Geographies in Depth

How can Africa improve maritime security?

Timothy Walker
Researcher, ISS Pretoria
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Geographies in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Africa is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Africa’s colonial legacy forced countries on the continent to look inward and neglect their coastlines. This sea blindness has resulted in many missed opportunities for a continent on which 38 countries have a combined coastline of more than 26 000 nautical miles (47 000km).

Our lack of a broader maritime culture has, too often, concealed from African leaders the oceans’ importance to development. Africa’s seas should contribute to economic and environmental security, but are too often a story of stolen resources, drowning refugees and missed opportunities.

The consequences are astounding. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa approximately US$1 billion a year in lost revenue. Somalia-based piracy cost an estimated US$7 billion in 2011. And it is estimated that 50-60 tons of cocaine move through West Africa to Europe annually.

Yet states on all coasts of Africa depend on a secure sea. More than 90% of Africa’s trade is seaborne, fishing contributes to food security for more than 200 million Africans, and vast oil and gas potential lies off the coast.

Most African countries lack policies for ocean governance. Only five countries in Africa currently have dedicated coast guards, though many navies effectively conduct coast guard operations. The lack of extensive maritime air surveillance and satellite imagery makes it almost impossible for African countries to effectively monitor their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

The consequences are damaging coastal communities and states as a whole, and fuel global security problems. While piracy around the Horn of Africa is declining, seafarers are still at risk and many remain in captivity. And Somali pirates haven’t gone away: they are just doing other illegal business.

Maritime crime is increasing in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea that stretches from Angola to Ghana, including piracy, people and drug smuggling, and arms trafficking. This fuels onshore instability. Illegal waste dumping, infrastructure maintenance and port security also constitute major concerns for Africa’s oceans. Additional threats come from boundary disputes and potential conflict over resources.

Africa’s marine environment is globally significant too, as a great deal of international shipping passes through our seas. Maritime schedules are worked out years in advance, so even a single incident of piracy, or the failure of just one port to prevent armed robbery, spreads ripples through the global economy.

Fortunately, African states and international organisations are paying increasing attention to maritime security. No African country can secure its maritime domain alone, however. The seas are huge. It’s a fantasy to imagine that any country can secure its maritime domain alone; not even the United States of America is capable of that kind of control over its waters. The seas don’t have fences, fish don’t respect borders, and oil and gas deposits tend to straddle multiple territories. Criminals can easily cross boundaries to evade capture.

So the best chance of overcoming challenges and creating prosperity is through international cooperation. The African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 sees the marine economy as a major contributor to growth, and the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIMS) recognises the vast wealth creation potential of Africa’s oceans, lakes and rivers. Adopted in January 2014, 2050 AIMS covers fishing, oil and gas, security, piracy, pollution, biodiversity, transport and harbours; and calls for marine education and development of an African ship-building industry.

The 2050 AIMS also looks to capacity building in marine defence, scientific research, tourism, fisheries, maintenance and building of harbours, and a pan-African shipping fleet.

There are a large number of national and regional maritime strategies. Those adopted by West African and southern African states are important building blocks which will contribute towards the effective implementation of 2050 AIMS. East Africa has a maritime strategy under development.

So, now we have strategies. But waving a strategy won’t protect our fish, stop pirates or build a maritime economy. Political will and resources are needed to make them a reality. Agreeing to the 2050 AIMS was a vital first step, but governments must now prioritise and deliver, assisted with strong leadership from the AU, and more investment in research, science and technology.

Naval capability in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is limited, and the SADC maritime strategy is confidential despite being adopted in 2011. So South Africa takes the lead until other navies can build capacity. There are already some moves in the right direction. South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania have worked closely together in Operation Copper, aiming to create maritime security in the Mozambique Channel by deterring attacks from Somali pirates.

Cooperation agreements have been signed to establish maritime domain awareness centres to share information in Mozambique and Tanzania, which could be linked with other centres in South Africa.

South Africa, Angola and Namibia are finalising an agreement on maritime cooperation, focusing on the Benguela current. Mozambique is spending €200 million on 30 patrol ships from France, and South African-built offshore patrol vessels should be ready by 2018. Yet many African maritime strategies seem more like wish lists than practical plans.

South Africa’s Operation Phakisa could contain valuable lessons for other African countries. Operation Phakisa aims to create wealth and development by exploiting the untapped bonanza of maritime resources. It includes detailed plans for four focal areas – marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture and marine protection, and ocean governance.

The announcement that nine billion barrels of oil and 11 billion barrels’ equivalent of natural gas lie within South Africa’s EEZ is attracting the greatest interest. However, making a profit in such a capital-intensive sector without creating environmental harm will not be easy. This has prompted the prominent role of the Department of Environmental Affairs in leading Operation Phakisa, which is reassuring.

President Jacob Zuma has said these maritime initiatives could see South Africa attaining a 5% growth target by 2019, create approximately one million maritime-related jobs, and add R177 billion to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product by 2033.

That’s worth going to sea for.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Timothy Walker is a Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria.

Image: A woman walks by the beach of Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa. REUTERS/Marko Djurica 

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How MENA’s biggest actors can help the region’s suppliers and SMEs to decarbonize

Akram Alami and Kelsey Goodman

May 27, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum