Securing the African Maritime Domain: State of play, issues and challenges

By Barthélemy BLEDE, National Consultant for maritime safety, United Nations

The African Maritime Domain (AMD), as described in the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, extends beyond the continent’s 26,000 nautical miles of coastline to include bays, rivers, lakes and groundwater. It accommodates industries such as transport, fishing, aquaculture, tourism and leisure, energy and deep-sea mining, and thus has the potential to deliver the blue economy that the African Union believes holds the key to the continent’s future prosperity. Unfortunately, this rich heritage has now fallen prey to crime. The purpose of this report is to assess the current security situation in the AMD, and to identify the issues and challenges raised by maritime insecurity in Africa.


Up until late 2011, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and Somalia saw more maritime piracy attacks than any other part of Africa. Since then, thanks to the combined efforts of international organisations, authorities in the Horn of Africa and local communities, the scourge has abated significantly in these areas. The new hotspot of maritime insecurity is the Gulf of Guinea, although there is still a risk of piracy in Somali waters.

Statistics show that, in the first half of 2017, there were 29 actual and attempted piracy attacks on ships off Africa’s coasts, including 20 in the Gulf of Guinea; this is an improvement compared with the same period in 2016, when 34 attacks were perpetrated continent-wide, including 30 in the Gulf of Guinea. While the number of attacks in Nigeria fell from 24 to 13 over the period, Somalia (which saw four incidents) reappeared on the list of countries most afflicted by piracy. The same is true for Sierra Leone, which also reported four incidents (see figure below).

Figure: African countries/regions reporting more than one attack on ships in first half 2017

Source : First half 2017 report by the International Maritime Bureau

African countries are also confronted with the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), which has become so widespread in the waters off West Africa that it can be classified as the region’s biggest maritime threat.

During a two-month surveillance operation conducted jointly with the fisheries inspectorates of Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, the NGO Greenpeace seized 11 industrial fishing vessels for illegal fishing (out of a total of 37 boats inspected)[i]. The 11 vessels boarded and searched were sailing under the flags of Italy, Korea, China, Comoros and Senegal. Large vessels from eastern Europe also plunder the waters off West Africa, where surveillance is poor. The Russian trawler Oleg Naydenov, which was boarded and searched in Senegalese waters on 4 January 2014, is a case in point. This ship, which was fishing illegally in Senegal’s Exclusive Economic Zone, was capable of processing 20,000 tons of fish annually, without ever having to put into port[ii].

Ports complain about cargoes being stolen, but port authorities refuse to publish figures on their vulnerabilities, for obvious reasons of image.

Pipeline vandalism and oil theft also create problems for Africa’s maritime economies. According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Nigeria lost 773,100 barrels of oil per day in May 2017, when production was shut down at five oil terminals due to oil theft and pipeline vandalism[iii].

Clandestine sea crossings are also among the security threats that Africa has to deal with. According to a study published by the IMO in 2013, the world’s top ten embarkation ports for stowaways are all in Africa[iv]. In order of importance, they are: Abidjan, Tema, Lagos, Dakar, Durban, Douala, Conakry, Cape Town, Casablanca and Freetown. Again, the Gulf of Guinea features prominently, as ports there are among the most frequently used by stowaways.

Africa is also a major point of departure for illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Many of them perish during the crossing. They come from almost every country in Africa, and the majority head north, where they board makeshift boats to Malta, Greece or the Italian island of Lampedusa. Thus, according to the Italian authorities, 9,448 illegal immigrants arrived in Italy between 1 January and 15 February 2017, including 839 from Cote d’Ivoire, 796 from Guinea, 483 from Nigeria, 431 from Senegal, 359 from Gambia, and 282 from Mali[v].

Even more disturbing is the terrorism that has crept onto the list of threats facing the AMD. The possibility of terrorist attacks on Africa’s coasts is all the greater because terrorist networks, such as Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), already operate in Africa.

The terrorist attack on the Grand-Bassam beach resort in Cote d’Ivoire on 13 March 2016­—for which AQIM claimed responsibility, and which left 18 people dead—was a wake-up call to us all[vi]. Yet, according to the latest online report published by the United States Coast Guard on 21 August 2017[vii], several ports in Africa “are not maintaining effective anti-terrorism measures’. In fact, eleven of them are only very loosely complying with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS)[viii]. In other words, they are not safe. The countries concerned are: Cameroon, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria, and São Tome and Príncipe.

The AMD is also grappling with various forms of illegal trafficking: In drugs, counterfeit goods, unregistered pharmaceutical products, human beings, arms and ammunition.

Some of the drugs and other banned foreign products are transported by sea. But the scale of the problem can only be truly comprehended by looking at the volume of goods seized. For example, in June 2015, Togolese customs officers in Atakpamé found 1,813 tonnes of cannabis hidden in a wagon that had been loaded 200 km away in the port of Lomé, the country’s capital city; in November 2015, the Nigerian authorities intercepted 3,078 tonnes of Tramadol that had been smuggled into the country in condom packets via the port of Apapa (Lagos). In June 2016, customs officers in Côte d’Ivoire seized 30,256 kilogrammes of cocaine on its way through the port of Abidjan.

Cybercrime is also a major concern in the African maritime sector, as are the risks connected with NRBC (nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical) materials, which could be used for terrorist purposes.


Insecurity in the AMD raises a number of economic, security, social and environmental issues.

From an economic perspective, maritime insecurity undermines national economies. For example, the losses reported by Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone between 2010 and 2016 were estimated to amount to some 2.3 billion dollars of turnover per year. Moreover, introducing illegal trafficking profits into national economies (through money laundering) can disrupt those economies.

As for cybercriminals, they can use shipping companies to illegally import goods, causing these companies to suffer huge losses and even going so far as to bankrupt them. They are also capable of facilitating piracy attacks by getting ships to change course.

From a social perspective, maritime insecurity leads to a fall in activity, which in turn creates unemployment. It can also push up prices and, as a result, reduce household purchasing power. All of these factors provide fertile ground for social unrest and political instability.

With regard to regional and international security, bearing in mind that some terrorist groups are financed by the proceeds of crime, maritime insecurity can foster terrorism, thus disturbing peace and tranquillity at both the regional and international level.

It also creates food security problems, with IUU fishing contributing to the shortage of fishery products in communities that rely on them as their main source of animal protein.

From an environmental perspective, those who practice IUU fishing are not respectful of the environment. They pollute fishing waters and destroy marine biodiversity.


Numerous challenges must be addressed in order to adequately secure the AMD. These include:

  • increasing the transparency of fishing licencing procedures to prevent favouritism and corruption;
  • reinforcing maritime safety and security capabilities to prevent ‘sea blindness’ at all levels;
  • managing maritime borders peacefully;
  • developing cooperation between national stakeholders in maritime security;
  • developing regional cooperation through the effective implementation of the Yaoundé Process;
  • increasing cybersecurity.

 [i] Pêche illégale : 11 navires de pêche saisis en Afrique de l’Ouest lors de contrôles (Greenpeace), published by Le and AFP on 4 May 2017, and viewed on 2 October 2017 at:

[ii] This old ‘pirate’ ship sank off the coast of the Canary Islands on 15 April 2015, after catching fire.

[iii] Ristel Tchounand, Pétrole : le Nigeria compte toujours ses milliards de dollars envolés dans le pétrole, in La Tribune Afrique, published on 5/9/2017 and downloaded on 2/10/2017 from:

[iv] Study conducted by the International Group of P&I Clubs, and released by the IMO in 2013 for presentation at a seminar in Abidjan in 2014. More recent studies are not available.

[v] Immigration illégale en Italie : les Ivoiriens occupent la 1ère place en janvier 2017. Published by Africanews on 23 February 2017 and downloaded on 30 August 2017 from

[vi] Source: Le Monde Afrique, Attentat de Grand-Bassam en Côte d’Ivoire : quatre français parmi les morts. Published on 15 March 2016 and downloaded on 8 August 2017 from:

[vii] Port Security Advisory of 21 August 2017, viewed on 2 October 2017 at:

[viii] Pursuant to American legislation and with the backing of the IMO Secretariat, the United States Coast Guard inspects ports all over the world to ensure they have adequate counter-terrorism measures in place, so that ships can sail directly from them to ports in the United States.

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Barthélemy Blédé est consultant international en sûreté et sécurité maritime. Il intervient en Afrique de l’Ouest sur des projets financés par le PNUD, la Banque mondiale et auprès du Secrétariat général de l'Organisation maritime de l'Afrique occidentale et centrale. Il est aussi instructeur au Centre international de formation au maintien de la paix Kofi Annan D'Accra, au Ghana.


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