Understanding State Sovereignty and Capacity in Fighting Blue Crime: A Reaction to Recent Policy Brief

State Maritime Capacity Gulf of Guinea
Members of the Cameroonian rapid intervention battalion during visit, board, search and seizure training in the port of Douala, Cameroon. Photo: Joshua Davies, US Navy.

Stable Seas has provided useful and insightful reports and briefs in 2020, and their latest edition, Policy Beyond Counter-Piracy: Improving Maritime Enforcement Capacity, Fisheries, Coastal Welfare, and Rule of Law in the Gulf of Guinea is no exception. It provides useful analysis of the status quo and specific recommendations on ways forward.

It is important to underline that efforts to fight blue crime are based on state sovereignty, which an earlier Stable Seas report from 2020 also suggested. Unfortunately, as highlighted in the report, a part of the problem with blue crime in the Gulf of Guinea comes from underinvestment in navies and coastguards throughout the Gulf of Guinea and the lack of comprehensive situational awareness in the maritime domain. These factors reduce states’ capacity to respond to incidents at sea, which is crucial as attacks are increasingly happening farther out than previously seen.

It is also important to understand that state capacities consist of different elements. It refers to maritime assets that can respond to incidents at sea and as the ability to monitor the maritime domain.

The report suggests that states should prioritise their navies and coast guards, as they are often under-prioritised vis-à-vis armies. This might be hard for them to realise due to the prevalence of land-based conflicts and security issues. Nonetheless, given the importance of state sovereignty, the report is right in highlighting the need for more navy and coast guard assets in order to combat blue crime, even if allocating the necessary funds may prove difficult.

The report also suggests that states increase their intelligence capabilities to prevent organised crime and strengthen navies’ ability to predict, prevent, and respond to instances of blue crime. A recurring point in the discussion on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea is the contribution of commercial maritime actors – or the lack thereof.

I have recently conducted several interviews that confirm the trust deficit between the maritime industry and the Yaoundé Architecture, along with the states in the region. The industry could play an important role in information sharing and situational awareness on the maritime domain. Commercial ships are present throughout the Gulf and sometimes the target of blue crime such as piracy. The industry does not share information with the local authorities for different reasons, for instance, because they fear leaks that could endanger crews. Meanwhile, officers in the Yaoundé structure are frustrated by the lack of quick and reliable information from commercial shipping. Through trust-building efforts, it might be possible to bring authorities and commercial actors together towards a shared understanding to their mutual benefit.

All in all, the recent publication by Stable Seas is worth a read! It sums up main problems on anti-blue crime measures and suggests ways forward.