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Maritime borders in Africa: Insecurity calls for common governance policy

14.03.2019
Article from AFRIC editorial
For over several years, bilateral relations in some countries have been plagued by maritime border disputes. Although much progress has been made in delimiting maritime space, a good number of disputes remain unresolved. Despite the fact that 2017 was set by the African Union as the deadline for African countries to delineate their borders, it still remains a complex issue as only 30 percent of the entire 800,000 km borders on the continent has been demarcated. Due to the upsurge of maritime insecurity, the continent is gradually shifting from who owns what portion of the sea to finding a level ground for all to handle the crisis hounding the sea.

The sea is governed by international law with rights and obligations of States having different maritime jurisdictions. Unlike land, the sea cannot be owned and occupied and no nation can exercise full sovereignty. The territory of a state is determined by lines that divide the territory of that state from others. Such boundaries can be demarcated, delineated or delimited.

About 38 African state has a coastal border and they all total 48000km of coasts and 13 million km2 of maritime zones. The richness of the sea has over the years increased the urge of African States to have a greater degree of control over its near-seas. However, out of the approximately 90 potential maritime boundaries, only 29 have been demarcated.  The most recent maritime boundary was delimited in 2017 between Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), followed by the boundary demarcation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2016.

Maritime disputes in Africa

Despite the fact that United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits coastal nations to claim as much as 200 nautical miles from their coastlines, countries in Africa still struggle with border disputes. The law which has been ratified by close to 165 countries came into force in 1994. It gives States the right to claim natural resource rights to the water and ocean floor known as the exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

There is continued tension between countries who seek to have control of the continent’s sea resources and resolving such tensions is becoming difficult as a result of the fact that only about 30 percent of Africa’s borders have been demarcated.

Currently, Africa is facing several maritime boundary disputes. Kenya and Somalia are trying to resolve a maritime border dispute which involves offshore oil and gas deposits. Somalia claims the boundary between the two countries should be at an equidistant line while Kenya argues that the boundary is along a parallel of latitude. The dispute between these two states is currently being arbitrated at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Bilateral relations between the two nations deteriorated and in February 2019, Kenya expelled Somalia’s ambassador and recalled its envoy to Mogadishu, allegations which the Kenyan government later refuted. In another boundary dispute that has been ongoing for decades, tension again mounted in 2017 between Tanzania and Malawi over the rights to the lake that lies between both countries.

Similarly, in February 2017, a border dispute between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was finally referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The dispute over the oil-rich islands in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa has lasted over 40 years. It is worth noting that most of such border disputes in the continent are fueled by the need to have more access and control of natural resources.

Maritime border threats call for a common plan to counteract ills

Approximately 90% of trade in Africa is done by sea and in order to effectively reap trade and other benefits a secure maritime domain is vital. Unfortunately, Africa’s maritime boundaries are poorly managed and face several challenges such as smuggling, human trafficking, drugs as well as piracy. Thus, securing maritime border needs joint management especially as states individually lack the capacity to address such issues.

African states have made considerable efforts to develop maritime strategies to resolve challenges. In October 2016, heads of state and African Union (AU) member states signed The African Charter on Maritime Security, Safety and Development in Africa, also known as the Lomé Charter which elaborately expatiates on maritime governance.

The charter signed at the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government in Togo aims at solidifying Africa’s commitment to efficiently manage its seas to ensure sustainable, equitable and beneficial exploration of these critical resources. This charter follows the AU’s 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, AIMS which outlined the maritime vision for the entire continent.

It is inevitably true that maritime security has today become a continental priority and states are increasingly finding the need to work collectively in security maritime borders amidst the several border disputes which still exists.

Article from AFRIC editorial.

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