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Eyes to Sea: What African States Truly Need

To sea, or not to sea? For many African States, that is the question. On a continent bedeviled by a shedload of land-centric concerns, advocating a seaward outlook is almost like screaming at a toddler to focus on their homework in the middle of a circus…a real one. You can hardly blame them for “failing” when the distractions are so difficult to ignore.

The continent has a full cardinal compass of insecurities and transnational governance concerns that are impossible to overlook. In northern Africa, the conflict in Ukraine has heightened food insecurity for economies already crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged droughts. In the west, an average of five large-scale civil wars and a series of military coups in the past decade have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and stalled socio-economic advancement at all levels.

East Africa? It has been described by the Center for Strategic and International Security Studies as “one of the most conflicted and poorly-governed corners of the world”. By March 2022, over half a million lives had been lost as a result of the war and related insecurities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia alone.

The central and southern parts of Africa are not left out of the continental chaos either. Conflict in the Central African Republic has led to unprecedented inflationary pressures and food insecurity, while several parts of southern Africa are typified by inequality, xenophobia and racism.

The land-based challenges are as permeating as they are complex, so it certainly seems prudent for African States to focus efforts on addressing them. Look a little closer though, and you will find that within the context of Africa, the ocean holds one of the greatest prospects for a win-win.

For one, Africa has the largest number of coastal countries, several of which are increasingly reliant on fisheries, not only as the primary source of animal protein, but also as a source of income. According to World Bank estimates, well over 12 million people depend on the sector for their livelihoods - a figure that is anticipated to sky-rocket to nearly 22 million by 2050. Again, despite being an ailing sector, fisheries directly contribute over $24 billion to the African economy annually.

That’s just one piece of the continent’s blue economy pie. There are other traditional blue economy sectors such as transportation or shipping, offshore exploration and tourism, as well as emerging sectors such as renewable energy. Together, these sectors are estimated to be worth $405 billion by 2030 - an amount capable of clearing more than 55% of the continent’s 2021 total external public debt value.

But it’s not just about the economic prospects. Whether it is oil in Nigeria, mineral resources in DR Congo or land in Zimbabwe, competition for natural resources has been one of the primary drivers of conflicts across the continent. Again, the ocean holds the answer! A well-managed ocean economy could contribute greatly to addressing Africa’s resource conflicts.

Consider the fact that the conflict in the Niger-Delta was largely as a result of pollution from oil exploration activities and the damage that this caused to the marine life and fisheries resources, which communities around the creek were so dependent on. Ultimately, the conflict escalated into the deepening situation of piracy and armed robbery at sea across the Gulf of Guinea, which for several years characterised it as the most dangerous region for seafarers. Again, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) along the coasts of West Africa has the tendency to destabilise fishing communities and result in conflicts. Likewise, it is linked to a broad range of other maritime transnational organised crimes in the region such as illegal trafficking of drugs and arms, each of which have contributed immensely to creating a conflict-prone West Africa.

Arguably then, just as poor management of the ocean space has the tendency to destabilise entire regions of the continent across all levels of security (national, economic, food, environmental and ultimately, human), so also effective maritime regulation and enforcement has increased prospects for contributing to sustainable peace and security for Africa. Africa’s 30,500km of coastline opens the continent up to a far more extensive resource wealth than ever envisaged. However, if the continent is ever to benefit from this potential, we need to shift our focus seaward. And we need to do so now.

In contrast to the raging, never-ending battle for resources on land, the calm of the ocean beckons a burdened continent into a new era of economic advancement…an era marked by a more sustainable relationship with our ocean planet. Added perk? The climate will thank us for it.

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