Africa’s Maritime Domain: Can the Regional States Ensure a Stable Regime in the Indian Ocean Region?

by P.V. Rao

The unstable and fragile political regimes of many of the African littoral countries in the Indian Ocean Region compound the problems of managing their maritime domains. Maritime criminal and illegal operations are confined not only to the coastal states but also to the island states of the continent. The inability of these states to combat the threats regularly posed by maritime non-state actors has resulted in the enormous naval militarisation of the African waters by foreign naval forces, Western and non-Western. How far and how long the states of the region should depend on foreign countries for ensuring the safety of their coastal zones will also determine the level of independence that these states will retain to keep their maritime wealth and domain under their sovereign control.


Maritime Crime

Africa’s maritime profile bears certain unique features which are different from those of other regions. The continent is flanked by a quadrilateral maritime belt, if one counts the Suez water linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Out of the fifty three states of Africa only fifteen are land-locked states and a little above 70% share seas waters around, thus leaving the many littoral states depend heavily on the maritime economy. Therefore, any natural or human intervention that disturbs the ocean’s ecology and security has adverse bearing on the livelihood of the African coastal people. And contemporary African littorals are already victims of such maritime threats engineered mostly by non-state agents like pirates, poachers and terrorist outfits. Fragile and weak coastal regimes are unable to combat these threats. In short, African states are unable to individually or collectively ensure a stable maritime order and governance in their maritime domain.

In the Indian Ocean Region, collective regional arrangements to ensure thus a stable maritime regime is imperative, and there are already some in place such as the Arusha Resolution on Integrated Coastal management (1993) or the Djibouti Code of Conduct (2009). Yet, poor political will, regional rivalries, weak maritime security capabilities, etc. have made the regional maritime agencies unable to protect their sea-based interested and economies. Their inability to combat the chronic threats has resulted in the enormous naval militarisation of the African waters by foreign naval forces, western and non-western.

Vessels violating international shipping regulations and indulged in criminal acts such as illicit arms trade, hazardous material, nuclear smuggling and drugs would change their flags, log books and perhaps even personnel at their ports of convenience serviced by African coastal states. African state officials in collusion with maritime criminal networks are said to be providing transit facilities to such vessels which would carry onward movement, in altered shape and status, with questionable cargos to other Indian Ocean destinations or groups with equally questionable credentials. One such criminal incident involved was a Ukrainian ship found ferrying military equipment including tanks, which was captured by pirates off the Somali coast in October 2008. Kenya claimed that the tanks were meant for her security forces, but western diplomats serving the region disputed the Kenyan contention. The lethal consignment on the ship was in fact destined for South Sudan and not Kenya.

Maritime criminals operating in the Gulf of Aden regions have also expanded, under pressure from international naval counter-piracy missions, their activities to Madagascar, Maldives archipelago, the Seychelles and possibly other islands in this zone of the Indian Ocean Region. As a matter of fact, the island of the Seychelles has been turned into a hub for Indian Ocean maritime fugitives, illegal fishing and pirate agents. If one goes by a recent litigation, Mahe appears to be fighting in against illegal fishing. The case involved a submission filed by the government of Seychelles in defence of a Seychelles-registered ship owner at the International Maritime Tribunal, Hamburg, in 2009 against France which demanded compensation for alleged illegal fishing in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories called TAAF.


Militarization and Sovereignty

The unsafe ocean spaces of the African continent and the incompetence of the coastal states to combat the vibrant maritime threats, in particular piracy, has resulted in new and hitherto unpractised strategies of managing the troubled waters. Extra-regional naval forces have taken over these waters not always with the consent of the local sovereign coastal states. The entire continental maritime waters are virtually encircled by the western and non-western naval forces, in effect militarising the oceans surrounding Africa. The frequency and lethality of the non-state maritime actors has provided a strong rationale for the foreign powers to gain a naval permanency. Whether the heavy and sustained military presence of these powers fortifying maritime Africa is really warranted is a debatable matter.

African states are also yielding themselves once again into a highly dependent relationship with the foreign powers, the western powers in particular, this time to defend their coastlines against pirates. A no less important consequence of the maritime militarisation of Africa is that its littoral and island regimes are under heavy pressure from the competing naval powers in the Indian Ocean Region to acquire naval facilities such as surveillance, patrolling, missions and bases. Whether the African states in the coming decades will be able to retain their full sovereign control over their maritime domains and economies is a crucial issue of concern. Recent developments, such as the adaptation of the AU’s 2050 Africa’s Interrelated Maritime Strategy, indicate that African states are increasing their efforts to do so.


Literature and Further Reading

Brenthurst Foundation. 2010. “Maritime Development in Africa: an Independent Specialist’ Framework”. Discussion Paper 2010/03. Johannesburg.

Bueger, Christian. 2013. “Communities of Security Practice at Work? The Emerging African Maritime Security Regime”, African Security, 6 (3-4), 297–316 (Open Access!).

Rao, P.V. 2014.”Managing Africa’s Maritime domain: Issues and Challenges”. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 10 (1), 113-118.

Stockbruegger, Jan. 2014. Reclaiming the Maritime? The AU’s New Maritime Strategy, February 2nd 2014,

Vrey, Francois. 2013. “Turning the Tide: Revisiting African Maritime Security”. Scientia Militaria – Journal of Military Studies, 41 (2), 1–23 (Open Access!).


About the Author

Professor P.V. Rao is the editor of the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region and a visiting fellow at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad, Indian. He is also the former director of the Indian Ocean Centre at Osmania University, Hyderabad, India. He has been a Fulbright Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, a British Council Scholar at the London School of Economics and a Ford Foundation Fellow at the Bandarnaike Centre in Colombo. Professor P V Rao can be contacted at

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