Oceans, seas, rivers and dams are often associated with fun and relaxation. However, more than 90% of the world’s commerce is seaborne. This means most economic activities are linked to maritime transportation of our most basic needs, including food, energy and clothing.

Africa is not taking full economic advantage of its marine economy. The reason is straightforward — insufficient investment. More than 95% of the companies responsible for the transportation of cargo by sea to and from African shores are foreign-based. 

Stats SA made the shocking announcement earlier this week that about 7.2-million South Africans, mostly youth, are unemployed. If government’s Operation Phakisa yields positive results, the ocean economy could at least curb the growing unemployment rate by contributing a significant number of new jobs and investment opportunities for South Africans. 

With water covering more than two thirds of the Earth’s surface, oceans have, over centuries, served to connect nations and make them inter-dependent through economies, politics and culture. But while maritime affairs offer us all these opportunities, there are also many security threats. Oceans are susceptible to being used for heinous crimes such as human, arms and drug trafficking, and piracy. 

Three universities — Haifa in Israel, and Stellenbosch and Free State in SA — recently held a public international conference titled “Shipping Security: Maritime Aspects off Africa”, that was conducted virtually as a result of Covid-19 regulations. 

This event was important for two main reasons: what Africa could learn from Nato countries; and how Africa could utilise the ocean economy to address its “poverty pandemic”.

While oceans play a significant role in global economies, we should acknowledge that these oceans are also used to perpetuate continental conflicts that have lasted for decades

Africa, through the AU, would benefit from a strategic partnership with Nato, an inter-governmental military alliance consisting of 30 European countries and North America. Nato’s purpose is elementary: it exists for the 30 member states to take care of each other. They defend their territories, citizens and their interests as nations. 

But Nato does not limit itself to North America and European countries. In the past it has partnered with countries outside its original scope. It has helped individual African countries, and the AU has asked for assistance with particular missions.

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) has seven non-Nato member countries from the Mediterranean region: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Israel and Jordan are in the Middle East while Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania are in North Africa.

None of these countries is from Europe or America, but they are working closely with Nato to safeguard their own interests. There are also specific operations in place to address immediate security needs, for example, to support the 2011 UN resolutions on Libya.

SA, too, is not immune to the security threats and terrorism facing many nations across the globe. The political and security instability on the northern coast of Mozambique poses a real potential threat to SA and its people. These security threats not only pose a risk to SA, they are a threat to everyone making use of the oceans. Nato intervenes when it believes the security or stability of member states are compromised. 

The University of Haifa’s Dr Glen Segell said during the shipping security online conference that it is both Nato policy and its practice to assist non-Nato African states “because it is in Nato’s interest to do so as their security and stability are a prerequisite to that of maritime security. As such, for example, shipping security, both civil and military, sea route patrols and air-sea surveillance and rescue are part and parcel of Nato’s maritime dimension”.

One may ask why these important tasks are carried out mostly by Nato rather than other international bodies. The reasons are straightforward: Nato has the infrastructure and capacity in the region to deal with issues such as piracy off Somalia.

While oceans play a significant role in global economies, we should acknowledge that these oceans are also used to perpetuate continental conflicts that have lasted for decades. How are the militias from Sudan, Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo supplied with weapons? They are transported to these militias by sea. 

If we want to silence the guns in Africa, all 38 of Africa’s 54 states that have coastal borders and ports used for exports and imports should take full responsibility for shipping security, to help minimise the criminal activities that pose a security threat to the entire continent. 

It is apparent that Africa has not fully taken advantage of the ocean economy. It is stuck on agriculture and mining (mineral resources) and is neglecting a sector that could help liberate it economically.

• Mokgatlhe is an independent writer, and political and social commentator.


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