MOWCA: What, when who, and why?

Key Judgements

  • Maritime crime will likely increase between 2020 and 2022. However, MOWCA’s implementation and evaluation mechanism is ineffective for maritime security; and MOWCA / ICGN and ECOWAS / ECCAS’s tasks overlap. 
  • MOWCA/ICGN is unlikely to yield a stronger maritime security arrangement without a reform. Lack of productive cooperation, and lack of implementation and harmonisation of national laws to support MOWCA’s ICGN shows weakness in the will of member states towards the ICGN.
  • Reformation of MOWCA is highly likely to be dependent on the cooperation between ECOWAS and ECCAS and their member states to be relevant within the next decade.

Who They Are?

Maritime Organisation for the West and Central Africa (MOWCA), established in May 1975 (Charter of Abidjan), was the Ministerial Conference of West and Central African States on Maritime Transport (MINCONMAR). They later changed its name to MOWCA. MOWCA’s aim is to serve regional and international communities for handling all maritime matters that are regional.

25 countries in West and Central Africa make up MOWCA. 18 coastal states and 5 landlocked states, and 2 islands. Angola, The Gambia, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Gabon, and Mozambique are the coastal states. Landlocked Countries are Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, and Mali. Sao Tome and Principe and Cape Verde are the islands.

MOWCA’s Integrated Coast Guard Network

MOWCA’s security dimension started in Senegal in 2003 when the idea of an Integrated Coast Guard Network (ICGN) was proposed. Member states agreed to it and a framework was thus negotiated. These duties were assigned to the ICGN.:

  • Improving search and rescue capabilities
  • prevention of pollution and protection of the marine environment 
  • Maritime and energy security
  • Combating piracy and armed robbery against ships
  • Illegal migration and the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people

To achieve this, network zones and their proposed centers were proposed. See the map below.

On Oct 1-2, 2009, the ministerial meeting agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that 

  1. An informative paper be given to member states to define the status, organisation and mechanism of the implementation of the ICGN
  2. Member states should facilitate the establishment of the ‘coast guard services within national maritime administrations under the supervision of Ministries in charge of merchant marine’. They also request active participation in ICGN’s establishment
  3. A union of maritime administrators with a view to enhancing collaboration among Member States should be created by MOWCA, and
  4. Member states should update the Safety Evaluation Plans of their various ports.

As of Dec 2010, however, they were still encouraging members to sign the MoU and implement the national provisions of the MoU. Member states were also told to harmonize and implement national laws that support the implementation of the MoU.


MOWCA / ICGN’s progress shows that its chances for success are unlikely. This is because it duplicates already existing security provisions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Also, these states do not consider maritime security a business of the Ministers of Transport. Rather, it is under their Defense Ministry. Although International Maritime Organisation (IMO) try to cooperate with MOWCA for maritime security, there is still a need to establish a workable regional arrangement. This is because it will be in a better position to agree with existing ECOWAS and ECCAS protocols and agreements.

Foresight: MOWCA needs a Reform

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the drop in oil price will likely lead to an increase in maritime crime between 2020 and 2025. This means that MOWCA is likely to mobilize more resources for training and operations for maritime security in the region and have a regional maritime security strategy. 

Therefore, there is a need to upgrade the MoU into a legally binding agreement, like a pact or treaty. Such agreement will focus on search and rescue, pollution and protection of the marine environment, maritime and energy security, piracy and armed robbery against ships, illegal migration, and the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people; along with other related maritime security issues.

Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols in southeast Asia, a product of the 2017 Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) is however an example to learn from. It ran from July 29 to August 7, 2019. Although it is a short-term exercise that only involved Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; and it also involved air and land patrols. Maritime security was an important aspect of the exercise. These 3 countries exchange knowledge and skills in handling terrorism threats, building friendship and trust between armed forces, and deterrence against threats. There is another bi-lateral instance like the Japan-Philippines security ties with patrol vessels. A coordinated approach will help weaker countries.

TCA model is structured in a way that the resources of individual member states are put together for collective benefit. This includes financing, equipment, intelligence/information, and experience sharing during the exercise. Coordinated patrols improve maritime law enforcement and it has been a means of effective deterrence against illegal activities. This includes the Sulu-Celebes Sea region and the East Kalimantan trading route. In essence, they support and learn from each other. A major benefit is that they collectively address an individual problem. Security of one interacts with the security of others. Therefore, a threat or vulnerability of one is bad for others. Collectively addressing it or strengthening the capacity of individual countries to address it serves their collective maritime security interest.

MOWCA’s reform could follow similar patterns for maritime security, but it would be multilateral. In this case, there would be a constant coordinated exercise for countries to learn from each other and collectively respond to maritime security threats and vulnerabilities. In the upgraded MoU, it will be institutionalized with a well-mapped-out calendar and mode of operation. Thus, the ICGN will become a treaty-based maritime regional security force with different units and a strategic calendar addressing specific maritime security problems. It can also serve as a platform to mobilize financial resources to cover the cost of safety and security maritime activities. 

Some of the major flaws of the TCA model, which the MOWCA/ICGN must pay attention to, include inadequate shipping protection measures, lack of involvement of external forces (for trainings and exercises), inadequate legal framework, and land-sea criminal networks. Unlike South East Asia, West and Central Africa does not have a regional power like China that will likely undermine or seek to influence the TCA. Although, in Africa’s case, France is highly likely to play such role.  ECOWAS and ECCAS will likely extend the Francophone-Anglophone rivalry to the joint maritime division.

There is a need for the arrangement to serve as a link between ECOWAS and ECCAS as institutions. MOWCA/ICGN will thus serve as a joint maritime division of ECOWAS/ECCAS.  This will address the problem of overlapping tasks between MOWCA/ICGN and ECOWAS/ECCAS. Maritime security is a common interest to both regional institutions. Hence, MOWCA should be brought into the context of both institutions as a jointly owned division to achieve the maritime security objectives of both institutions. In TCA’s case, it is between 3 countries. For MOWCA/ICGN, it will be the 2 regional bodies, ECOWAS and ECCAS.

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