When the African Union concluded the negotiations on its African Integrated Maritime Strategy earlier this year it received much appraisal. The continent had finally woken up and recognized the importance of the sea, its economic potential but also what needs to be done to secure it. The strategy foregrounds the economic development potential of the sea, and as Jan Stockbruegger argued on piracy-studies.org reflects “a particular ‘African’ understanding and experience”. The conclusion of AIMS sparked some excitement across the continent and spurred debate on how the many challenges of governing the sea efficiently can be managed. Critical voices were skeptical whether the document is actually a “strategy” or should be rather seen as wishlist, pointing to ubiquitous parts of AIMS, such as the construction of giant aquariums or kick-starting a shipbuilding industry. The more critical issue is however what the relation between the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the African Union will be in implementing the strategy. How to implement the strategy, distribute roles and responsibilities, and how to fund the actions that the strategy foresees. At present AIMS is a sensitive sprout that will require much care and indeed some fertilizers to grow into a strong tree. By summer the implementation task forces that was created within the AU legal office did not had an independent budget and an action plan and budget proposal hadn’t left the draft stage. A main hindrance for the work of the task force was that by the finalization of AIMS the bi-annual budget negotiations had already been concluded leaving little wiggle room for an AIMS budget.
What’s the state of AIMS now? To find out I met with the Taskforce in Addis Ababa. The taskforce within the African Commission remains a small team of four staff members. Its current main activity concerns the preparation of the work of a new strategic task forces. The new task force will consist of about 19 seconded representatives from regional organizations and member states working in a network structure. The task forces will lead the implementation strategy, prepare the budget as well make proposals concerning the organizational design what will eventually become a department of maritime affairs within the African Union Commission.
AIMS has had a slow start and not much of what the strategy has outlined has so far been translated into concrete projects. The first timelines of the AIMS action plan end in 2018. AIMS needs to catch up speed. 2015 will be the start of the African maritime decade. This might become a further incentive to make more efforts to translate AIMS into action.
One of the most important initial steps will be to follow the European Union account and to start developing overviews and mappings of who is doing what on the continent and what is the state of maritime governance, laws and institutions on the continent. A next step might be then to start developing a shared communication infrastructure, to ensure that the right people communicate to each other. Perhaps one solution in this regards could be a Mercury type infrastructure for the African continent. Given such a platform could be implemented relatively easily it might be a plausible step not only to ensure better continent-wide communication but to develop shared maritime situation awareness. The AU and the REC’s moreover will have to start claiming ownership and authority over maritime policy and start to orchestrate the diverse capacity building projects already going on, including those in place as part of the counter-piracy infrastructure in West and East Africa. Claiming such ownership will imply to scale up the involvement and indeed leadership in international fora such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.
The AU can draw on much support in implementing the strategy. The EU has announced close collaboration between the EU Maritime Strategy and AIMS. That also NATO is willing to step up its support, was one of the outcomes of an academic seminar taking place in Addis Ababa on 20th of November. The seminar titled “AU-NATO Collaboration: Towards a strategic partnership” was organized by the research division of the NATO Defense College and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ethiopia. If the conference’s main focus were issues such as how to fix the estrangement between both organization stemming from the Lybia intervention, the support for the African Standby Forces, or training and capacity building more broadly, maritime security and AIMS was a theme that was continuously referred to as one of the areas in which more collaboration appears promising. And indeed representatives from the AU highlighted the vitality of the maritime domain, and threats such as illegal fishing, migration and piracy.
For AIMS to swim with the cleverness, agility and smartness of a dolphin, more will have to be invested in terms of political capital, but also financial resources. The African states do not stand alone in attempting to tackle such challenges. It might be time to think about the roles different actors, and organizations, including academia and think tanks can play in supporting AIMS. Perhaps it is time to create a Group of Friends of the African Integrated Maritime Strategy.