An African Arms Race: Full Speed Ahead?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Ex U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin (WHEC 721), decommissioned in March 2014 and transfered to Nigeria will be soon commissioned under the name NNS Okpabana in the Nigerian Navy.

Ex U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin (WHEC 721), decommissioned in March 2014 and transfered to Nigeria will be soon commissioned under the name NNS Okpabana in the Nigerian Navy.

Across Africa, maritime forces are undergoing rapid development, ostensibly to address the threat of piracy in such crucial waterways as the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea. Thanks in part to vessels received through the United States’ Excess Defence Articles program, the Nigerian Navy has emerged as the leading maritime power in West Africa. Even small states, like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, are acquiring new vessels. In many respects, this would seem to be a positive development, allowing African countries to share in some of the burden of securing international shipping lanes.

But there is some cause for concern. In recent years, African maritime boundary disputes have risen dramatically, both in terms of frequency and tension, creating uncertainty over the ownership of considerable off-shore oil reserves. In September 2014, Ghana brought legal action against Cote d’Ivoire regarding the status of the maritime boundary between the two countries in the Gulf of Guinea. Meanwhile, Kenya and Somalia have been locked in a series of similar legal battles. Oil exploration in Lake Malawi has also sparked tensions between Malawi and Tanzania. It is in this context that the hurried armament of African navies takes on a disturbing character.

For much of its history, the maritime forces of Cote d’Ivoire consisted of a small collection of coastal patrol boats and 300 personnel at the most, although much of this navy was scrapped in the midst of a brief civil war in 2011. In January 2014, Ivorian authorities purchased 40 new patrol vessels for the stated purpose of fending off pirate groups. It is doubtful that Cote d’Ivoire would be able to win a sustained naval war with neighbouring Ghana, even with the boost to its maritime forces from this large-scale procurement project. But such a force could certainly be a deterrent to perceived Ghanaian incursions into the waters claimed by Ivorian authorities in the Gulf of Guinea. Such rapid armament by one of the two parties to the dispute also offers a much different context to the mainstream understanding of Africa’s naval procurements.

A HIS 32 Interceptor patrol vessel.

A HIS 32 Interceptor patrol vessel.

This could extend to riverine forces as well. The Mozambican Navy recently took delivery of three HIS 32 Interceptor patrol vessels from the French shipbuilder Constructions Mecaniques de Normandies (CMN) and a further order of three Ocean Eagle 43 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) is expected to be completed soon. This follows Mozambique’s acquisition of a patrol vessel from the Spanish Navy in 2012. Thus far, the Mozambican Navy’s procurement projects have been concentrated on offshore patrol capabilities and efforts to secure tuna fishing, but future attention will likely be paid to exerting sovereignty over sections of the Zambezi River, the longest east-flowing river in Africa. The Zambezi River also flows through Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe before reaching Mozambique and the waters of the Mozambique Channel beyond. Any of these countries could begin militarizing this important waterway.

In September 2014, Angola concluded an agreement with Brazil that will see the latter supply the former with seven Macaé-class OPVs. Efforts by the Angolan authorities to modernize their maritime forces could easily be expanded to include the purchase of inshore patrol vessels from Brazil or another supplier. The Namibian Navy acquired a Grajau-class patrol boat from Brazil in 2009 as well. The Zimbabwe Defence Force has no formal maritime branch, but the country maintains a significant paramilitary force that could interfere with riverine traffic if called upon to do so. Given the frenzy of fleet modernization and expansion among these states, the militarization of the Zambezi River is more a question of “when” not “if”.

Ocean Eagle 43 Offshore Patrol Vessel.

Ocean Eagle 43 Offshore Patrol Vessel.

In any case, as concerns grow that countries across Africa are engaged in maritime-focused arms races, it will be increasingly necessary for defence partners of African states to condition their military aid. The United States has instituted an African Partnership Station, through which US personnel provide training and other forms of assistance to the military forces of select African states. This is intended to improve the capacity of these countries to contend with organized crime, armed insurgencies, and other threats. In order for African states’ maritime forces to receive training assistance or excess defence articles, such as the decommissioned US Coast Guard cutters transferred to Nigeria in previous years, such countries should not be engaged in maritime boundary disputes. In order to address such disputes, the relevant states could be encouraged to pursue third-party arbitration or to embrace the idea of joint development areas. The latter enabled Guinea-Bissau and Senegal to settle their maritime boundary dispute in 1993.

The risk remains, however, that the unilateral enforcement of conditionality by the US will only limit American influence in the region and will have little to no effect on Africa’s arms races. In October 2014, Chinese maritime forces held joint exercises with the Tanzanian Navy; elsewhere in East Africa, China is working to establish a permanent naval base in Djibouti. There is substantial risk that China could simply replace the US as an aid provider should the latter pursue a policy of conditionality.

The optimum approach may be for the US and its NATO partners to pursue a case-by-case approach, employing creative diplomacy to bring the parties to maritime boundary disputes together in joint exercises as part of a strategy to secure agreements modelled on that enjoyed by Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. In the meantime, the prospects for a violent clash between Ivorian and Ghanaian forces at sea grow day by day.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, International, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy, Somalia.

One Response to An African Arms Race: Full Speed Ahead?

  1. Jean Racine says:

    Much like the previous article on Exercise IBSAMAR, this one merely continues assuming African states have no agency and require permanent tutelage.

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