SADC maritime security under spotlight
By Southern Times Writer
Windhoek – Unmanned aerial vehicles could provide a low-cost but effective solution to Africa’s parlous maritime security infrastructure at a time there are growing terror threats along the continent’s coastlines.
During a webinar to discuss technology and maritime border security this week, United Nations head of border security management, Rocco Messina, highlighted that terrorist groups were increasingly conducting attacks on and from Africa’s ports.
In years past, the greatest challenge to maritime security was posed by pirates, particularly on Africa’s eastern seaboard, but the greater danger now is posed by terrorists with religious-political agendas.
Cases that immediately come to mind are those of Mocímboa da Praia and Palma in Mozambique, which for a period in 2020 and 2021 were overrun by extremist Islamist insurgents seeking to establish a Caliphate of East and Southern Africa.
The attacks on coastal Mozambique, which started in 2017 and prompted troop deployments by the Southern African Development Community and Rwanda, have resulted in more than 3,500 deaths and the displacement of nearly 900,000 people.
With a coastline stretching around 2,500km and very limited naval capacity, countries such as Mozambique – as with other maritime states in the SADC region – face increasing seaborne security threats.
In all, 10 of SADC’s 16 member states have coastlines on the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and none of them have significant naval tonnage or manpower to secure these.
This week, the UN suggested that greater investment in unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) could provide a panacea, with Mr Messina warning that the port security situation was becoming critical because of heightened activity by terrorist groups.
“There is capacity of such groups to take control of key maritime infrastructures, such as ports,” Mr Messina said.
He said it was “vital to find a solution” to the problem to prevent the travel and relocation of foreign terrorist fighters as they pose a “major” risk.
“Maritime borders must be protected by ensuring the security of ports,” he said. “Surveillance technologies and high standards of security protocol are really critical. Relevant information about terrorist threats in maritime zones should be shared in real time.”
Mr Robert Kibor of the Kenya National Counterterrorism Centre added that the threat of terrorists was now greater than that of piracy.
“We have succeeded in terms of suppressing piracy but we are now seeing a new threat to maritime security in the form of terrorism and armed robberies at sea,” he said.
“We have moved from piracy to terrorism and this is bringing a lot of challenges. There are a number of solutions that we think can help this particular menace, information sharing, investigations and prosecutions and cross maritime borders. This is something we can all achieve if we work together.”
Greater investment in new technologies has also been backed by Mr Denys Reva, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
“We cannot always rely on patrol vessels because they take their time to arrive and allow other actors to escape but this is where unmanned aerial vehicles could come into force,” he said. “The use of drones have become a viable option and Nigeria is using them in its counter-piracy initiative and radars could be used to detect smaller vessels, especially at night and in bad weather.”
The Southern African Development Community as a bloc is becoming increasingly alive to the maritime threats on its shores.
Initially, its Maritime Security Strategy – adopted by Heads of State and Government in Luanda, Angola in 2011 – approached the problem within the context of piracy, which ravaged the Somali coast from the 1990s through the turn of the millennium, and threatened to spread down the East African coast to Mozambique.
As countries around the world got a handle on piracy, the focus started shifting to terrorism, arms smuggling and the illegal drug trade, among other things.
This has seen SADC in recent years focus on priming the Maritime Security Strategy to confront emerging threats.
Last year, Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane of the South African Navy – which is SADC’s biggest maritime force – warned that unchecked insurgent activity in Mozambican waters was one indication that the regional bloc was not effectively managing the problem.
At a Maritime Security Conference in June 2021, he said: “Within SADC, in particular, the ability of states to respond to maritime insecurity is severely compromised due to resource challenges such as budgetary constraints, inadequate training, lack of skills as well as ageing equipment and mass obsolescence. As a result, effective and efficient governance of maritime space remains a significant challenge to maritime security within the sub-region.
“Recent research suggests that issues of maritime security continue to be subordinate to issues of landward security, more so on the African continent where resource allocation is often prioritised around landward activities rather than those at sea.
“We know that the sea is often used as a mode of transport of both the insurgent fighters as well as illicit trades such as weapons and drugs. To resource the land operations of the so called violent non-state actors we also know that ports and shipping are often targeted for further financial gains.