The Gulf of Guinea is a large maritime area of about 2.3 million square kilometers and stretching for over 5700 kilometers of coastline with considerable economic opportunities that cannot be ignored.
The area comprises of 17 countries from Senegal to Angola, apart from the fact that this area has considerable deposits of natural resources especially hydrocarbons it is also an important fishing grounds and remains an important shipping route representing over 25 per cent of African maritime traffic.
However, the Gulf of Guinea is beleaguered by criminalities especially the activities of pirates which have turned this important economic hub into one of the most dangerous places in the world.
While Europe and the United States have been engaged in the region for many years, the deteriorating security situation in the Gulf of Guinea requires renewed engagement especially the involvement of China whose economic and political interest in the Gulf of Guinea has grown immensely in recent years especially with the launching of the Belt and Road initiative in 2013.
With a lot of investment flow from China through the vehicle of the BRI more Chinese involvement is needed at this time in maintaining peace, stability and positive economic development in the Gulf of Guinea. This is a no brainer because most of the countries that make up the Gulf of Guinea are part of the BRI network.
These countries are opportunity rich but capacity deficient. The provision of development financing which takes cognizance of the security of the region, through the instrumentality of the BRI is much need to secure trade in the Gulf of Guinea.
According to a report by the University of Colorado, investment by China in the Gulf of Guinea as at 2020 is estimated at over $100 billion USD, with such massive investment it is only natural that China becomes more engaged in the security of this important maritime and trade route.
Besides Chinese investment in countries within the Gulf of Guinea in recent years has experienced an upward swing.
For example the trade volume between China and the 15 countries of the ECOWAS was $34.55 billion in 2020, within the same period China’s exports to ECOWAS were $27.61 billion. Coming home to Nigeria trade between Nigerian and China stood at $13.66bn in 2020, the largest in Africa.
Countries in the Gulf of Guinea represent important trading partners to China. Any security problem in the Gulf of Guinea therefore would negatively affect regional peace and security.
China should also see increased involvement in the security of the Gulf of Guinea as an important step towards addressing the problem of overfishing in the region.
In the last few decades the Gulf of Guinea has been besieged by industrial trawlers owned by European companies but ironically China often gets the blame.
Truth be told, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities in the Gulf of Guinea especially in the West African coast has resulted in massive decline in fish stocks.
This has raised a lot of environmental concerns, mostly focused on saving marine ecosystems and protecting the livelyhood of local farmers and the fishing industries
In the last 50 years it is estimated that Africa has lost over $200 billion to illegal fishing by vessels linked to foreign nations.
Illegal fishing is said to be so extensive that a UN report estimates that it amounts to between 40-65 percent of the legally reported catch in West Africa alone.
Compared to the economic cost of piracy, illegal fishing is also a huge problem.
While many Western nations say they are investing millions in tackling piracy, they also invest billions in enabling their fishing vessels to plunder and deplete fish stocks in Africa. Consequently, the debate over piracy must also take IUU fishing into account.
There is the need to bring the same coordinated and comprehensive responses to IUU while addressing the issue of maritime safety and security.
IUU has been a major disruption to livelyhoods in the Gulf of Guinea however with China’s commitment to the growth of the region through the BRI, this should also come within its purview as a way of building confidence between it and countries in the Gulf of Guinea.
National and regional efforts in the past, have not yielded the desired result neither has the June 2013 Yaoundé Summit, which was convened to formulate a coordinated response to the growing maritime threat in the Gulf of Guinea. Consequently more needs to be done to protect this important trading route.
Experts are of the opinion that China through the BRI can become more involved by providing the needed mix of development and security to countries of the Gulf of Guinea. This is without prejudice to the efforts of China in the past especially in the provision of boats, surveillance platforms and financial donations.
Although there have been security intervention in the region over the years it has been largely uncoordinated and the result not much to cheer.
Although, China has been involved in the security of the Gulf of Guinea it has been limited as a result of its policy of non interference.
China has played significant roles in the bilateral front through anti-piracy collaboration and the provision of critical and much needed military assistance to hard pressed and poor countries in Gulf of Guinea countries.
Chinese navy involvement in the Gulf of Guinea can be traced to 2013 when it first visited four countries in the region. The countries are: Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon and Angola.
In 2014 China held it first joint anti-piracy drills in the Gulf of Guinea in collaboration with the navies of Nigeria and Cameroon.
China has also been involved in providing sundry assistance to Gulf of Guinea countries through military assistance and capacity building.
China made donations of patrol boats to Sierra Leone, provided Benin Republic with a grant of $4.8 million for the purchase of a patrol boat in 2013.
The Gulf of Guinea is becoming an increasingly important destination for China’s commercial transfer of naval vessels.
Reports indicates that 5 of the 20 countries receiving Chinese vessels between 2000 and 2013 are from the Gulf of Guinea. The countries are: Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
In the year 2014 Nigeria approved the purchase of two 1,800-ton Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) from China, and the first one was officially delivered in November 2014 making Nigeria the first nation in West Africa to operate Chinese warships.
Ghana in 2012 also commissioned four patrol ships built by the Chinese defense manufacturing company Poly Technologies.
The patrol ships where designed to combat piracy, enhance fisheries governance and increase maritime security in the country’s its territorial waters.
In the light of these developments, a major area China can help is by increasing support in building the capacity of the navies of Gulf of Guinea states to be able to handle maritime security within their territorial waters and beyond.
China should be able to ramp up its support to the region especially through the provision of more training, assistance and collaborations and providing the necessary surveillance platforms and technology that would expand the scope and capacity of states within the Gulf of Guinea.
China must not slip in this goal of securing the Gulf of Guinea it should be incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative to foster its goals in a sustainable manner.
The writer Dr Austin Maho is an international affairs analyst, and the publisher of Daybreak newspaper. He can be reached on, [email protected]