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Rethinking maritime trade in Africa


Any maritime nation can use the sea to transport goods and for other civilian purposes such as fishing. More recently, exploitation of resources above or below the seabed has generated significant debate among naval thinkers. When one comes in contact with the term “sea power” for the first time, it may connote military strength at sea. However, this is not entirely true because sea power has both the naval component and economic aspect. It is an aggregate of the nation’s naval force and the maritime industry. From history, most developed countries were founded on sea power.

The foundation of sea power, in my view, is maritime trade. Navies are uniquely established to defend maritime trade; that is why when one looks deep into the sea power phenomenon, it includes a navy that rules the sea and the peaceful commerce and shipping from which a naval fleet naturally emerges and on which it firmly rests.

Like most other developing countries, African nations have raw materials, but they are not seriously engaged in trade with one another and the rest of the world. Perhaps, that is why Africa, with a population of over one billion people and France, where there are just about 65 million people, have almost the same Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Perhaps, that is why Africa, with a population of over one billion people and France, where there are just about 65 million people, have almost the same Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Africa has to rely heavily on ships and ports to service its intercontinental trade, but Africa’s shipping and ports do not, in most cases, match global trends and standards. Africa’s minimal integration in world trade within the context of sea power results from inadequacies in its maritime sector, particularly in shipbuilding, human capacity, merchant and fishing fleet, and port facilities.

The case of Nigeria is very instructive. In the period (2015- 2018), Nigerian shipowners lost over $25.3 billion paid to foreign shipowners by importers and exporters as freight charges on goods imported and exported out of the country, according to media reports.

How do African nations intend to transport their cargoes through the sea? Africa, for many years, has sought to increase its participation in the supply of shipping services. This has not been achieved as the continent’s ownership of a world fleet is limited, with no African country among the top 35 ship-owning nations in 2017, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD’s) 2019 Report on Maritime Trade in Africa.

Read also: NIMASA seals agreement with NITT to enhance maritime safety

“African – owned shipping accounts for about 1.2 per cent of world shipping and about 0.9 percent of gross tonnage, as reflected in the same UNCTAD’s Report. The report shows world trade by region, and Africa accounts for approximately 2.7 percent of global seaborne trade. The continent of Africa equally accounts for 7 percent and 5 percent of maritime exports and imports by volume within the period under review.”

Although one-third of African countries are landlocked, shipping remains the main gateway to the global market. The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a trade agreement between African Union (AU) member states to create a single market, commenced in January 2021. The major challenge of African countries is using state-owned and privately- owned ships to transport cargoes by sea and provide maritime security from one country to the other within the continent.

Shipping is the weakest part of Africa’s sea power status, and most navies have faced budget cuts in recent years.

The implementation of AfCFTA presents an opportunity for African countries to participate effectively in the transportation of enormous sea trade and commerce. Inability to improve maritime security to curb sea robbery and piracy, makes trade and investment in Africa riskier and more expensive.

In an emergency, Nigeria will depend on the merchant fleet, particularly those owned by the government and the private sector, to enhance its sealift capabilities. A nation’s sealift capabilities may include civilian–operated ships that typically operate by contract but can be chartered or annexed during times of military necessity to supplement the naval fleet. These are civilian Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT). STUFT, obtained either by contract or requisition during emergencies, are at exorbitant costs.

Despite huge costs, naval archives show that the British Government requisitioned 46 merchant vessels for operations in the Falklands War of 1982.

In 1990, Nigeria deployed 2 NNSL ships, while Ghana deployed one vessel for Liberia’s Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) operations. In order to protect shipping, provide logistics support to land forces and display subregional maritime cooperation during the Liberian crisis, an ECOMOG naval task force comprising warships, tugboats and oil tankers from member nations took part in various operations.

Thank you.

Excerpts from the book titled “Developmental Challenges of Seapower in Africa: Securing Ships, Ports and People,” by Rear Admiral (Rtd) Michael Akinsola Johnson. Published August 15, 2022.



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