To the Shores of the Gulf of Guinea? - An American Role in African Maritime Security

By Matthew La Lime


A growing number of West Africa’s littoral states find their waters plagued by illegal fishing, piracy, human and narcotics trafficking, and terrorism, all of which place regional food security and economic development in peril. As a result, the Gulf of Guinea is now most the world’s most dangerous maritime area.


With US support, African leaders have worked to develop international frameworks and strategies to address the underlying causes and effects of  maritime insecurity. Yet, these action plans remain wanting because certain states either lack or are unwilling to devote the necessary resources to confront key maritime challenges.


Wealthier, more developed states must pay their share and coastal neighbors must deepen collaboration with one another to develop comprehensive regional and national maritime security strategies. In cases where capital and capability are lacking, the United States should provide African partners with additional direct technical and financial assistance.

Executive Viewpoint

The recent history of maritime security cooperation between the United States and West African countries in the Gulf of Guinea should be heralded as a success story. Both of the conferences that led to the signing of the Yaoundé (2013) and Luanda Declarations (2015), which the United States helped organize. Over the past four years, signatories have made some efforts to restructure and invest civil and military institutions to improve coastal security and develop streamlined responses to illegal fishing and piracy. Successive Defense Department sponsored workshops held in Cape Verde (February-March, 2013), Ghana (June, 2013), and Togo (February, 2014), have provided space for African leaders to establish shared judicial frameworks for countering maritime security threats and develop strategies for deepening cooperation between African civil and military actors.

However, West African states continue to face numerous logistical, organizational, and financial barriers that impede their abilities to effectively address the causes and effects of illegal fishing, piracy, and illicit trade in drugs and persons. For instance, a lack of economic and human resources means that governments like Cape Verde are often unaware as to the extent of their maritime wealth and remain oblivious to the scale and nature of illegal activities unfolding in their waters. Others, like Nigeria have made greater progress towards developing their own national strategies, but remain unwilling to devote a proportional share of their financial and military resources to addressing the regional spillover effects of the oil theft and piracy that occur along the country’s coast. International conferences on maritime security have provided frameworks for political and military leaders to identify key threats and elaborate avenues for inter-state engagement. Yet, these meetings have not led to the creation of comprehensive action plans capable of promoting a culture of sustained collaboration between states’ civil and military bureaus.  

To counter these issues, signatories of the Yaounde and Luanda Declarations need to provide one another with additional assistance and reaffirm their commitment to developing national maritime reconnaissance and security strategies. Much of the progress that has occurred in this area to date has followed on the heels of meetings and workshops sponsored by the US State and Defense Departments, with the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) playing a key role. Now, it is up to West African leaders to organize within these frameworks to share best practices and lessons learnt. From this, they will be able to lead the way in developing both national and supranational solutions to problems plaguing African waters. Officials from Senegal to Angola must also aim to deepen collaboration not just amongst presidents and generals, but among mid-level civil, military, and intelligence to agents to share information, refine coordinated response strategies, and establish a culture of international cooperation. Finally, because the maritime security situation of some states can be affected by those of their neighbors, it is important that states like Nigeria devote additional resources to confronting the causes, or at the very least, work to contain the effects of oil theft and piracy unfolding in historically troubled regions like the Niger Delta.    

However, we must also acknowledge that West African states have an earnestly limited capacity to confront and solve maritime security challenges. The AFRICOM and State Department must maintain and deepen their leadership roles by continuing to act as a facilitator for inter-African cooperation, and by providing states with the necessary intelligence for them to develop detailed maritime security strategies. In certain cases AFRICOM may also consider providing governments with concrete monetary and technical assistance. Most importantly, the United States and its partners must place additional political pressure on states conducting illegal fishing activities in coastal areas—a practice which fuels regional piracy and has a hugely detrimental effect on to economic and food security in the Gulf of Guinea.


A ‘landcentric’ approach to security in Africa has meant that the continent’s policymakers have typically paid little attention to confronting maritime security challenges. African military response to the crisis off the shores of Somalia during the last decade proved extremely lacking, with regional blocs and the African Union failing to send even a single battalion or ship to aid in international efforts to suppress piracy in the Horn of Africa. Persistent foreign engagement and the gradual militarization of cargo ships has caused piracy to all but vanish off the coast of Somalia. However, the underlying causes of armed ship robbery, including illegal fishing and poverty, remain present in the region. These prove detrimental to Somalia’s people and place constraints on their abilities to access resources vital for both development and subsistence.   

With assistance from the United States, West African states have begun to work together to tackle illegal fishing, curb the causes and effects of piracy, bolster resource and maritime security, and guarantee citizens’ access to the Atlantic ocean’s bounty. The Yaounde Declaration (2013) represented the first regional convention between ECOWAS and ECCAS to develop viable and cooperative solutions to this question. A series of State Department and Defense Department sponsored workshops in Cape Verde, Ghana, and Togo soon followed, culminating in the Luanda Declaration (2015). Through these meetings West African states have sought to establish frameworks of cooperative engagement that grant states added capacity and help to define detailed strategies for confronting challenges. Law enforcement and military officials from Senegal to Nigeria can now pursue pirates across one another’s waters. Nigeria’s and Angola’s leaders have also devoted additional resources to protecting fisheries and oil, and all have recognized the causal relationship between economic and social instability and the maritime insecurity.

These workshops and the resulting actions should be regarded as a positive example of US-Africa and inter-African state cooperation. But numerous challenges remain. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing carried out by countries like Norway, South Korea, and South Africa along the West African coast continue to cost states and their people billions of dollars in revenue. West Africa also finds itself at the center of a rising trade in human trafficking and migration.

The movement of South American narcotics highways away from Europe and towards Africa and Asia has had detrimental effects on a young and underemployed population prone to drug use and abuse. Piracy has been a long term security issue for states on the Gulf of Guinea, in most cases resulting from difficult economic conditions on land, but also due to illegal fishing by foreign entities.


West and Equatorial Africans face difficult maritime security challenges caused by a range of international and domestic factors. This situation limits their ability to successfully tap maritime resources and grow industry.  African leaders have worked with one another and the United States to construct a series of frameworks that allow them to confront the threat of maritime insecurity in a more streamlined and cooperative manner. Yet, more is needed. African states must continue to work with one another to establish detailed maritime security strategies and more comprehensive frameworks for engagement, but the United States must go beyond capacity building to provide more tangible assistance to its African partners. The US must work with African states to address piracy, but it must also use its unique position to pressure illegal fishers to either cease their illegal activities or accept stringent supervision and oversight from African states and international regulatory bodies. If this problem is brought under control, the economic benefits for African states and their people will be substantial.