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Reenergising India-Africa Maritime Relations

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 28, 2015

    On October 26, leaders of 54 African nations gathered in New Delhi for the third edition of the four-day India-Africa Forum Summit – an event billed in the Indian media as India’s most ambitious outreach program towards Africa. On the eve of the high-level conclave, media reports indicated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed launch of “a new era of India-Africa relations” included a plan for the comprehensive development of Africa’s littorals.1 In keeping with India’s expanded focus on Africa’s maritime economic potential, commentary in the media suggested, the Indian government was keen to formalise a wide-ranging maritime partnership.

    Indeed, the past few years have witnessed a putative reorientation in India’s nautical outlook towards Africa. With increasing emphasis on developing maritime relationships with Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius, India has reached out to African states through offers of greater military aid, capacity-building and training assistance. With its economic engagement in the African continent growing rapidly, New Delhi has also sought to widen its sphere of influence in the Western Indian Ocean. Indian naval ships have increased their port visits to Africa’s East coast and smaller Indian Ocean island states - in a display of a more purposeful maritime diplomacy.

    India’s essential approach to maritime cooperation, however, has revolved around its central security concern in African waters – security against piracy off the Horn of Africa. The Indian navy has played a significant part in tackling Somali piracy, with Indian warships escorting nearly 3000 merchantmen in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. While it has contributed to the security of the small island states in the Indian Ocean - patrolling the Exclusive Economic Zones of Mauritius and Seychelles, carrying out hydrographic surveys, and providing assistance in the establishment of a coastal radar network – the Indian navy’s security initiatives have been animated by the need to secure energy and resource shipments in the waters off Somalia.

    In effect, India’s security role in the Africa’s continental littorals has struggled to move beyond the anti-piracy agenda. While Indian naval ships have been involved in collaborative security efforts in the Gulf of Aden and the East African coast, institutional capacity building efforts – in terms of the provision of security and surveillance assets and critical technology to African navies and coast guards to help them perform basic constabulary functions – have remained rudimentary.

    New Delhi’s inability to raise its security game in Africa, however, is only a smaller adjunct to the wider failure in leveraging Africa’s huge maritime economic potential. With rising economic development and the gradual integration of African states into the global economy, Africa’s maritime sector has shown great promise for economic development. But even as African institutions and governments (earlier indifferent to Africa’s systemic lacunae in the maritime sector) have come together to secure the nautical commons, New Delhi has been lacking in its contribution to Africa’s maritime developmental needs.

    More crucially, Africa’s efforts to evolve a harmonizing vision for the continent’s economic sector have received little help from New Delhi. In 2013, the Africa Union announced an Integrated Maritime Strategy- 2050 and ‘Plan of Action’, outlining a blueprint to address the continent’s maritime challenges for sustainable development and competitiveness. The strategy, meant to systematically address Africa’s maritime vulnerabilities, marked a declaratory shift away from a period of self-imposed sea blindness. While the plan differed from the individual maritime strategies of Africa’s other security communities - each having their own unique vision of comprehensive maritime developmental – there was hope that experienced maritime partners like India would assist in reconciling key differences to develop a more coherent maritime vision for the continent.2

    Unfortunately, security discussions in New Delhi have continues to revolve almost exclusively around India’s political influence along the continent’s Indian Ocean Rim. With a rise in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and India’s inability to contribute substantively to West Africa’s security needs, an impression has been created that New Delhi remains reluctant to provide security assistance in spaces deemed geopolitically unimportant.

    Gulf of Guinea Piracy

    Since 2012, the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as one of the most pirate-infested waters in the world, posing an urgent security threat to the maritime environment. Following a substantial decline in Somali piracy, growing attacks on the west coast of Africa have been in the public eye. With an assault on local shipping nearly every second week, West Africa is the new epicentre of global piracy.

    Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, however, have followed a template different from that one observed in the waters off Somalia. On the east coast of Africa, pirates captured ships and crews for ransom, venturing deep into the Southern and Western Indian Ocean. In contrast, attacks on the Gulf of Guinea have been localised, with assailants targeting cash and cargoes of fuel. But this has also meant that assaults are better planned, with gangs working to a precise strategy including short attack–spans and fool-proof get-away methods.

    The lead role in tackling piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been played by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission. The thrust of the efforts has been on establishing a better system of regional surveillance and joint patrolling. In March this year, the ECOWAS helped setup a multinational maritime coordination centre (MMCC) for a maritime zone christened Pilot Zone E. This marked an important milestone in the implementation of the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS), particularly since Pilot Zone E is one of West Africa’s most sensitive security hot-spots, spanning a vast region comprising Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo

    As West African states create the capacity and infrastructure to address their maritime challenges, they have been seeking credible partners. Despite support from the international community and maritime industry, however, the only meaningful assistance has come from the US, European Union and the International Maritime Organization. An opportunity thus exists for the Indian navy to reach out to West African states by offering greater patrolling assets and remote surveillance systems to monitor their respective maritime domains.

    The Way Ahead

    It is now clear that Somali piracy can no longer be the catalyst for India’s maritime security efforts in Africa. A successful joint maritime effort by regional and global maritime forces has seen piracy levels in the waters of Somalia dip dramatically. The concurrent rise in armed attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, however, is a sign that the malady afflicting African coastal states is not so much lack of effective security but the absence of maritime authority. This is characterised by a failure of legal frameworks and an inability to develop the African maritime economy.

    There is an increased awareness among Africa nations that their major maritime challenges stem from a lack of effective governance in the maritime commons. It is the illegal capture of resources – overfishing in the African EEZs, rampant exploitation of the seas, drug smuggling and arms trafficking of arms and the widespread pollution of coastal waters - that has thwarted African efforts to build an effective maritime governance system. Africa needs not only maritime administration frameworks and the local capacity to enforce regulations, but also a model for sustainable blue-economy development that does not result in the destruction of its natural maritime habitat. In this, it can use India’s assistance.

    There is now a growing view among Indian analysts and policymakers that India’s growing maritime influence, and a greater African expectation of increased commitment by partner states in supporting regional maritime security efforts, leaves New Delhi with little option but to raise its involvement in maritime security of coastal Africa. India’s recent stress on security in the South Western Indian Ocean (SWIO) – through its capacity building efforts in the Indian Ocean archipelago, as well as its flag-ship endeavour, the IBSAMAR exercises - shows New Delhi has been recalibrating and updating its security response.

    If India hopes to partner Africa in realising a prosperous future, it must partner the latter in the creation of a maritime system. Through infrastructure creation and the strengthening of legal frameworks and institutions, New Delhi can partner African states in the effective governance of Africa’s maritime commons. India’s guiding text is the Africa Union’s Agenda-2063 document spelling out Africa’s vision over the next five decades, aligned closely with its own “development goals” and “international aspirations.” But New Delhi is also aware that other than assisting Africa with hard-capacity to undertake the relevant security tasks, it must also play a role in the evolution of a comprehensive continental strategy that can improve the lives of African people by creating model of sustainable maritime development.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.