Maritime Security in Africa: Potential for the Private Sector?




24 February 2015


Armed guard escort on a merchant ship
Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Armed Guard Escort on a Merchant Ship

Dirk Siebels thinks that the private sector should contribute further to Africa’s maritime security. As he sees it, private maritime security companies (PMSCs) can help close short-term capability gaps, thereby allowing African countries to develop their own abilities over time.

By Dirk Siebels for African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD)

This article was originally published by ACCORD in Conflict Trends (2014: 4). 

Maritime matters have long been neglected in most African countries. While almost all coastal states on the continent claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that stretches out to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the coastline, little effort has been made to realise the ocean’s economic potential. In recent years, however, the picture has started to change.

Problems with piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea are the most headline-grabbing phenomenon. More importantly, pirate attacks have highlighted the challenges associated with a lack of security at sea. Illegal fishing, smuggling of drugs and weapons or human trafficking could all have serious ramifications on land. Offshore oil and gas production offers vast opportunities, but can only take place in a more or less secure environment. Finally, maritime trade and, to a lesser extent, tourism are important ingredients for future economic growth; yet again, though, security at sea is a critical factor.

The African Union (AU) has recognised the importance of maritime matters. In January 2014, the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government adopted the 2050 Africa Integrated Maritime (AIM) Strategy. In developing the AIM Strategy, the AU tried to mobilise as many stakeholders as possible because “the approach to regulation and management of maritime issues and resources cannot be confined to a few select sectors or industries”.[1]

This article concentrates on two aspects that are important for many coastal states in Africa: sustainable fishing, and offshore oil and gas production. These aspects are good examples for the potential of enhanced maritime capabilities. Furthermore, the article discusses the potential for an enhanced role of the private sector. Private maritime security companies (PMSCs) are usually

associated with armed guards on merchant vessels, protecting ships against pirate at tacks. In addition, PMSCs could provide a range of other services, such as helping African governments to develop their maritime capabilities much faster than they could on their own.

Illegal Fishing Threatens Marine Resources

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing covers a number of related issues. At the heart of the matter, any country has the right to regulate fishing within its EEZ and to impose quota or licensing requirements on fishing vessels. Selling fishing licences could provide a steady income to many African coastal and island states, yet without the necessary enforcement, such documents quickly become worthless.

It is nearly impossible to find reliable figures about the extent of IUU fishing in African waters. In February 2009, a comprehensive study about the extent of illegal fishing worldwide[2] concluded that developing countries in general are most at risk. Statistics and estimates for the period between 1980 and 2003 showed that West Africa, in particular, has been affected. The total estimated catches was consistently between 30% and 40% higher than reported catches, due to a combination of rich fishing grounds and a severe lack of regulatory oversight.

Since then, other studies have shown the effects of IUU fishing on a national level. In Senegal, for example, illegally caught fish could be worth up to US$300 million per year. At the same time, the share of artisanal fisheries has dropped from 80% two decades ago to just 50% today.[3] In other words, fishermen and their families are in danger of losing their livelihood, while the price of fish – an important source of protein for large parts of the Senegalese population – is increasing.

Unfortunately, IUU fishing is not just a West African problem. In Madagascar, for example, marine resources have always been important for many communities, both as a staple food and as a source of income. Knowledge of the trends and composition of fisheries is limited nonetheless, and most figures available are nothing more than general estimates. According to a thorough review of catch statistics between 1950 and 2008, the total volume of fish caught in the island nation’s EEZ was likely to be twice as high as official data suggested, yet monitoring capacities remain almost non-existent. The authors of the study concluded that “tensions are likely to increase in the future, and food insecurity may become a growing concern for coastal populations in the near future”.[4]

The implications of illegal fishing should be obvious, yet they have been comprehensively ignored in the past. Monitoring of fishing grounds and enforcing licensing regimes has only been an after-thought, although such tasks could be an important role for navies or coastguards. As almost all naval agencies in Africa suffer from a lack of resources, creative solutions have to be found. Pooling of resources could be an important step in this regard, but additional capabilities – for example, effective coastal surveillance equipment and new vessels for fisheries protection – are usually necessary. Some of these capacities could even be provided by the private sector.

Oil and Gas Offers Potential for Economic Growth

As outlined previously, many African countries have occurred huge financial losses caused by illegal fishing. While it is almost impossible to compile detailed statistics, the examples from Senegal and Madagascar illustrate the extent of the problem. Outside academic circles, however, there have been very few discussions and publications about the long-term implications of illegal fishing, and perceptions are shifting very slowly.

Offshore oil and gas is a completely different phenomenon. Until very recently, the only countries with a significant amount of offshore oil production were Nigeria and Angola. Within less than a decade, many new discoveries have been made and some new fields have already come on stream. Ghana, arguably the most prominent example, started to export oil from the Jubilee field in December 2010. Some of the proceeds have been spent on an impressive procurement programme for the Ghanaian Navy, including two refurbished fast patrol boats from Germany and four new patrol boats built in China.[5] Further offshore discoveries have been made since then and, in November 2013, officials in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire declared that both countries will start negotiations to settle a dispute over their maritime boundary.[6] The boundary has never been officially delimited, but the urgent need for resolving the problem of overlapping claims has been brought about by the potential for valuable oil and gas reserves in the disputed area.

On the other side of the continent, an oil and gas bonanza has started in Mozambique. After the largest natural gas discoveries worldwide were made offshore, Anadarko Petroleum and Eni agreed to build the second largest liquefied natural gas plant in the world.[7] Various companies are also hoping to find offshore oil that is easier to extract, process and export.[8]

In neighbouring Tanzania, the numbers may not be quite as impressive, but the country is set to become another important producer of natural gas. Over the coming decade, investments for offshore exploration and production are projected to grow to between US$10 billion and US$20 billion, showing the huge potential of – mainly offshore – energy resources.[9]

These are just the most prominent examples; offshore exploration is currently taking place in almost all coastal states in sub-Saharan Africa. Marin Katusa, energy analyst for a United States (US) -based investment research provider, even believes “that Africa – not the Middle East –will be the most important energy producer for the world in 2040 or even 2030”.[10]

Many observers share such optimism surrounding current oil and gas discoveries in Africa. There has been little or no exploration in the past, and technical solutions necessary for many ambitious offshore projects have only been developed in recent years. While offshore oil and gas provides huge opportunities, the necessary security measures have to be implemented at the same time. Otherwise, exploration vessels, oil and gas installations or offshore supply ships could become prime targets for pirates, local rebel groups or terrorists. Due to a lack of assets, equipment and training, national security forces may not be able to provide the level of security required by oil majors, but private security companies could be an effective short-term remedy.

Private Maritime Security is Professionalising

The private security industry gained a notorious reputation after civilians were killed in various incidents involving US-based security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even before that, many African governments were wary of private security after different companies were involved in a number of conflicts and coup attempts. Arguably, the most prominent one was Executive Outcomes (EO), a private army that consisted of ex-South African combat veterans. EO’s interventions in civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone received much attention. Despite significant criticism, however, both governments were essentially saved from being overthrown by rebel forces, as EO was brutally effective in all operations for which the company was contracted.[11]

All these operations, however, were conducted on land. Private security at sea is a much more recent phenomenon, with very different characteristics. Faced with a growing number of pirate attacks off Somalia, the shipping industry quickly realised that even large scale naval operations combined with various measures to protect merchant ships (for example, travelling on different routes or at higher speeds) were not enough to contain the threat. Even though most ship operators had been at least sceptical towards armed security guards on their vessels, the mindset within the industry changed almost overnight when it became clear that embarked security personnel were able to protect ships, crews and cargoes.

Armed security personnel on merchant ships were an unforeseen development, so there were almost no rules and regulations in place. Many aspects of PMSC operations were conducted in ‘grey areas’, further complicated by the interplay between various jurisdictions. By its very nature, the maritime industry operates in an international context and PMSCs had to observe local laws in their own country of registry, the countries surrounding the western part of the Indian Ocean and in the respective flag state.[12] A typical example would be a United Kingdom-based PMSC sending a team of four armed guards (two of them British, the other two Indian) to Sri Lanka, where they would embark on a Liberian-flagged ship on a voyage to Egypt.

Despite the legal challenges and the fact that private shipping companies were employing armed security personnel to conduct military-style operations, private maritime security became a billion-dollar industry within a very short time. In a comprehensive analysis for 2012, Oceans Beyond Piracy estimated that the shipping industry spent between US$1.1 billion and US$1.5 billion on armed guards,[13] yet there was virtually no PMSC that had been founded more than three years ago.

More recently, however, the industry has faced various challenges. Growing competition and a reduced threat level in the western part of the Indian Ocean have led to declining revenues for many companies. At the same time, many efforts have been made towards the regulation of PMSC operations, driven by national governments and the shipping industry. Many larger private security companies were also the driving factor behind a new International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard that companies have been able to obtain since early 2014. Such an internationally recognised standard allows for independent certification, while national governments are able to maintain control over aspects they regard as critical.

For security companies with a certain market share, it makes commercial sense to support the introduction of an ISO standard. Although every bit of regulation will make it slightly more expensive to conduct their business, economies of scale will work in favour of the larger companies. Many smaller companies will struggle to obtain an ISO certification, making it less attractive for potential clients to employ their services.

Even though regulatory efforts are directed almost solely to the employment of armed guards on merchant ships, such efforts should be regarded as an opportunity by African governments. They could put the expertise PMSCs are able to offer to good use. While the provision of armed guards for the protection of merchant ships has been the most widely discussed service, PMSCs often employ former military personnel – and more often than not, they are highly trained and vastly experienced. Coastal states in Africa could use these skills to address their short-term needs with maritime security problems, some of which have already been discussed.

For governments, cooperation with partners from the private sector is a controversial issue, particularly when it comes to security-related tasks. Such tasks are regarded as one of the most important obligations of any nation state and African governments are highly suspicious, as they want to avoid constraints on their sovereignty. Being able to assert that sovereignty in an area that stretches more than 350 kilometres out to sea, however, means that a government has to provide ships, personnel and a sufficient operating budget, among other things. If only some parts are missing, sovereignty at sea will be virtual. Organised criminals or foreign fishing vessels can then use this ungoverned space to their advantage.

Private-sector involvement cannot be the solution to all security problems in the maritime domain. The necessary legal framework, for example, has to be provided by national governments, while politicians are usually reluctant when the provision of security is outsourced to the private sector. Employing private companies to provide specific services, however, could help many African governments address short-term gaps and give them time to develop their own capabilities.

After all, even an unlimited budget would not instantly enable any nation to protect its EEZ. Sustainable development of naval or coastguard capabilities should take place within a strategic framework, involving all stakeholders in the maritime domain – such as local fishing communities, police and customs authorities or port operators. Long-term procurement and recruitment plans have to be derived from such a framework, and capability gaps can then be addressed individually.

In the meantime, some problems have to be solved sooner rather than later. For example, EEZ surveillance is an issue for virtually all coastal states in Africa, resulting in problems with smuggling and illegal fishing. Such aspects have long been ignored, but perceptions are changing –more often than not fuelled by the promise of new income streams from offshore resources. On the basis of transparent contracts and under close scrutiny of national governments, private companies could help to address many of the short-term problems in Africa’s maritime environment without compromising the sovereignty of national governments.


Despite the attention pirate attacks off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea have received in recent years, piracy is merely a symptom of much deeper problems. Maritime security is much broader, as the AU’s AIM Strategy underlines. On a regional level, heads of state in West and Central Africa signed a code of conduct in June 2013, declaring their intention to address a number of issues, ranging from smuggling to piracy and illegal fishing.

Regional and continental agreements are an important first step. Providing security in the maritime domain, much more than on land, is impossible without at least some cooperation with neighbouring states. Even if Sierra Leone had the capabilities to protect its EEZ, illegal fishing vessels could just divert to Guinean or Liberian waters. So far, however, steps towards closer cooperation have been tentative at best, and most progress has been made on paper. Whether good intentions will be translated into practice over the coming years remains to be seen.

Involving the private sector will likely be controversial, but has the potential to yield important dividends. These include the sale and monitoring of fishing licences, but improved security at sea might also have other positive impacts. Examples include foreign investment in port infrastructure or an increase in offshore energy production. In general, PMSCs can help to address short term capability gaps, allowing African countries to focus on the development of these capabilities over time. Most importantly, Africa has to start looking further out to sea, because the maritime domain is inextricably linked to long term growth and development.

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[1] African Union (2014) ‘‘2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy”, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[2] Agnew, David, Pearce, John, Pramod, Ganapathiraju et al. (2009) Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS ONE, 4 (2), pp. 1–8.

[3] Belhabib, Dyhia, Koutob, Viviane, Sall, Aliou et al. (2014) Fisheries Catch Misreporting and Its Implications: The Case of Senegal. Fisheries Research, 151, pp. 1–11.

[4] Le Manach, Fréderic, Gough, Charlotte, Harris, Alasdair et al. (2011) Unreported Fishing, Hungry People and Political Turmoil: The Recipe for a Food Security Crisis in Madagascar? Marine Policy, 36 (1), pp. 218–225.

[5] Naval Today Staff (2012) ‘President Commissions Four New Vessels for Ghana Navy’, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[6] Coulibaly, Loucoumane (2013) ‘Ghana, Ivory Coast Aim to Settle Maritime Boundary Peacefully’, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[7] Gismatullin, Eduard and Humber, Yuriy (2012) ‘Eni-Anadarko African LNG Plant to be World’s Second-largest’, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[8] Gismatullin, Eduard (2013) ‘Oil Hunted in Mozambique After World’s Largest Gas Discoveries’, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[9] East African Business Week (2014) ‘Tanzania Gas Projected to Hit U.S. $20 Billion’, Available at: [Accessed 11 July 2014].

[10] Casey Research (2012) The Global Race for East African Oil: An Investors Market Report, p. 8.

[11] Howe, Herbert (1998) Private Security Forces and African Stability: The Case of Executive Outcomes. Journal of Modern African Studies, 36 (2), pp. 307–331.

[12] The flag state is the state where the respective ship has been registered. Ship owners do not have to register their ship in their own country. Instead, they can choose another flag state for a variety of reasons. The three largest ship registries are Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands.

[13] Oceans Beyond Piracy (2013) The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy 2012, p. 20., Available at: [Accessed November 2014].

Dirk Siebels is a PhD Candidate at the University of Greenwich and an Associate Analyst for Risk Intelligence, a risk consultancy specialising in the maritime domain.