At various 2019 senior leader seminars for the “Express” series of naval exercises in East and West Africa, something was different. As in years past, the senior leaders of navies and coast guards from around the continent were present, and recognized international experts presented on topics relevant to those senior leaders. This time, however, most of the experts were African.
Over the past two years, a discernable trend has become increasingly visible in engagements in Africa on maritime security. “Capacity building” used to mean North Americans and Europeans coming to the continent, sometimes for the first time, to tell Africans how to secure, govern and develop their waters. Now a new phenomenon is taking hold: Africa-to-Africa capacity building.
This dynamic has been most noticeable in United States-sponsored programs, in which the stated U.S. approach has been either “African solutions to African problems” (sometimes abbreviated ASAP), or “African-led, U.S.-supported” initiatives. In addition to the “Express Series,” which includes Obangame in the Atlantic, Cutlass in the Indian Ocean, and Phoenix in the Mediterranean, the May 2019 “Whole-of-Africa Maritime Dialogue” hosted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Windhoek, Namibia featured only two non-African speakers over the entire week—the other 13 speakers were drawn from all around the continent.
Africa-to-Africa capacity building is even more evident in the growing number of African-organized events that are serving as key drivers of the continent’s maritime security efforts. The October 2015 Heads-of-State Conference on maritime and energy security organized by Angola; the November 2018 Blue Economy Conference organized by Kenya; and, most recently, the October 2019 Global Maritime Security Conference organized by Nigeria provide a few examples of this phenomenon in action. These are not African Union initiatives, but rather states working to foster stronger relationships with each other and to highlight both international and African experts. The fact that the Nigerian Navy’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in 2016 took the form of a conference on maritime security cooperation featuring almost exclusively African speakers and included 14 other African Chiefs of Naval Staff is an indication of how much this trend has taken hold.
The Concept of Africa-to-Africa Capacity Building
With seasoned experts in maritime law, security, prosecution, adjudication, strategy, governance, and the blue economy, Africa collectively has much of the knowledge and skill needed to address the spectrum of maritime security challenges facing states and regions around the continent. It is noteworthy not only that African experts share valuable lessons with other key African leaders, but also that those senior leaders find the lessons far more convincing when they come from fellow Africans.
For East African states to hear, for example, Ghanaian, Togolese or Senegalese experts talk both theoretically and practically about how to overcome challenges is far more meaningful and inspiring than hearing an American relate stories of solving problems in the Pacific Northwest. And for West Africans struggling with new maritime challenges, it is much more comforting and inspiring to hear how the Seychelles or Mauritius have overcome nearly identical challenges than to hear how Britain or France would approach the problem. This is the new paradigm of capacity building in Africa, and the way ahead for accelerating the continent’s maritime efforts.
What Does This Mean for International Actors?
With growing momentum for this Africa-to-Africa model, the question then arises: What role should international actors play? There are three answers:
1. Identification and celebration of African experts
2. Facilitation of Africa-to-Africa engagement
3. Participation in continual enhancement.
The role of international actors necessarily has to change, but this does not mean those actors are not relevant or even vital. Indeed, getting out of the spotlight to ensure the success of Africa-to-Africa capacity building means taking on new and, in some cases, more challenging roles.
Identification and Celebration of African Experts
Experience does not equate to expertise. Nor does education. Impressive academic qualifications and years of service in a particular role, therefore, are not sufficient grounds for classifying an individual as an expert. Even knowing how to do a job very well does not necessarily translate into being able to help others do so. In other words, a maritime lawyer in private practice in the United States or France might be excellent at working within the confines of American or French national laws, but that does not mean that he or she would have any idea how to help Namibia or Gabon to develop maritime laws or even enforce their existing ones.
Finding true experts with the requisite skills is not easy. They sometimes go unnoticed for lack of a platform to raise visibility as to their competencies. Regrettably, Africa has been the recipient of many initiatives implemented by highly experienced or educated individuals who nevertheless lacked the expertise to implement the initiatives in Africa. Understanding the countries and cultures of Africa is a key requirement, which many would-be helpers have lacked. In the Africa-to-Africa model, that difficulty avoided by design. International actors can still be very helpful, both by identifying the African experts who have the wherewithal to make a real impact, and celebrating them such that they are highly enough regarded within the continent to have that impact.
Facilitation of Africa-to-Africa Engagements
While the expertise may exist in Africa, the resources to convene capacity building engagements often do not. International actors, therefore, have a vital role to play in facilitating these Africa-to-Africa engagements. Identifying themes should be a cooperative effort between international actors and Africans, but matters such as transportation, venues, and interpreters are invaluable contributions that external actors can provide to help ensure the free flow of ideas, information, knowledge, and insight throughout the continent. Amid the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, this may also mean hosting and facilitating new sorts of engagements by means of online platforms, many of which have simply never been used in an African security context before. Convening power should not be overlooked or discredited, as it is a vital element to the continued improvement of maritime security, governance and development in Africa.
Participation in Continual Enhancement
The maritime space is always evolving, and new threats are always emerging. Complacency, therefore, is dangerous. The worst fate for Africa-to-Africa capacity building would be for it to become stagnant, formulaic, and too basic to push African states to continue enhancing how the maritime space is secured, governed and developed. International actors can help ensure rigor in identifying and analyzing new threats and trends, recognizing and addressing overlooked matters and gaps in capacity, and continually finding new expertise to bring to the continentwide efforts on maritime enhancement. This has to be a mutual learning process, where everyone works collectively to ensure that the entirety of Africa’s maritime domain is safe, secure, and sustainable. As is the case in any part of the world, there also is value in having the perspective of outsiders, particularly if it is tempered with a deep understanding of problems and problem solving in other parts of the world. Recognizing emerging threats and identifying approaches that might be taken in response can be useful contributions.
While African states continue to struggle to recognize the problems and wealth potential in the maritime domain, a growing number of African professionals have developed the expertise and insight to be able to help address a wide array of maritime matters. These are not confined to one country or even one region and could benefit the entire continent.
Rather than supplying its own “experts,” who often lack the familiarity with Africa necessary for lasting impact, the international community needs to help identify local professionals, elevate their profile on the continent, and facilitate capacity building efforts drawing on such African expertise. Working together with Africans to reflect on existing and emerging threats, ongoing changes in the maritime domain, and the evolution of state capacity in terms of security, governance, and development will allow all actors to respond to reality and, ultimately, ensure that this model of Africa-to-Africa capacity building remains vibrant and fit for purpose.