Maritime Security in West and Central Africa: How YCOC Countries Fare

maritime information central west africa
Photo: Jean-Pierre Larroque, One Earth Future.

The Yaoundé Code of Conduct, otherwise known as the YCOC, is West and Central Africa’s preeminent maritime security framework. In Stable Seas’ most recent brief, titled Gauging Maritime Security in West and Central Africa, YCOC signatories are collectively and individually analyzed based on nine maritime security metrics, including illicit trades, piracy and armed robbery, and the blue economy. Some of the brief’s most prominent findings, alongside a breakdown of the YCOC structure itself, are discussed below. 

Clarifying the Yaoundé Code Architecture 

YCOC Architecture breakdown

Established on June 25, 2013, and now amassing more than 25 signatories, the YCOC has made indisputable strides towards improving information-sharing and cooperation in the Gulf of Guinea. Despite piracy and armed robbery being the foremost drivers of the framework, the YCOC tackles a diverse range of issues, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, narcotics trafficking, climate resiliency, and maritime terrorism. Coordinating this inter-regional cooperation are two regional information centers: the Regional Maritime Security Centre for Central Africa (CRESMAC) and the Regional Maritime Security Centre for West Africa (CRESMAO). The former is stationed in Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo, and serves countries in the Economic Community of Central African States, while the latter serves the Economic Community of West African States and is based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. At the highest levels, CRESMAC and CRESMAO communication is streamlined through the Interregional Coordination Centre (ICC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon, which was operationalized in 2017.  

Within CRESMAC and CRESMAO, there are five zonal multinational maritime coordination centers (MMCCs) designed to operationalize the YCOC through coordinated joint patrols, intra-regional information-sharing and training exercises, and hot pursuit agreements, amongst other things. Zones A and D serve CRESMAC, while Zones E, F, and G serve CRESMAO. Intelligence and active maritime security threats are tactically addressed through National Interagency Maritime Operation Centres, which are supported by tactical units. 

At present, CRESMAC is fully established with multinational staff, whereas CRESMAO does not have multinational staff. Zone D is the only zone coordinating joint patrols, while Zone E is the only zone with an established MMCC and multinational staff. Furthermore, funding streams for the ICC are strained, especially during Covid-19, hindering the efficacy of the YCOC. 

YCOC Security in Nine Indicators

Blue Economy

The blue economy has tremendous potential in West and Central Africa: 56 percent of West Africa’s GDP is comprised of ports, coastal agriculture and industries, and fisheries. Cabo Verde, Gabon, the Republic of the Congo (“Congo”) Nigeria, Senegal and Equatorial Guinea are a few of the countries with Blue Economy scores above the regional average, unlike Guinea, Benin, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Climate resilience, fisheries governance, and diversification beyond the oil and gas sectors are critical to regional blue economy development. Investing in these blue economy measures would also improve the socioeconomic status of coastal communities in West and Central Africa. 

Coastal Welfare

Coastal inhabitants comprise a large portion of the region’s population and are highly dependent on the ocean for their livelihoods. Although some Gulf of Guinea countries earned high Coastal Welfare scores, like Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Gabon, and Congo, others, like the DRC, Cameroon, and Nigeria, fare worse. In the latter countries, individuals sometimes turn to illicit trades for revenue, exacerbating other regional maritime security issues like piracy and armed robbery. Improving the socio-economic conditions of these communities is absolutely critical to achieving lasting security at sea in the region. 


Fisheries are threatened by marine pollution, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, and climate change. West Africa is the region that accounts for the highest proportion of IUU fishing globally; IUU catch there comprised the equivalent of 65 percent of the legally reported catch in 2017. Benin, Togo, and the DRC fare worse on this indicator compared to the higher-earning countries of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ghana, and Angola, despite having strong domestic fisheries laws. This suggests that maritime enforcement capacity is critical to effectively operationalizing these laws. A notable success story in the region is Ghana which, in a seven-year period, went from being one of the countries worst affected by IUU fishing to being one of the highest-scoring countries for Fisheries.

Illicit Trades

Illicit trades are a significant and growing problem in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Nigeria, Togo, and Ghana, which experience high levels of trafficking in narcotics (e.g., Captagon, cocaine, and tramadol), small arms and light weapons, and wildlife trafficking (e.g., pangolin scales). These trades, along with others, undermine sustainable development, socioeconomic security, and stability across the region. Interdiction capabilities are critical to curbing these trades and raising regional scores to numbers akin to those of São Tomé and Príncipe, the DRC, Angola, Mauritania, and Gabon. The brief highlights Cabo Verde, another low scoring country in the region, for its role in the increasing transshipment of cocaine from South America. However, it recognizes that Cabo Verde has significantly stepped up its law enforcement interdiction capacity, resulting in 11.7 tons of cocaine being seized between January 31 and August 3, 2019. 

International Cooperation 

International Cooperation, participation in regional and international maritime security agreements, is the highest score among the nine indicators, with two countries, Ghana and Senegal, earning perfect scores. The YCOC is one testament to this commitment by West and Central African countries to address collective regional maritime security threats. However, improvements can be made to collectively combat IUU fishing, which as of now is pervasive in numerous countries’ territorial waters. A key step here would be for relevant YCOC countries to participate in the PSMA, the Agreement on Port State Measures, which is the first binding international agreement on IUU fishing. As of now, only 11 out of 19 eligible countries in the region have signed the agreement, undermining efforts by signatory countries and perpetuating the problem of foreign fishing.   

Maritime Enforcement 

Maritime enforcement capacity is a prominent challenge for YCOC signatories, making it difficult to deter maritime crimes like IUU fishing and piracy and armed robbery. Resource constraints are tangible and drive the regional average lower. Of the YCOC countries, Nigeria ranks highest, owing to its large fleet of coastal patrol vessels and strong navy, while the DRC, Liberia, and Sierra Leone score lowest. Improved naval and coast guard capacity are critical to improving the region’s overall maritime enforcement capacity. 

Maritime Mixed Migration 

Maritime mixed migration (MMM) patterns are complex in this region, with individuals moving within, across, and out of the region. Poor socio-economic conditions, political instability, and high demands for cheap labor are key drivers of MMM. Sex and human trafficking by sea are prevalent and can be mitigated by enacting stronger national frameworks that protect victims and prosecute belligerents and by enhancing maritime enforcement capacity, to name a few things. Score-wise, Benin ranks highest for its efforts to address MMM, while Mauritania and the DRC received the region’s lowest scores.  

Piracy and Armed Robbery 

Piracy and Armed Robbery is the lowest-scoring indicator in the region, with the Gulf of Guinea having the highest global concentration of pirate activity in both 2018 and 2019. While attacks are primarily centered around Brass and Bonny in Nigeria, along with Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, and Equatorial Guinea, the broader region is still affected by violent, opportunistic, and unpredictable pirate activity. A laudable counterpiracy bill, titled Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bill, was signed into law in Nigeria in July 2019, making Nigeria the first Gulf of Guinea country to have a standalone law against piracy. Although concerns surrounding the law are valid, its implementation is an encouraging step towards mitigating piracy and armed robbery in the region. 

Rule of Law  

Rule of law is neglected in some parts of West and Central Africa, contributing to political and social instability. However, it is important to note that the region as a whole fares much better than other parts of Africa on this metric, notably due to the strengths of the countries of Ghana, Senegal, Benin, and Cabo Verde. Despite this, weak judiciary and legislative branches, a lack of coastal governance, and corruption persist, inhibiting regional improvements in the rule of law. These factors make it easier for intra- and inter-regional illicit trades to thrive, coinciding with lower Fisheries, Illicit Trades, and Coastal Welfare scores in certain countries like Cameroon. Other low-scoring countries in the region include the DRC, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. 

Check out the Stable Seas brief