Thursday, October 10, 2013

Non-ratification is penny foolish and pound foolish

Maritime safety and security has become an ever increasing concern for coastal countries, the Gulf of Guinea, and those in central and West Africa. The Gulf of Guinea which includes waters off Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, has seen an alarming increase in piracy with pirates targeting oil tankers, siphoning off oil cargo which is transferred unto other ships to sell on the lucrative black market.

Africa has thus become not only a hub for global crude oil theft but it also for money laundering, illegal arms and drug smuggling, human trafficking, human smuggling, environmental crime, dumping of toxic waste and maritime terrorism.  Whereas in the recent past the main problem of coastal concern was limited to illegal fishing, the problems facing these countries have gone beyond illegal poaching to include other deadly forms of exploitation of Africa's natural resources. Because of limited resources facing African countries to effectively combat these serious criminal activities at high seas, it is imperative to approach the problem globally with the collaboration of Regional and International Organizations as well as the United States and other European countries that have the required assets to deal with the problems relating to drug trafficking and international terrorism.

It was against this background that the Summit of Heads of State was convened in Yaounde, Cameroon in June 24-25 which was attended by 25 Heads of State, 13 Vice Presidents or Foerign Ministers of other African countries.  The Gambia was represented by Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy.  Regional and International Organizations were fully represented including ECOWAS, Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Commission of Gulf of Guinea (CGG), UN, International Maritime Organization and observers from Belgium, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States.

The Summit ratified the Memorandum of Understanding between ECOWAS, ECCAS and CGG and it also adopted the Code of Conduct on the prevention and Suppression of Acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships and other illicit activities.  The Summit recognized that maritime insecurity poses a serious threat to the peace and security of the region that undermines economic development, and must, therefore, be addressed regionally and bilaterally in collaboration with the international community.

In stark economic terms, Benin, for example, operations at the Port of Cotonou contribute 70% of the country's GDP or $ 7.5 billion.  Port earnings have dropped drastically as piracy increases.  Nigeria, the top oil producer in the continent with an estimated output of 2 million barrels a day have lost about 7% of its oil production to piracy.  These illegal activities in turn result in increase in insurance premiums thus adding to the cost of doing business in Africa.  A piracy expert at the University of Yaounde estimates that the region loses $ 2 billion annually as a result of piracy.

The security and safety issues facing countries along the western coast of Africa are associated more with the South American drug cartel activities than piracy but that is not to say that the latter is not a concern to states like The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea.   It has been established that Guinea-Bissau has been used as a transit point making it the first narco-state in the sub-region.  The Gambia, on the other hand is fast becoming an active transit point for drugs destined for Europe.

The recent arrest of Guinea-Bissau's former head of the navy by the American drug agency in international waters off the coast of Cape Verde for trafficking in drugs, and the seizure of two tonnes of cocaine in The Gambia with a street value of $1 billion served as reminders that the drug cartel has indeed made significant headway in this part of West Africa to warrant close bi-lateral cooperation between the United States and The Gambia.  When the drugs were seized, the Gambian authorities arrested the culprits before soliciting the assistance of the British Serious Organized Crime Agency, the equivalence of the American FBI, to conduct the forensics, the capacity of which is absent in The Gambia.  The existence of a Bilateral Agreement between UK and The Gambia facilitated the exercise to be conducted within territorial Gambia.

The Gambia's refusal to ratify, not only the bilateral agreement with the United States - which is both standard and routine among development partners - but also the Yaounde Accord, including the Code of Conduct, makes it the only country in the west and central African states not to ratify the Agreement.  I believe, even Guinea-Bissau has ratified it,   Then, apart from the diplomatic rift non-ratification may cause among neighbors in the region, it will leave a vulnerability gap that can prove to be expensive for the economies of The Gambia and other states.  This is all happening at a time when al-Qaeda-sponsored terror groups are obviously ramping up their terror activities across Africa, including the ECOWAS region.  For instance, Sierra Leone has just announced it's bolstering security because of threats from al-Shabab for Sierra Leone's support of African Union peacekeeping operations in Somalia.

As Head of State after Head of State noted at the Yaounde Summit, providing the necessary framework that guarantees safety and security in the region is expensive but to do nothing would be catastrophic.  They have, therefore, elected to engage all regional bodies, the international community including the bilateral partners. For The Gambia to abruptly refuse to ratify the bilateral Agreement with the U.S and also the Code of Conduct agreed upon in Yaounde, even after Gambia's Vice President signed off on it, is foolish and unwise. It signals to the South American drug cartel that Banjul is still open for business, and an invitation to pirates to ply their trade through the small corridor provided by the intransigent and embattled Yaya Jammeh.  The anti-neo-colonialist war that he's declared against the United Kingdom and America only serves as a temporary shelter for the frustrations of a dictator who is fighting the battle of his political life, not with Britain and America, but with a handful of Gambian dissidents with cardboard signs protesting the lack of democracy, freedom and the rule of law in The Gambia, not in the streets of Banjul but in front of Central Park's Ritz-Carlton and in Washington DC courtrooms.