Reclaiming the Maritime? The AU’s New Maritime Strategy

Jan Stockbruegger, Cardiff University

In the past, the maritime domain has not featured prominently on the policy agenda of the African Union and Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Neither the 1963 founding Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OUA), nor the 2002 Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU the successor of the AOU) contain any explicit reference to the sea or inland waterways and lakes.

On 31 January, at the 22nd Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, African Heads of States and Governments adopted the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Stragey, see webpage here) and Plan of Action. Outlining an overall strategy “to address Africa’s maritime challenges for sustainable development and competitiveness” (§11), the strategy is in fact only the latest piece in a number of maritime security efforts on the continent and “flag a recent pattern of African responses to maritime vulnerabilities that says something about a declaratory shift away from a period of self-imposed sea blindness” (Vrey 2013: 4). In fact, Africa’s leaders also declared the 2015-2025 decade as the “Decade of African Seas and Oceans”, and the date of 25 July as the African Day of Seas and Oceans.

According to Bueger (2013), these developments indicate the emergence of African maritime security communities. A “security community is characterized by a shared repertoire that includes a shared securitization, a joint enterprise to include shared projects of protection, and a high level of mutual engagement” (ibid: 303).

The 2050 AIM Strategy is the one of the first true African effort to reclaim the continent’s maritime security agenda and to move it beyond the international counter-piracy agenda. Towards this end, the strategy sets out to strengthen, develop and shape a coherent African maritime security community; this community, as it takes shape in The 2050 AIM Strategy and other initiatives, reflects African experiences and desires, and seeks to define an African programme for the protection and realization of Africa’s maritime development potential.

The 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy

The AU secretariat started to develop ideas for jointly addressing the African Maritime Domain (AMD) from 2007. A revised version of the 1993 maritime transport charter, the so-called Durban Resolution, was adopted in 2009. In that year, African Heads of State and Governments called upon the AU Commission (AUC) “to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy” (African Union 2009: §18)  – the 2050 AIM Strategy, which was eventually adopted in January 2014.

The 2050 AIM Strategy provides an overall understanding of maritime security that encompasses the economic, social, environmental and security dimensions. Its vision, which it derives from the 2002 Constitutive Act, is “to foster more wealth creation from Africa’s oceans, seas and inland water ways by developing a thriving maritime economy and realizing the full potential of sea-based activities in an environmentally sustainable manner” (§11). This multidimensional approach and perspective on maritime security governance is exemplified in the threats it defines to Africa’s seaborne development potential. These include organized crime (including piracy, smuggling and human trafficking) and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, natural disasters, environmental degradation and climate change, threats to strategic communication systems, vulnerable legal frameworks, and a lack of and/or poorly maintained aids to navigation (e.g. nautical charts and maritime safety information).

A number of strategic objectives are set to address these challenges and to form a comprehensive policy framework for maritime collaboration towards the realization of Africa’s seaborne development potential. Among others, the 2050 AIM Strategy envisions the establishment of a Combined Exclusive Maritime Zone of Africa (CEMZA), to enhance awareness on maritime issues by engaging civil society and other stakeholders, to strengthen maritime capacities and capabilities, to ensure maritime safety and security, to minimize environmental damages and to prevent criminal and hostile acts at sea. It also seeks to protect populations, maritime heritages (e.g. biodiversity) and critical infrastructures from pollution and toxic and nuclear waste dumping and to improve the management of Integrated Coastal Zones, as well as promoting the ratification, domestication and implementation of international legal instruments and creating synergies and coherence between different sectoral policies within and between the RECs/RMs.

To implement the AIMS and to achieve its ambitious objectives, the establishment of a number of new policies, strategies, agencies and coordination mechanisms is suggested. Beside the Combined Exclusive Maritime Zone of Africa (CEMZA), this includes but is not limited to a representative continental working group of Chiefs of African Navies and/or Coast Guards (CHANS), and standardized Regional Maritime Headquarters (MHQ) with Maritime Operational Coordination Centers (MOC) in all RECs/RMs, a Common Fisheries Policy, a Trans-Saharan Crime Monitoring Network, a continental wide and multidisciplinary Oceans and Seas Research Institute of Africa (OSERIA), a cross-sectoral Strategic Foresight Marine Task Force (SFMTF), a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), and an integrated multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary Maritime Disaster Management Strategy for Africa.

The 2050 AIM Strategy describes an ambitious and coherent policy approach for sustainable maritime security and development in Africa. It seeks to enshrine maritime security at the continental level, to strengthen collaboration between the AU, the RECs, member states and international partners, and to construct new fields for maritime policy and engagement at continental level.

Africa Unite: Maritime Security Communities

Maritime security practices and initiatives in Africa have so far been situated at the sub-regional level (for instance the 2009 Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC in East Africa, the 2013 Yaoundé Declaration in West Africa and efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADEC). The 2050 AIM Strategy seeks to shift African maritime security policy to the continental level and, by doing so, reasserts the strategic leadership role of the AUC and its agencies. Africa, rather than international trade or a specific region, becomes the referent object that needs protection. The strategy argues that “AU Member States have common maritime challenges and opportunities” and outlines a strategy to address threats that could “inflict catastrophic economic harm to African States” (§15).

To get Africa’s various regional security communities on board, AIMS had to be conceptualized in an open and participatory way. This was to ensure that various actors and stakeholders were able to get involved and to contribute to the development of AIMS. Work on a comprehensive African maritime (security) strategy started formally in 2010. A task force was created in 2010 to develop a draft for what was now called the 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy. The draft was discussed at further expert workshops throughout 2011 and 2012, as well as at the level of senior government officials and at a conference for Ministers Responsible for Maritime-Related Affairs.

As a result, the 2050 AIM Strategy provides as a coherent policy framework that actively incorporates regional and international maritime security mechanisms, such as the DCoC, the Contact Group on Piracy of the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) code. It has also represents the continent’s political infrastructure, in particular AU institutions and documents, such as the Peace and Security Council and the AU Constitutive Act, as well as “AU Member States, local communities, specialized regional institutions and associations, the African maritime private sector, strategic development partners and the international community as a whole”(§24).

Mutual engagement and the development of common repertoires of practices and ideas are a key element of AIMS. To coordinate multiple maritime security actors and initiatives at the continental level, AIMS 2050 urges the creation of a “common template for the AU, the RECs/RMs, and relevant Organizations” (§20), and calls on these actors to “develop, coordinate and harmonize policies and strategies” (§9). Proposed maritime governance projects, such as the Combined Exclusive Maritime Zone of Africa, a Common Fisheries Policy and a Strategic Foresight Marine Task Force (SFMTF) also provide space for mutual engagement between maritime security and governance practitioners on the continent. The strategy also projects the creation of regular review mechanisms, and a 2050 AIMStrategyHighLevelCollege of Champions (HLC2) will lobby throughout Africa for the implantation of the strategy.

The 2050 AIM Strategy is as an important component of Africa’s maritime security infrastructure, and as an effort to strengthen and to construct a more coherent African maritime security community under the strategic leadership of the AU. The strategy is the product of mutual engagement and emphasises a continental understanding of maritime security; it provides a coherent and overarching policy framework for the activities of fragmented stakeholders, infrastructures and communities; and it enables actors to connect, coordinate and organize maritime security at continental level.

Reclaiming Maritime Security beyond Piracy

Yet the 2050 AIM Strategy seeks to do more than to just strengthen a more coherent African approach to maritime security. It also seeks to give shape to the emerging African maritime security community by foregrounding a particular ‘African’ understanding and experience of what maritime security is about. The 2050 AIM Strategy defines maritime security from a continental perspective that encompasses the environmental, economic, social and security dimensions of the AMD. Its objective is to better govern these spheres in order to protect and to realize Africa’s maritime development potential. The document outlines an overall strategy “to address Africa’s maritime challenges for sustainable development and competitiveness” (§11) and “to foster more wealth creation from Africa’s oceans, seas and inland water ways by developing a thriving maritime economy and realizing the full potential of sea-based activities in an environmentally sustainable manner” (§11).

This ‘African’ conceptualization goes beyond the narrow piracy centrist perspective that has driven international maritime security efforts so far. The international community has neglected the broader environment of maritime insecurity, environmental degradation and illegal fishing in Africa. Yet it is this environment that has arguably prevented Africa from realizing its maritime development potential. The international counter-piracy approach thus reflects the interests of global economic powers dependent on maritime trade (largely western states) rather than those of African states, people and coastal communities. In fact, in their decision instigating the development of the 2050 AIM Strategy, the AU Assembly of African Heads of States and Governments strongly condemned “all illegal activities in these regions, including piracy, illegal fishingand dumping of toxic waste” (African Union 2009: §18); and the 2050 AIM Strategy even demands “appropriate compensation for the five-decades of losses due to IUU and over fishing” (§43).

It is against this background that Africa, through the 2050 AIM Strategy and other efforts, is beginning to construct a maritime security community based on its own experiences, needs and practices. It is an African attempt to reclaim the maritime security agenda from external actors and to define a coherent and development oriented maritime security strategy for the continent that serves the interests of all stakeholders. This is to satisfy the development needs of African states and people as well as international concerns over piracy and the security of global shipping lines. As the inclusive approach of the AU strategy makes clear, maritime security is a matter of good order as well as of just order at sea. Maritime security has to be provided for everyone, and maritime security governance needs to be more inclusive and provide space for the voices and agendas of less powerful groups of global society.


Africa is reasserting itself on the global maritime security agenda, and it is trying to do so on its own terms. The agenda of the 2050 AIM Strategy is certainly ambitious, and given the lack of resources for such activities on the continent, its implementation will largely depend on international funding and support. The sustainability of its maritime security community and the practices that constitute it are fragile. Recent international initiatives, such as the EU naval capacity building mission EUCAP NESTOR and development projects in Somalia, seem to indicate that a greater convergence between African and international maritime security practices is emerging. Nevertheless, for most international actors piracy is most likely to remain more important than fish and African development; and though such ‘development’ issues might be targeted within a comprehensive counter-piracy strategy (e.g. Bueger et al 2011), it remains to be seen whether or not the international community is willing to support the full implementation of the 2050 AIM Strategy beyond measures aimed at protecting international merchant shipping.

Literature and further reading

African Union. 2009. “Decision on the Report of the Peace and Security Council on its Activities and the State of Peace and Security in Africa”, Assembly/AU/Dec.252(XIII). Decision adopted by the 13th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly held in Sirte, Libya, on July 2009.

Bueger, Christian. 2013. “Communities of Security Practice at Work? The Emerging African Maritime Security Regime”, African Security, 6 (3-4), 297–316 (Open Access!).

Bueger, Christian and Jan Stockbruegger and Sascha Werthes. 2011. “Pirates, Fishermen and Peacebuilding: Options for Counter-Piracy Strategy”, Contemporary Seucrity Policy, 32 (2), 356-381.

Vrey, Francois. 2013. “Turning the Tide: Revisiting African Maritime Security”. Scientia Militaria – Journal of Military Studies, 41 (2), 1–23 (Open Access!).

Commentary originally published on Piracy Studies