More than 250 representatives from more than 20 African nations attended the official opening ceremony of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Maritime Safety and Security Conference held on March 28, 2012.
Top military officials, distinguished diplomats, and civilian ministers of agencies with maritime security authorities from ECCAS and ECOWAS attended the opening ceremony, which began with the host nation of Benin’s military band playing their national anthem. Other guests representing the United Nations, the African Union, Europe and the United States were also in attendance. The event concluded with ECOWAS and ECCAS signing a communiqué agreeing on the submission of the draft Memorandum of Understanding and Operational Agreement to the respective Regional Economic Community Secretariats.
The U.S. Africa Command and Africa Center for Strategic Studies organized and facilitated the seminar.
The seminar was held to charter a way for cooperation between both African communities to provide regional maritime security in the central and western African regions and among member states to combat piracy, robbery at sea, and other illicit activities at sea in the Gulf of Guinea.
« This is a meeting of technical experts from West and Central Africa on ways to achieve strategic synergies in the maritime domains of two regional economic communities, » said Lieutenant Colonel Abdourahmane Dieng, head of ECOWAS security. « This initiative comes at a time when the menace of and threat posed by piracy is touching the pillars of the economy of both the coastal and land locked states in our region. Within West Africa, and the Gulf of Guinea in particular, we can identify a series of trans-border crimes such as hijacking, armed robbery, illegal migration, illicit fishing, toxic waste dumping, human trafficking, illegal drug trafficking, piracy and hostage taking. »
These security threats have economic, political, and environmental impacts that require regional cooperation to resolve.
It is in this vein that the initiative was taken by ECOWAS and ECCAS to explore possibilities of developing a Memorandum of Understanding to suppress piracy, armed robbery and other illicit maritime activities committed at sea in the area off the coast of West and Central Africa.
With 58 incidents of maritime crime in the first 10 months of 2011, the West African coast is rated in the top ten of piracy hotspots in the world. Last year, the Benin coast had 44 attacks, according to an ECOWAS official.
This prompted Benin’s President Boni Yayi to call on the international community to focus on the Gulf of Guinea, according to Dieng. This request led to the provision of U.N. Resolution 2018, which encouraged the states of ECOWAS and ECCAS and the Gulf of Guinea Commission to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat illicit activities at sea.
According to Ambassador Robert D. Zontan, director of International Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (M.F.A) for Strategic Studies in Benin, the seminar was a meeting to discuss strategic ideas.
« This is a meeting that is strategically paramount for us because the issue of piracy is focal for Benin, » said Zontan. « This meeting of a huge interest to ECOWAS, ECCAS and the world. »
Zontan said the negative effect of piracy and armed robbery at sea initially prompted Benin to establish Operation Prosperity, an ongoing partnership with Nigeria and Togo to fight piracy and other illegal activities in their coastal areas by providing joint counter-piracy patrols. Having enjoyed the success of the operation, they could move forward in another way by establishing a framework for multilateral cooperation, he said.
« For Benin, we’ve been challenged by piracy situations, » said Erick Franck Saizonou, director of United Nations liaison office for Benin’s M.F.A. « Piracy has been a challenge for us, and has impacted negatively on our economy. Thus, we opened up to more communities for cooperation. »
Rather than fighting illegal maritime issues single-handedly, ECOWAS and ECCAS officials came together to focus on providing unified enforcement efforts and agreement, which also allows the two African economic communities to respond to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 2018 and 2039 regarding maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.
« This initiative, which has been put in place by ECOWAS in collaboration with ECCAS, and of course supported by the government of United States, is quite laudable, » said Colonel Austin Anyalechi, of the Nigerian Army Engineers and the defense attache to Cotonou. « It is laudable in the sense that in recent time, the menace of piracy and armed robbery at sea has continued to create a lot of concern to the world and the West African regions. All efforts have been made by individual nations, but no single nation can combat the problem of piracy alone. That’s why it calls for the need for synergy. With the two economic communities coming together under this kind of arrangement, I am very optimistic that it is actually going to yield the desired result of curbing the menace of piracy and sea robbery, and other related forms of maritime insecurity, arising from various criminalities. »
This is why the seminar put together by U.S. Africa Command and ACSS is very timely and helpful, Anyalechi said.
« I believe once the member states collaborate, synergy will be achieved as an approach to combating piracy at sea, » he said.
According to Anyalechi, the potential benefits of this agreement and collaborative efforts cannot be overemphasized.
« It will make our maritime domain safe and secure, because its benefits come with economic growth and national development, » Anyalechi said. « Without security we cannot talk about development, so maritime security should be a concern for any nation that is being disturbed by the activities of pirates and sea-borne criminals. And I believe that at the end of this seminar a very fruitful deliberation would have been made that would give us the directions to actually combat this menace. »
This Important conference resulted in a communiqué signed by both Regional Economic Communities to recommend that ECCAS, ECOWAS and their member states continue to develop the Memorandum of Understanding and a multi-lateral agreement for submission and eventual adoption by the States.
By Staff Sergeant Olufemi A. Owolabi