Kathy Gibson reports from the Maritime and Coastal Security conference in Cape Town – As navies transition to coast guard operations, fighting an increasing level of maritime crime, it’s important that their equipment, training and resources fit the need.

Captain Phil Heyl, chief: air and maritime branch of the US Africa Command, points out the west African navies have a lot of work ahead of them as they transform to a counter-criminal activities.

And the transformation needs to be ongoing, he adds, since criminals are constantly evolving to avoid the threat from crime-fighting operations.

A question that has arisen many times during the course of the Maritime and Coastal Security conference is why west Africa is taking to long to get started on regional shared maritime security operations.

Part of the answer, says Heyl, is differences in identifying share interests. But with Africa sitting across strategically important transportation lines, it is a global imperative to protect them, to ensure free trade.

The first step to achieving this, he says, is through regional partnerships offering regional support to protect regional interests in protecting the coast.

This support extends beyond joint operations, he adds, and should include information and intelligence as well. “If you have regional support and participation, the people you are working with should tell you what’s going on. When you have shared interests, things happen.”

One of the difficulties in addressing piracy off Somalia was caused by a lack of focus on shared interests, Heyl says. “It wasn’t until you started getting countries like the Seychelles, which has a shared interest, involved that it was possible to find and prosecute pirates. It’s got a lot to do with the legal authorities working together.”

This can help to address legal objections when pirates are apprehended and appear in courts in foreign countries – and the cases are then dismissed.

“So how do you avoid this happening?” asks Heyl. “You have to start building on the training to ensure that the crime-fighting units know how to do police-type things like building cases, chain of custody, and being able to turn a case package over that actually succeeds and deters criminals.”

Using traditional navy vessels and personnel for law enforcement equates to the difference between a patrol car and a tank, Heyl points out. Both are effective, but only in the correct environment.

And, like a patrol car, the most important element of a law enforcement vessel is the skilled personnel in the form of the boarding team. Vessels must be designed and equipped to make it easy for this team to get on and off the vessel, off-shore, in rough seas, at night.

Regional co-operation, however, plays the biggest part in combating piracy, particularly in the complex west African environment.

“In west Africa, the maritime boundaries give the criminals the advantage,” Heyl says. “They can use sovereignty against everyone: not just to hide, but to succeed. Because most of the maritime boundaries in west Africa are disputed, most are actually two boundaries. And, since there are oil filed in those disputed areas, whatever is in dispute is going to stay in dispute.”

This makes regional law enforcement co-operation even more important, to transcend the boundary disputes while keeping crime down.

This is the rationale behind agreements like ECOWAS and ECCAS, while the African Union’s AIMS 2050 has paved the way for neghbouring countries to work together in more or less formal arrangements.

Encouraging moves have already been made: Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Niger have agreed to work together to counter crime at sea. The inclusion of Niger opens the way for other landlocked countries to become involved in helping to protect the maritime trade that is important for their own economies.

Heyl urges navies to start today in forging relationships to protect shipping. “Maritime security is tied to economic development,” he points out. “If you asked any Africa country for its top five problems, maritime security would not be one of them. But economic development is – and maritime security is an enabler for that.”