In shipping terms, cabotage rights dictate the right of one country to trade in another, moving freight by sea. Most countries will have cabotage restrictions in place, specifying which carriers, companies and countries have access to trade and navigate within their coastal waters. Most countries, except Africa.
Cabotage usually limits the ability to freight goods via ship to only those ships owned by the country in question. The African Union (AU) is currently working towards creating legislation that will dictate cabotage rights for the entire continent, ensuring only African-owned vessels can trade within Africa’s coastal waters – a step towards creating a unified continent on a par with the rest of the world’s shipping sector. Currently, cabotage laws have changed little since their independence in the mid-20th century, with non-African companies dominating coastal waters.
At present, Africa’s coastal waters remain unregulated, with foreign shipping vessels free to sail from one African port to another. And with no way to monitor, regulate or control their coastal territories, African countries remain at a disadvantage to the rest of the shipping world. With their shipping industry estimated to value around $1 trillion a year, it’s clear that shipping is a vital industry for the 38 African countries with coastlines.
Although some individual African countries, like Nigeria, currently have cabotage laws in place, due to a lack of skilled manpower, inadequate infrastructure and high operating costs the ability to police them is almost non-existent. By ceding control of their coastal waters to foreign ships Africa, as a whole, has surrendered any economic advantages cabotage law would have given it. Hopefully that’s now about to change.
While issues surrounding operating costs, infrastructure, capacity and manpower need to be resolved, the creation of cabotage restrictions could produce many benefits for the African Union. Maritime sectors could see a boost, bringing in greater economic value. Native shipbuilding could grow, more jobs produced and better trade opportunities becoming available. The ability to police their own waters could see the reduction in piracy, illegal fishing and other problems that currently prey on African waters.
The introduction of cabotage laws could help set Africa on the path towards economic independence, setting it free from the last vestiges of old trading practices dating back several hundred years. The law, when it comes in to effect, could be a major unifying power for the continent, but – with the law still being decided – only time will tell if the AU has created something manageable for Africa’s current economic climate.