Corruption in Africa’s Marine
Dr. Andre Standing
Africa’s oceans are facing a profound crisis. In many, if not most
African countries commercial fishing is causing a dramatic decline
in marine bio-diversity. It is no longer sensationalist to claim
that in the space of a single generation, large areas of the
oceans that once contained spectacular wildlife and ecosystems
will be virtually empty. The impact of over-fishing on food
security and human development will be profound and coastal
communities will be the hardest hit.
In examining the root causes of this depressing state of affairs,
not enough attention is being paid to the role of corruption in
fisheries. This is strange since in other natural resource sectors
on the continent such as mining, oil and logging, corruption has
for several years now been identified as one of the most essential
policy challenges. High profile anti-corruption campaigns such the
Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and the Publish What
You Pay Coalition have been launched.
The link between corruption and the marine crisis is
multidimensional. On one level, increasing competition for fish
resources, exacerbated by overcapacity in the industrial fishing
fleet, has inevitably caused high levels of illegal fishing.
Capacity to police industrial fishing boats is typically low in
African countries and there is widespread suspicion that the
paying of bribes undermines the situation even further. On-board
observers, for instance, are poorly paid and may easily ‘look the
other way’ in exchange for gifts. In Kenya, an entire on-board
observer program in the prawn fishing industry was scrapped due to
allegations that observers received boxes of prawns from boat
owners. Bribe payments in certain ports may also explain why some
African ports are considered ‘ports of convenience’, where
illegally caught fish is easily landed and trans-shipped.
A further form of corruption relates to the embezzlement of
license fees. The issuing of fishing licenses typically lacks
transparency and is the sole responsibility of one government
department. As a result there is a risk that officials embezzle
funds and under-report how many licenses have been issued. In one
East African country official reports suggest some 80 licenses per
year are given for tuna fishing. However other sources close to
the government have claimed the actual amount is nearer to 140.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature argue that
if the number of licenses are kept secret in order to facilitate
fraud, government funding is reduced, and the monitoring of
fishing intensity for conservation purposes becomes impossible.
The situation is made more complex due to conflicts of interest:
government officials and politicians are often involved in
companies in the fishing sector. This may take the form of
co-ownership, shareholding or assuming positions on the board of
directors. The close relationship between public office and the
fishing industry is often only revealed when an official leaves
his post to take up employment in the private sector, a phenomena
referred to as the ‘revolving door syndrome’.
Many problems arise from this conflict of interests. Fishing boats
that are partly owned by politicians may be protected from
inspections and monitoring, while the same companies may find it
very easy to gain preferential access to licenses. Furthermore,
while we may think conflicts of interests are particularly
problematic in Africa, we should also be aware of the close
relationships between the fishing industry and governments in
Europe and Asia. A confidential report on illegal trade in
Patagonian Toothfish, suggested that the close relationships
between some of the large Spanish fishing companies, Spanish
politicians and financial institutions may be one reason why so
few Spanish boat owners are prosecuted for illegal fishing.
Closely related to this is the potential for corruption relating
to bi-lateral trade agreements. With dwindling fish stocks
worldwide, securing industrial fishing opportunities in Southern
countries has become vital for the world’s major fishing nations.
For a long time it has been European boats that have dominated
industrial fishing in Africa, partly achieved through EU
bi-lateral access agreements, which provide fishing opportunities
for hundreds of European boats, mostly originating from Spain.
However, there has also been a growth in demand for fishing rights
in Africa by Asian fishermen, resulting in several African
countries signing access agreements with Asian fishing
organisations. This competition will intensify. For example,
China’s enlarging and heavily subsidized fishing fleet will need
new fishing grounds, as its own fish stocks have collapsed, while
its population is growing in both size and affluence.
Heightened international competition raises the specter of foreign
interests using illicit methods to gain an upper hand. This undue
influence or “state capture” as it is termed by the World Bank,
may be achieved through crass forms of bribe payments and gift
giving such as lavish trips abroad and offering outrageously high
per diems for attending meetings. More insidious and extremely
difficult to substantiate, are allegations that the lure of donor
funds (or their removal), has provided political leverage during
negotiations. Where foreign interests gain such power in a country,
their potential influence on policy-making is increased, which may
result in favorable conditions for their fishing boats and a
reluctance by local officials to enforce laws and penalties.
So, with fish becoming less abundant and more valuable, coupled
with heightened international competition, as well as strong
incentives for illegal activities, it is reasonable to assume that
various forms of corruption may have become more problematic and
vital to contain. It is not only bribe payments between inspectors
and boat owners that we should be worried about, but more
important is the influence on policy-making and management by
vested interests. Unfortunately there is very little pressure for
transparency and accountability in the commercial fisheries sector.
Yet without democratic and accountable governance, African marine
resources may continue to be plundered rather than used for the
long-term benefit of African citizens.
(Dr Andre Standing, ISS [Corruption & Governance Programme]
senior researcher specializing in the governance of Africa’s