On September 22, in a vivid display of the spreading dangers in African waters, pirates armed with Kalashnikov rifles attempted to seize an oil platform off the coast of Nigeria. Although they failed, the pirates kidnapped three Frenchmen and a Thai mariner. It was at least the 11th attempted act of piracy in Nigerian waters this year.

Meanwhile, on the same day in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the UN Millennium Summit and signed a Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, the first of its kind. Through his new policy, Obama intends to “foster the next generation of emerging markets by enhancing our focus on broad-based economic growth and democratic governance.”

Although the act of piracy and Obama’s speech occurred half a world apart, the two events were deeply interconnected. The African maritime sector, ridden with piracy on its eastern and western seaboards, plays a largely unheralded but critical role in the attempt of African states to emerge onto the global market. A new U.S. emphasis on African maritime development -- dedicated not only to rooting out piracy and preventing transport of narcotics and weapons but also renovating ports, streamlining maritime bureaucracies, and investing in businesses and job creation -- could serve as a bold effort to implement the president’s development strategy. To that end, and to support ongoing military and diplomatic efforts to counter piracy and other crimes at sea, the administration should develop a signature program geared toward growing (and revolutionizing) Africa’s maritime sector.

Ninety percent of international trade moves across water, making access to the sea instrumental in realizing economic growth. Unfortunately, African leaders have ignored the ocean for years and have only recently awakened to its importance thanks to the notoriety of Somali piracy. Yet Africa’s maritime woes do not end with Somali piracy; other security threats from the sea pose serious challenges for African states and the international community. Seaborne delivery of weapons of mass destruction to the United States or Europe is a real possibility and is most likely to come from a vessel passing through waters where maritime governance is patchy, such as West Africa. Narcotics trafficking (chiefly South American cocaine but increasingly South Asian heroin as well), illegal siphoning of oil from offshore pipelines, and illegal fishing all impede African political stability and economic growth. These threats are global in scope and demand international attention.

Africa has the least efficient ports in the world. Dwell times -- the amount of time a ship must stay in port -- for the loading and unloading of cargo exceed global averages by several days and are nearly quadruple those of Asian ports, thus driving up shipping costs through delays. No African port can be found on the list of the top 70 most productive in the world. As a result, shipping companies send smaller, older, and cheaper ships to Africa in an effort to reduce their losses.

A number of factors are to blame: poor harbor maintenance, bureaucratic red tape, inadequate maritime law enforcement, and lax security. Additionally, Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in Singapore, has demonstrated that pirates and other maritime criminals tend to prey on old, slow, decrepit ships -- the types of ships that inefficient and unsecured African ports and waterways attract -- because they are easy targets. Half of the ships successfully hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009 fell into the category of the smallest merchant ships.

Moreover, many African ports cannot handle ships of median size due to infrastructure limitations. Meanwhile, the global shipping industry has been modernizing its fleets, scrapping obsolete vessels for newer mega-carriers. This means that shipping companies will continue deploying their remaining smaller and slower ships for transport to and from Africa, increasing the number of easy targets for pirates and further impeding Africa’s ability to export products efficiently. In this environment, companies producing goods in Africa cannot reliably or efficiently get their wares to market. This plays a large role in explaining why Africa garners only 2.7 percent of global trade despite its cheap labor force, cheap commodities, and proximity to major markets.

A crucial means of countering piracy, oil theft, narcotics trafficking, and terrorism along the African coast is creating better job opportunities. Development approaches usually focus on land-based projects such as agriculture. To be sure, African states need to attract investors for manufacturing companies, but they must also entice shipping companies to get those goods to market. The poor state of Africa’s maritime sector is the most important factor stifling the continent’s growth.

To remedy the problem, African states will need to lure modern shipping vessels by upgrading ports, improving maritime governance, and creating sustainable maritime law enforcement. The African Union has already established a number of important measures, such as requiring its member states to harmonize regional maritime laws and standardize regulations with regard to vessel registry. But without its own funding, the AU lacks the means to enforce these measures.

The United States, working with the United Nations, the AU, and other states and organizations, should help African countries revolutionize their maritime sectors through the implementation of a program -- call it the African Maritime Growth Initiative -- that aims to expand infrastructure, efficiency, and security. For its part, the AU should first establish clear leadership for the AMGI. It needs a strong special representative who is capable of coordinating maritime issues among all eight commissions within the AU and the regional economic communities, partner with the business community to develop and articulate a plan to revolutionize the African maritime sector, and play a central role in the AMGI.

The AMGI should focus first and foremost on providing funding and technical support to improve port infrastructure and efficiency. Most African ports require larger piers, better dredging of channels, improved roadways and railways connecting to port terminals, and greater numbers of cranes for handling cargo. The initiative should tie its support for such capital infrastructure improvements to compliance with measures geared toward bettering maritime governance and transparency.

Meanwhile, the United States and other nations can provide the large ships necessary for maritime law enforcement initiatives and allow Africans to operate from them. This approach has been tested and proven in West Africa, where the United States conducts periodic short-term patrols. Through this program, African teams operating from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships caught five ships for illegally fishing in African waters in 2009. This method helps build African capacity and spreads the financial burden of maritime security across various countries, but it must be sustained for longer periods to achieve measurable and lasting effects.

As part of the AMGI, the international community should continue its patrols off the Somali coast while beginning to collaborate with African navies to enhance security and governance in other challenging waters, such as the Gulf of Guinea. African states bear the long-term responsibility for maintaining security in their waters, but they will need time to build a corps of experienced and professional sailors, as well as accrue the assets to build adequate maritime vessels and security systems. Other nations must share the burden in the interim, allowing African countries to concentrate their funds on infrastructure, institutional modernization, and commercial development.

Combined, the steps outlined above would reassure worldwide investors that products produced in Africa can reliably and efficiently reach the global market. Modernization and commercial opportunity would offer new, legitimate employment opportunities to potential pirates and criminals while reducing the number of decrepit ships highly vulnerable to pirate attacks. The AMGI would not only combat piracy; it would be the cornerstone for establishing Africa as an emerging market.

Both African leaders and the international community have only recently awakened to the dangers lurking off Africa’s coast. But they must also recognize the economic opportunities that exist there and begin to seize them. This means that nations around the world need to partner with African countries to make bold, long-term commitments to the African maritime sector. A flourishing African oceanic trade system will entice companies to establish factories and plants on African soil, increase Africa’s exports, and boost GDP and security through job creation. Without a substantial revitalization effort, however, Africa’s biggest exports will continue to be its brightest students and raw commodities. And its best mariners will continue to fly the skull and crossbones.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MICHAEL LYON BAKER is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are his own. A longer version of this article will appear in the Winter 2011 issue of the Naval War College Review.
  • More By Michael Lyon Baker