A look at the Yaoundé Architecture and the progress made thus far is representative of what can be achieved when the region and their international partners work together. Even with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, partners have amended their approach to provide relevant support through continued online training for maritime and legal personnel, as is the case with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Maritime Crime Programme and European Union (EU) Critical Maritime Route Programme. In September, the Obangame SLS, which was cancelled due to COVID-19, had a successful debut with its virtual symposium; the Initial Planning Event (IPE) for Exercise Obangame Express 2021 (OE21) was also successfully held online. Relatedly, the French Navy restarted Mission Corymbe by dispatching “Tonnerre” to the region in June and “Cdt Ducuing” in October, having previously withdrawn “Lieutenant de Vaisseau Le Hénaff” in March due to COVID-19. Partners have continued to provide support by donating personal protective equipment to allow agencies across the region to continue to do their work effectively. All these and more are ways that international partners are adapting to the current realities as they continue to support regional efforts to improve maritime safety and security.
Nevertheless, more is needed to ensure that international cooperation is indeed collaborative, acknowledging the progress made by the region and working in ways that are reflective of such improvement. For instance, rather than coming from a position of “here is what we will do to support you,” international partners must come with a posture of, “we understand that there are issues here, here, and there; how can we help?” We talk about the importance of a collaborative approach in the development and management of the blue economy, involving relevant stakeholders in the decision- making process; and while the relationship between some partners are indeed collaborative, more effort is needed to ensure that such collaborative relationships are at the core of engagement with the region.
There are other pertinent issues that international partners need to reflect on as they continue to engage and support Gulf of Guinea countries to improve safety and security, two of which are outlined below.
First, despite the recognition of the progress made by the Yaoundé Architecture for Maritime Safety and Security, which have resulted in successful interdiction and rescuing stranded crews, vessels operating in the region continue to send some distress calls through Shipowners, MDAT-GoG and IMB. To acknowledge this progress, there is an urgent need to review the protocol of piracy/armed at sea distress calls to include the regional system and local agencies who are the first responders. This would not only ensure that those that need help get it in record time, but could potentially result in the increase in the number of successful interdictions.
Second, despite the recognition of the links between harmful subsidies and overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which deprive the Gulf of Guinea population of their livelihood, and in turn make them hopeless prey in the hands of criminals, international partners continue to drag their feet in relation to taking steps to end harmful subsidies. Further, the lack of transparency in the fisheries agreement with countries in the region undermines efforts to ensure social equity and ecological conservation, which leaves many coastal residents, especially women, vulnerable. The contributions of partners such as the EU in supporting regional fisheries advisory bodies like the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea and the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission to enhance fisheries’ sustainability is well recognised. However, given the link between harmful subsidies and overfishing, including IUU fishing, partners must walk the talk on sustainability by committing to cutting these subsidies.
Finally, while the onus is on the Gulf of Guinea countries to take control of their seas by ensuring that the internal issues related to cooperation and collaboration between member states are addressed, international partners have an essential role to play, as the impact of failing to do so cuts across borders. Therefore, through their actions, partners must recognise the progress made so far in the region, and support policies that would enhance the livelihood of coastal communities who might otherwise be susceptible to engaging in illicit activities due to inadequate coastal welfare.