Reclaiming the Indian Ocean

Current Affairs

Reclaiming the Indian Ocean

Reclaiming the Indian Ocean. In Africa’s discourse today, oceans are rarely on the agenda. The main reason for the apparent disinterest in the sea seems to stem from cultural beliefs and the political neglect of coastal communities. Sadly this trend has stuck to this day and has led to the coastal communities featuring less in the economic and political decision-making on the continent, writes Wanjohi Kabukuru.

Africa needs to claim back its oceans because our borders don’t end at the beach,” Seychelles foreign affairs minister Jean-Paul Adam says, and has called for a rethink of Africa’s perceptions of its oceans. According to Adam, in Seychelles’ historical narrative, the sea is a symbol of “economic liberation”. This is from snippets gleaned from former slaves in the island nation who worked on the coconut and cinnamon plantations.

“Seychelles was a plantation-driven economy,” says Adam. “Historically in Seychelles, when we had liberation from slavery in the early to mid 19th century, the liberated slaves often found themselves in the same situation because they still had to work in the coconut and cinnamon plantations, as they had to earn a living. But those who rebelled against the status quo became fishermen. So for them the sea symbolised full freedom and more importantly, economic liberation.”

“But there has been a lack of awareness about the ocean in Africa generally,” Adam acknowledges. “Even in the Seychelles our grandparents told us not to go to the sea as you will drown, even though we are an island state. The message was ‘the sea is not for us’. The sea was not to be trusted. But the new message that Seychelles is sending to island nations and coastal states alike is that the sea is for us. We have to harness it.”

To the continent’s economic and political thinkers, the oceans represent exotic beach hotels to lure tourists for fishing excursions.But there is much more to the ocean space than tourism and artisanal fisheries. Currently the economic benefits accruing from the resources in the Western Indian Ocean shelf are heavily skewed in favour of foreign nations, showing the power matrix.

“Today sea power is becoming more profound in exercising dominance and protecting interests,” says Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The seven western Indian Ocean island and coastal states of Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles and Tanzania sharing the Indian ocean rim are not deriving the benefits they should from the vast expanse of their ocean wealth. Endowed with scenic spots and being a magnet for high-end tourists and celebrities, the Western Indian Ocean is a region of great contrasts. While Seychelles and Mauritius are classified as middle-income nations and enjoy higher living standards, one would expect the same for the coastal communities in the mainland nations. Ironically, this is not the case. The coastal communities of the mainland nations rank high in the poverty index and are the exact opposite of their island neighbours. Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya’s coastal communities are among the poorest in the region.  

It is this disconnect of mainland African policy makers that has seen the coastal communities feeling left out and marginalised, in the recent past resorting in extreme cases to seeking autonomy through secession. In Kenya, the coastal-based Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has been running a campaign dubbed “Pwani si Kenya” (Swahili for “the coast is not a part of Kenya”) and politicians within Tanzania’s island of Zanzibar have long called for full autonomy of the isles from the mainland Tanganyika. Such calls by coastal communities are largely aimed at dissuading neglect and calling on their central governments to address solutions to their endemic socio-economic difficulties and political helplessness.

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Farmer escorting his cattles

In the relatively recent past the 10 December 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force on 16 November 1994, has stirred a “scramble for the seas”. This convention has seen island and coastal nations lodging their claims with the UN, seeking greater ocean territory beyond the 200 nautical miles of economic exclusive zones (EEZ) in the last decade. As was expected many African nations have been late in this “scramble”.

“The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, convened by the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck at the request of Portugal, was Africa’s first exposure to the nefarious consequences of geopolitics,” Lopes says. “The colonial power superimposed their domains on the continent and divided it into 50 geometric incoherent boundaries which destroyed traditional links and social fabric. This was the continent’s undoing. The ongoing scramble might not have similar devastating consequences but can equally condemn the continent if Africa is not vigilant.”

Demand for more ocean space interest in offshore oil and gas has increased tremendously. Running parallel to the hydrocarbons craving is the quest for deep sea mining ventures. Yet again all these seem to favour far-distant nations. China, India, South Korea, the US and European nations are taking the lead in this.

The recent discoveries of offshore oil and gas in Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya have seen the ocean turning into a game-changer, increasing their visibility and also generating interest. These hydrocarbon finds have increased attention on the oceans, which had hitherto been ignored and are now being viewed as a strategic asset in the region. Incidentally, though the mindset of the Indian Ocean is changing among African policy makers, the benefits still favour other continents.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established under UNCLOS and is charged with the responsibility of administering the seabed, has given deep sea mining licences to South Korea, China and India in several Indian Ocean blocs. ISA is headquartered in the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. These nations are scouring three designated areas in the Indian Ocean in search of manganese nodules and other polymetallic resources in fulfillment of an aim developed in the 1970s as a result of rising metal prices. The ISA is mandated to ensure environmental protection from the possible harmful effects of deep sea mining and fair benefits trickling to developing nations from the same.

Lopes confirms the changing fortunes of the Indian Ocean. “The Western Indian ocean is increasingly becoming a hot spot as reflected by the daily discoveries of oil and gas resources in the sub-region,” Lopes says. “From Mozambique to Somalia, energy resource discoveries are drawing global attention. Gas discoveries in Mozambique and Tanzania, oil deposits and new discoveries in South Sudan and Uganda are offering deep ocean exploration rights. Tanzania and lately Seychelles (which has lifted its two-year moratorium) have opened the Western Indian Ocean region to energy resource interests, including from China and India.”

According to Lopes, Africa needs to have a say in the ownership of fleets and value capture. “National champions are needed in the maritime transportation industry,” Lopes says. He calls for a deeper look at the sea and encourages efficient logistics handling in the ports, enhancement of port facilities and smoother customs regulations and integration. These, he says, are “advantages gained through geography” and aimed at solidifying “the competitive advantage of the region in the maritime industry”.

Unwilling to sit down and complain afterwards, Seychelles, with a population of 90,000, is seeking lasting solutions that will benefit both its island and coastal neighbours. Adam, Seychelles’ lead diplomat, has called for quick and robust claims. “We have to actually say we have a stake in the sea. We have to claim our share of this resource. Currently we are not.”

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