Africa is waking up from its acute sea-blindness

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By Philip Otieno

According to NASA Earth Observatory, at least 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water; 97 percent of water is made up by seas and oceans. Africa has a combined coastline of 38 countries covering some 17,000 square kilometres. Its continental shelf is well endowed with aquatic life, natural resources oil and gas, which render seas as one of the biggest unexploited industries in Africa. Seas do not have fences or Donald Trump’s much talked about wall with Mexico, and aquatic animals and minerals know no territorial borders; it is up to us to devise ways of tapping into this vast resource to harness its boundless potential.

A rudimentary definition of sea blindness would mean ignorance of seas and oceans’ worth, or lack of insight into the strategic importance of large water masses. Africa has suffered from this alarming sightlessness for decades but, in the 21st Century, it is not just blindness; it is unforgivable ignorance. 

A lot of items we use in day-to-day operations have literally been shipped in through our ports. If you ask most people in Africa about their oceans and sea’s worth they will look at you in disbelief. The early education systems in most African countries did not envisage or contemplate our unique lack of foresight. There are few Africans who venture to sea-related careers, while most know nothing about the marine industry.

As nation-states lay claim to land so do they do to the seas. When colonialists set foot on the shores of Africa as early as the 16th Century, Africans had little knowledge of the benefits of our water bodies. We were so preoccupied with our lands that even our fight for freedom was land-cantered. The main grievance of freedom fighting movements was land, with no claim to beaches, shores and banks. While we fought for land, we left the seas for the imperialists to do with as they pleased.

Each country along the continental shelf, according to International Law, has a 12-nautical mile claim to water immediately off its shores. Then there are the 200 nautical miles known as the Exclusive Economic Zone for economic activity.  These have been neglected for so long that our waters became infested with pirates. In brief, we have been missing a great opportunity. 

Legal tussles among nation-states have raised awareness on sea blindness. Various cases have been lodged in the ICJ by African countries fighting over territorial water boundaries. Today, for example, Kenya and Somalia are quarrelling about approximately 100, 000 square kilometres in the Indian Ocean, a block with supposedly large deposits of oil and natural gas. Meanwhile, Tanzania and Malawi are embroiled dispute over Lake Tanganyika and Ghana and Ivory Coast dispute over territory in the Atlantic Ocean – the two countries are waiting a decision from the International Tribunal for Law and Sea, which is an alternative of International Court of Justice. Elsewhere, Nigeria has struck a truce with Sao Tome and Principe in the sharing of minerals in the Atlantic. Importantly, no African country has the ability to man its maritime domain alone, creating the need for cooperation between countries to protect their coastal territories.

To mitigate sea blindness, the African Union – the odd body that it is –  came up with vision 2050 Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS) with an aim of maximising the continents’ potential. South Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania have begun cooperating on “Operation Copper” to deter piracy.

Just recently, in 2018, the Kenyan government hosted the Blue Economy conference in Nairobi, the first of its kind in the world. The essence of this forum was to explore ways of harness the potential of our oceans, seas, lakes, seas and rivers and to leverage the latest innovations, scientific advances, as well as emulate best international best practices.

Many African countries have been preoccupied with defining themselves, with some in endless civil strife, which has made investment in the seas a little out of mind. As a result, the continent is ill-equipped to deal with dangers from the sea. In fact, very few countries have coast guards manning their territorial waters, and this has got to change. Commendably, we are on the right track in claiming our stake as the maritime giant that we ought to be. (

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