Battle over Africa’s oceanic treasures

Surprisingly, no shots have been fired by African navies against foreign vessels that illegally plunder fish and undersea mineral resources from Africa’s territorial waters. However, as fish stocks diminish and African peoples’ understanding of the value of sea minerals grows, aggressive responses will replace government’s lackadaisical attitudes.

SOMALIA, Mogadishu: In a photograph taken 16 March 2013 and release by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team 18 March, traders wait to sell their fish inside Mogadishu's fish market in the Xamar Weyne district of the Somali capital. Every morning Mogadishu's fisherman bring their catch from the Indian Ocean ashore upon which it is quickly unloaded and transported to Xamar Weyne's lively and chaotic fish market where it is sold for consumption on the local market and increasingly, for export to other countries. Over the last two decades, instability on land has greatly restricted the development of the country's fishing industry, but now that Somalia is enjoying the longest period of sustained peace in over 20 years, there is large-scale potential and opportunity to harvest the bountiful waters off the Horn of Africa nation, which boasts the longest coastline in Africa. AU-UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE.
SOMALIA, Fishermen display their catch at a fish market in Mogadishu. Photo courtesy AMISOM/flickr

The scenario in which Mozambican, Namibian, Tanzanian and South African warships or boats from other African countries’ navies chase off or even fire upon an ever-growing fleet of foreign pirate ships is easy to imagine. No, the pirates are not the old-fashioned type that raid commercial vessels or kidnap ship crews or well-heeled guests on luxury yachts as is practiced off Somalia in East Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Rather, the invading armada is comprised of industrial-capacity vessels whose aim is to loot Africa’s aquatic natural resources.

In so doing, Chinese fishing ships decimate fisheries, rendering African fishermen who for generations have depended on the waters for their livelihoods unemployed and made fish expensive or unavailable to local markets and their customers who rely on fish for basic nutrition. Aquatic life is just one resource that is being looted. Mineral resources have also drawn pirates.

As oceanic wealth is no longer taken for granted, conflict situations will arise

Diamonds, mineral nodes and anything that can be scooped up from the seafloor using a modern high-powered vacuum hose is drawn into the hulls of the pirate ships. The vessels, for the most part, sail from Asian nations, particularly China, whose people’s insatiable appetites for fish and mineral resources must be met by means fair or foul in the view of their national leaders. For some reason, such aggression has thus far not been identified by African governments for what it is, an act of war. If Asian cargo planes descended onto African land and crews scooped up gold and diamonds directly (rather than using surrogates to do this as they now do) then perhaps the scope of such criminality would be better appreciated. African countries’ lack of urgency to protect the natural resources within their territorial waters is founded in hard-to-shake attitudes that the oceans are immense, their contents limitless and anyone who takes the trouble of venturing out into the waves can keep what is found.

As Africa’s population and economies grow, the value of offshore assets will be better appreciated. What will ultimately happen when tourism revenues end because coral reefs have been stripped of their vividly-hued structures, when fish-dependant peoples grow ill from protein deficiencies, and when governments realise that bribes paid to officials to look the other way while foreign commercial interests loot the nations’ oceans are not compensation for the permanent loss of natural resources? Governments and their citizens will likely awaken to the seriousness of their loss, and turn swiftly to retaliatory actions. Asian countries do not like to have their nationals fired upon, even if they be pirates. Capture of invading ships and jailing of seamen will also likely trigger international repercussions.

What is certain is that the countries that are sending fleets to loot Africa’s oceanic resources have shown no intention of pulling back their operations. Consequently, such piracy in African waters is sanctioned by foreign governments, and seems legitimated by the ships carrying out the looting. Africa will have to end the theft by using new technology such as orbital and radar surveillance, as well as diplomacy. If better policing and new policies are not implemented, then today’s criminal aggression will certainly become tomorrow’s military engagement.

Less protected than oil deposits, fish and diamonds are plundered treasures

The plundering of Africa’s fisheries has received some attention in the global media, although official responses from African governments have been minimal. This may be due to the principal victims being, for the most part, impoverished fishing villages that hold little clout in governmental affairs. West Africa alone loses US$ 1.3 billion annually to illegal fishing. Mauritania is one country leading the fight: it has created a Fisheries Transparency Initiative that seeks greater international cooperation to thwart illegal fishing. Senegal and Seychelles have signed on, and so has Indonesia outside Africa. On 5 June 2016, a Port State Measures Agreement went into effect. Signed by 29 countries, the pact’s main feature is an obligation by signatory countries to prevent vessels engaged in illegal fishing from offloading their catches. However, until all nations are signatories the ships can offload in non-signatory nations’ waters. Impoverished African nations, 38 of which have marine coastlines, are as yet unable to police their territorial waters themselves. Consequently, Africa is the continent hardest hit by fisheries’ plundering, reported the Africa Progress Panel (APP), a panel of public and private sector experts led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that considers impediments to Africa’s development.

Local fishing communities that harvest fish and have done so for generations with small wooden crafts and nets, do not have a chance against fleets of Asian fishing craft that practice industrialised harvesting. Moving side-by-side, the ships of these fleets use sonar to locate schools of fish and giant vacuums to suck them out of the water. However, technology such as surface or airborne radar can be employed to detect these fleets of predators. Space satellites can also be trained on fisheries to monitor activity. Armed with such intelligence, African navies can move in to catch the plunderers within their territories.

Similar monitoring must be employed to protect Africa’s coral reefs. Some of the world’s most spectacular reefs bloom beneath the ocean’s surface off Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and some of Africa’s other Indian Ocean-fronting nations. The reefs are essential to these countries’ hopes to expand tourism. Already under threat by global warming and pollution, the coral reefs are placed in further danger from illegal harvesting. Only better policing of the reefs by law enforcement authorities will prevent their appearance on endangered species lists in the near future.

Plundering by vacuum is also the technique used to acquire Africa’s mineral wealth embedded on its ocean floor. Like gold doubloons from some Spanish galleon’s treasure chest that sprung open to litter the seabed with treasure when the vessel went down, African oceans present minerals and gems ready to be harvested under the sands of the ocean floor. Namibia has pioneered an innovative attraction to lure tourists: diamond diving. Visitors are taken by tourism/mining firms doubly licensed by government, first with a tour operator license and secondly a mining license. Tens of thousands, and perhaps more, diamonds have washed down rivers from diamond-producing rock strata in mountains and lie on the seabed off Angola and Namibia. Tourists dive to the bottom and alert their guides when they discover a gem. The stone is then vacuumed up by a tube into the ship’s hull. Back on board the gem discoverer claims his booty, which is actually the property of the Namibian government. The tourist prospector pays to keep the stone. A good quality diamond could cost US$ 10,500.

Because the operators of these excursions are doubly licensed and could go out of business if caught cheating, such businesses have thus far proved legitimate. Not so the nefarious work of foreign prospecting vessels that sail in with multiple, powerful suction hoses that sweep the seabed clean of all gemstones. The thievery is believed to be extensive, but has never been quantified. More is at stake than the diving-for-diamonds tourism business, which is still a novelty and forms a small niche of Namibia’s tourism industry. At risk is Namibia’s territorial integrity and mineral wealth. Wars have been fought over natural resources and they may be fought again as the wholesale pilfering of Africa’s ocean wealth continues or, with no sign of diminishing, proliferates.

Naval engagements will stop piracy

Just as Somalia’s pirates have ceased plundering ships off the Horn of Africa, chased away by an international naval coalition that patrols shipping lanes there, African navies will be required for aggressive action to stop the wholesale theft of aquatic resources. However, African military policies and outlook are primarily focused on land, not sea. This will have to change as offshore losses accrue.

Similarly, 200 million Africans to some extent obtain their nutrition from the oceans. Yet, African nations’ agricultural policies are based on land and not sea farming. Population control policies are cultural and political anathema to African governments, and so the need for ever increasing food production will necessitate safeguarding fisheries. The means to do this will certainly be through military endeavours. Fishing and mining vessels are unarmed, and will have to surrender and be boarded when confronted by naval ships. Their crews will be arrested. The foreign nations from which the pirates originated will have two options: end their countrymen’s illegal activities in African waters or go to war with African countries on the pretext of saving captive seamen. However, no legal justification for a foreign military response exists under the circumstances.

To convince China and other countries to block rather than encourage their nationals from plundering African oceanic resources, African nations will have to collect evidence of such piracy to present to offending countries’ governments and be more proactive in controlling economic activities in their territorial waters.