officially launched a landmark trade agreement, hailed as a historic step towards bolstering commerce across the continent.

A report by IMB, a London-based organisation that tracks attacks on sea vessels, that Nigerian waters are still risky for vessels, has helped in  jerking the obviously jolted Federal Government under President Buhari’s watch into action. With 30 incidents so far recorded this year, the Gulf of Guinea is still widely regarded as the world’s most pirate-infested sea.

Max Williams of Africa Risk Compliance (ARC), a security consultancy, has been quoted as saying that piracy remains chronically under-recorded apparently because ship-owners fear that their vessels will be held up at port during investigations. Williams’ security firm however, estimates that the real number of attacks last year was double the 72 figure IMB reported.

Wikipedia however, defines the Gulf of Guinea as the northeastern most part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean between Cape Lopez in Gabon, north and west to Cape Palmas in Liberia. The intersection of the Equator and Prime Meridian (zero degrees latitude and longitude) is in the gulf.  Among the many rivers that drain into the Gulf of Guinea are the Niger and the Volta. The coastline on the gulf includes the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Bonny.

The region is said to account for all the crew kidnappings reported globally in the three months, after 21 of them were taken in five separate attacks, the IMB said. Incidents were reported off the coast of Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo in the first quarter, it said.

Piracy attacks off Nigeria’s coast however, fell to 14 in the first quarter from 22 a year ago after the Nigerian Navy improved its response to incidents, IMB said. “These results confirm the navy’s increased efforts to actively respond to reported incidents by dispatching patrol boats’’, the London-based body said, adding, “Despite these efforts, Nigerian waters remain risky for vessels, especially the port of Lagos where four incidents have been reported.’’

In a seeming frantic bid to tackle the scourge, President Buhari has signed into law an anti-piracy bill to improve security on the “risky’’ Nigeria waterways and exclusive economic zone, NIMASA said, pointing out that the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences legislation will “ensure safe and secure shipping on Nigerian waters, prosecute infractions, and criminalise piracy.’’

In a statement NIMASA Director-General, Dakuku Peterside, said, “We are determined to continue to deliver on our promise to investors and the international community to ensure an increasingly safer and more secure environment for profitable maritime business.’’

Nigeria has been a hot spot for piracy incidents over the last 10 years, even though she dropped in the first quarter of this year, according to the IMB. The Bureau in its first quarter report rang a warning bell, “Nigerian waters remain risky for vessels.’’

The new law provides penalties upon conviction for maritime crimes, restitution to owners of violated maritime assets or forfeiture of proceeds of maritime crimes to the government.

While naval chiefs in West Africa are under intense heat to crush the menace of piracy that is threatening plans to bolster regional trade among member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Dele Ezeoba, a retired Rear Admiral, at a Strategy Group Meeting of the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, unequivocally indicted maritime operators for most of the reported cases of piracy in the country.

He said that nine of 10 reported cases of piracy in the country’s waters had an insider information. The News Agency of Nigeria reported that the ex-naval chief is pushing for a well articulated security, communication and enhanced welfare of the crew of vessels and standard global practices to improve professionalism. According to him, there was need to renew the waterways for safe passage and ensure good navigation all year round. He said that there should be availability of integrated communication system which would allow for local and prompt reporting of incidences at sea.

“If a ship in our waters has an accident, the first place that gets a message is IMB in Singapore and the IMB will now call Lagos. What could have become a simple misunderstanding between two people is translated to piracy and that has consequential effect on the cost of doing business in Nigeria.

“To stop the issue of piracy in Nigeria, we need to improve safety awareness by seafarers. From experience, we have come to realise that no thief will go to steal in a place he doesn’t know,’’ Ezeoba said, adding that Nigerian security agencies, including NIMASA, had synergies in improving the security operations on the waterways through surveillance, response initiative and enforcement.

The meeting was however, organised by the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping to facilitate the Ease of Doing Business in Nigerian Ports in Lagos.