African Navies Need "Born-Again"

By Commodore Olutunde A. Oladimeji, Nigerian Navy (Retired)

Like Nigeria, several pre-independence African coastal nations had navies on their "nice-to-have" lists. So at independence, some ships and equipment were transferred and some were bought from Western countries, the former Soviet Union, and China. It was all part of the Cold War.

Within the first three decades of mass independence in the 1960s, several traditionally land-oriented African nations acquired considerable maritime security resources. Larger countries with regional power ambitions, like Nigeria, acquired large ships and a medley of maritime-patrol and missile-capable fast attack craft for naval defense, diplomacy, and prestige.

Nearly 40 years later, most of these African littoral states have gone through instructive maritime security challenges. These include struggling to maintain law and order in their coastal approaches, suppressing piracy, prevention of smuggling, protection of maritime resources within their expanded territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zones, ecological watch, and drug interdiction. Because of their poor technological base, some problems and lessons in maintaining maritime assets also have sunk in.

An additional challenge for African navies is regional instability, brought about by undemocratic—and bad—governments, which leads to insurrection, military coups, rabid ethnicity, religious disturbances, unresolved border disputes, and other forms of strife.

In this connection, only a few West African navies—Nigeria's and Ghana's, for example—have had substantial peacekeeping experience under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States' Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). They have been carrying out peacekeeping missions in Liberia since 1990 and more recently in Sierra Leone. By international standards, they no doubt have done this with inadequate equipment, modest experience and skills, and budgetary and logistic strains.

The overarching experience for most African littoral nations is, as a German naval commander puts it, "Any nation that indulges in the expensive hobby of owning a navy must be prepared to pay for it." Funding dream navies of large ships and sophisticated weapons—even replacing aging fleets—is beyond the means of most African countries, including the big ones. The naval and merchant fleets are depleted. The African "ocean-scape" is bare.

All this is happening at a time when Africa must take every imaginable approach toward achieving stability and enduring peace. One such initiative is the current U.S. proposal to set up a 10,000-man African Crisis Response Force (ACRF) which "would consist of African troops, reinforced by training, equipment, logistic and financial support from the United States and other countries."

The aim of the ACRF, according the U.S. Information Service in Nigeria, is to "promote a multilateral initiative aimed at enhancing capabilities of selected African militaries to respond collectively to requirements for joint humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations in Africa."

In spite of its apparent merit, the proposal has generated a lot anger in Africa. At this writing, only seven African nations had agreed to participate in the scheme. The reluctance of many African nations to take part enthusiastically in a U.S.-initiated crisis-management scheme is not surprising. After four or five decades of independence from colonial rule, and a few years after the end of the Cold War, African nations still have not recovered from their hypersensitivity to any real or perceived external intervention—especially from the West.

This is not the first time the United States has taken the initiative to assist African nations in security matters. In 1985, the United States initiated a program called "Surveillance of the West African Coastlines," to curb the systematic illegal exploitation of African fisheries and other offshore resources. The scheme was later renamed "African Coastline Security Program"—again, because of the sensitivity of African nations to the use of the word "surveillance."

Under that maritime security scheme, some African countries had maritime training and equipment, including small boats. Conferences on coastal security also were encouraged and sponsored.

In spite of all these efforts from external sources, sincere multilateral cooperation on defense and security matters is a rarity in Africa. For many years, the proposed Pan-African Defense Force, for peacekeeping under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), has not gone beyond ceremonial debates. The more articulate Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol on Mutual Assistance on Defense (MAD) signed in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1981 and ratified by 11 of 16 member states of ECOWAS, has not been activated. This is because "none of the additional implementation protocols has been concluded," nor has any of the organs and institutions been created.

It also is noteworthy that one of the mechanisms of the MAD is that each member state of the community is obliged to earmark a peacekeeping contingent in its armed forces. This is intended to reflect accurately the multilateral nature of any conflict resolution efforts within the sub-region. It is this lack of a transparently multilateral peacekeeping effort that makes Nigeria an easy target of hegemonic and adventurist accusations.

The urge by the rest of the international community to stem the tide of self-inflicted crises in Africa is understandable and is a challenge to African nations to act on several proposals for effective mechanisms for conflict resolution.

Undoubtedly, Africa needs to explore all avenues toward enduring peace and development. This is because of the prevalence of conflicts in several parts of the continent, with attendant human and economic dislocations. Somalia, Rwanda, Algeria, Angola, the Congos, Liberia, and Sierra Leone all easily come to mind. Any initiative toward formulating workable mechanisms for conflict resolution should be considered on its merit.

In view of prevalent suspicions among the African countries, we should reconsider the language and the symbols we use when discussing African defense and peace. If we want peace, we must talk peace. To paraphrase the United Nations' Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) constitution, wars begin in the minds of men and that it is in the minds of men that solutions to wars must be constructed. Militaristic, Cold War-style terms like "African High Command," "Rapid Deployment Force," "African Crisis Response Force" should give way to such peaceful and reassuring terminology as "African Peace Fleet," and "African Peace Brigade," and "African Peace Squadron."

If we want peace to prevail we should think the thoughts of peace, speak the language of peace, and do those things that work for peace. African peace fleets do not have to be painted gray—they can be white. The African peace army does not have to wear green—we can design more appropriate uniforms for them. In an era of international peace, we should be seen to have truly converted African forces into instruments of peace.

There are many meanings in names. Japan has a Maritime Self-Defense Force-not a navy-although it is ranked as the world's fourth "navy." The U.S. Coast Guard is about the sixth "navy" in the world. And where the U.S. Coast Guard is accepted and welcome, U.S. Navy ships will raise suspicions. The West African peacekeeping force in Liberia was cautiously named ECOWAS Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).

Whatever names they use, Africans deserve people-oriented maritime forces with capability to carry out efficient search and rescue, humanitarian relief, and logistic support in emergency situations. What a relief to have maritime forces on scene, at sea, on time, in times of trouble—plane crashes at sea, boat mishaps, fires, oil spills, pirate attacks, and natural disasters.

Naval cooperation is a subset of multilateral cooperation in general. The orientation and perhaps the names of maritime services in Africa have influence or whether genuine cooperation can take place. Maritime services, which genuinely seek to work to solve common maritime problems within the regional sea, have a better chance of success than gunboats.

If regional or sub-regional navies can work together in normal times, then naval cooperation will not be crisis driven, as in the case of ECOMOG forces in Liberia. There are many opportunities in the maritime environment to solve common security and ecological problems.

African nations also should speed the process of concluding an acceptable conflict resolution mechanism. This will enable such larger African nations as Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa to make peacekeeping contributions within a transparent legal and political framework.

Similarly, extra-African assistance in the management of African crises, such as the U.S.-initiated African Crisis Response Force, should strengthen the standing structure that would have been put in place under the auspices of the United Nations, Organization of African Unity, ECOWAS, and other regional organizations.

Indeed, most initiatives outside the recognized multilateral framework are suspected—sometimes unjustifiably—as attempts to weaken African states' resolve, undermine their economies, and coerce them militarily.

The perception of African nations is changing with global strategic restructuring. The lessons of European, Asian, and similar cooperation are not lost on them. In restructuring African navies, they must become relevant to the needs of the people and encourage regional naval cooperation to cope with these new challenges. The naval career mindset among officers in the larger African navies will have to change. Naval careers should not be built around frigates and missile-carrying ships alone. Maritime services can be structured in such a way that officers and enlisted personnel still can have self-fulfillment in offshore policing and humanitarian peacekeeping efforts.

Despite the influence of colonial history, African navies need not be scaled-down versions of big navies. The strategic maritime interests of Africa should be offshore resource enjoyment and peaceful development. For acquisition of their equipment and training needs, there are appropriate models in the U.S. Coast Guard and Scandinavian navies. The Canadians also have evolved internationally acclaimed training programs for peacekeeping. It makes more sense to have ships, equipment, and a light-weapon mix that can cope with offshore policing and coast guard duties, without compromising self-defense readiness. Training in maritime dimensions of peacekeeping should be part of the program of African navies.

Naval contacts and cooperation among African navies should not be crisis-driven. They should be part of policy planning to exploit the many opportunities the maritime environment provides to solve common security and ecological problems. African naval cooperation will become a reality if the littoral states sincerely work for peace and avoid threatening military posturing, especially in the orientation of their navies. The sea provides the most viable strategic highway connecting parts of Africa. Regional maritime forces should keep this highway safe for resource enjoyment and to support African peacekeepers. This is a priority for the "born-again" African navies.

Commodore Oladimeji retired from the Nigerian Navy in 1994 after 22 years of service. He served as a public affairs officer and was Director of Plans and Computer Services for the Nigerian Navy. He has written several books, including a biography of Nigeria’s Vice Admiral Murtala Nyaka, and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings . He is a life member of the Naval Institute.


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