Change the world


Africa requires a country and university to take the lead in governance and intellectual development for the blue economy and sustainable conservation of the continent’s oceans, says Emeritus Professor Martin Tsamenyi who is being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Law (Maritime Law) from Nelson Mandela University during the virtual graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Law on Thursday 22 April.

Prof Tsamenyi grew up in a rainforest in Ghana and saw the ocean for the first time when he was 20 years old. From then on his career has been focused on motivating for, writing about and leveraging the law to protect the oceans.

“What grabbed me as a young man is the fact that humanity does not take care of our oceans; we extract marine resources without any notion of sustainability and we dump everything we don’t want in our oceans, including sewage. Once it all disappears we forget about it, out of sight out of mind,” says Tsamenyi. Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong in Australia. He became a professor there in 1993 and in 2006 he founded the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS).

“After my first sighting of the ocean I wanted to know what happened beneath the surface and the more I understood about it, the more it looked like a rainforest to me. Just like a rainforest, the ocean has trees, plants, mountains and so many living creatures. The trees form a forest canopy which you cannot see through from above and the ocean’s surface is its canopy. Beneath it there is so much life that we have put at almost irreversible risk.”

Tsamenyi was a Master’s and PhD student in the 1970s and early 1980s when the Law of the Sea Convention was being negotiated by the United Nations to define the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world's oceans. For the first time it set out to establish guidelines not only for business and economic purposes, but also for the environment and the management of marine natural resources.

“At the time, I was pursuing international law at the Australian National University in Canberra, where, following my undergraduate degree at the University of Ghana, I had received a scholarship for my Master’s and subsequently PhD. I keenly followed the protracted Law of the Sea Convention debates and had the benefit of one of my professors being part of the Australian delegation to negotiate the Convention at the UN together with senior diplomats from all over the world.

“I became really interested in this evolving legal framework which took almost ten years to develop – from 1973 to 1982 when it was eventually signed – but it only came into force twelve years later in 1994. That’s twenty years and the problem with this for Africa is that during the course of the 20 years, the senior diplomats who had attended, had either passed away or retired from government.

“By the time the Convention became law we had newer, younger officials in place across the continent who had no idea about the history and importance and as a result there was little or no implementation. This was part of the motivation for the book that Professor Patrick Vrancken from Mandela University and I edited. We needed the current generation to understand the relevance of the Convention to African ocean issues and to implement policy and action based on this.”

The “book” is a seminal 800-page work published in 2017 titled The Law of the Sea – The African Union and its Member States, which Tsamenyi co-edited with Professor Patrick Vrancken of the South African Research Chair in the Law of the Sea and Development in Africa at Nelson Mandela University.

It is the first work to systematically collate the legal aspects of ocean governance in African countries. The book is therefore an indispensable reference for all the role players in the African maritime domain, including governments, business, civil society, lawyers, scientists and students. Before this book they had to rely to a much greater extent on what was written outside of Africa, which was often unreliable, biased and incomplete. This book, by contrast, is produced on the continent and focuses exclusively on the continent.

An excerpt from the preface reads as follows:

The vast, diverse and rich expanses of the African maritime domain need to become as much part of the African world-view as the continent’s savannahs, mountains and cities. Africans must not only explore and exploit, but also protect their marine resources and their environment themselves. African ocean governance has to be based on cooperation, transformative justice, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

“The question was how do we implement this and we drew on aspects of the Convention and the associated policy issues and areas where African countries need to legislate,” Tsamenyi continues. “How, for example, do you derive benefit from- and sustainably manage the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles from every country’s coastline. How do benefit from your own fish and marine resources? What happened in the past is that most of the largescale fishing in African oceans was done by Europeans and Asians. They would come and take all the fish from African waters back to their home countries, put them in cans and ship them back to Africa where they sold them as tinned fish, with reduced nutritional value of fresh fish and up to three times the price.

“It’s the same story with shipping – most trade in Africa is dependent on shipping, but all the shipping lines are foreign owned, they are not African, they are not ours. It means we haven’t developed the necessary policy and national framework for this and the fundamental issue comes back to leadership for the stewardship and management of our oceans.”

Tsamenyi says this is what attracts him to Mandela University where one of the core focus areas is the blue economy and ocean science and sustainability. “The university has a wonderful Ocean Sciences Campus and I think it is an ideal initiative that a university situated on the ocean should be at the forefront of intellectual capital in driving Africa’s ocean benefits and sustainability.

“South Africa is perfectly situated to champion the ocean on the continent, situated at the junction of two of the major oceans in the world, the Indian and Atlantic. We need people to know about the oceans and what is happening in them. We need to share what we as scientists are doing with respect to conserving our oceans and combatting climate change as the oceans are a major carbon sink and source of oxygen. We need people to be aware of the work being done by initiatives like FishFORCE, which is part of the Faculty of Law at Mandela University.

FishFORCE is Africa’s first Fisheries Law Enforcement Academy. It was established in 2016 with the aim of improving knowledge and intelligence-led investigations and prosecutions of criminals engaged in transnational organised fisheries crime in South Africa, the continent and globally. The multi crimes affecting the global fisheries sector range from illegal fishing and extraction of marine resources to human trafficking and forced labour, fraud, forgery, corruption, money laundering and tax and customs evasion. This is organised crime and African fisheries are a prime target. Billions of rand in revenue are being lost and marine resources are being decimated.

Professor Tsamenyi’s work on the continent includes assisting the recently established World Bank-funded Africa Centre of Excellence in Coastal Resilience at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana to successfully implement and guide its work on a path of sustainability. 

“We need active regional, continental and global cooperation to attempt to achieve a path sustainability as our oceans are all interlinked; fish do not carry any passports,” he says. “The excessive illegal operations, piracy, illegal fishing, multi-crimes we see at sea can only be addressed through proactive cooperation between countries. The ocean doesn’t have another 20 years to address this. The action must be accelerated. I feel very alarmed; my worry is the future.”

He urges all young people to take up leadership roles in the pursuit of helping to address the major issues the world is facing, including our oceans, which listed is as one of the Sustainable Development Goals. “All problems are interlinked and have scientific and human dimensions. As graduates you need to use the ability to solve problems that your degree has given you, use your knowledge and never stop seeking new knowledge and new solutions.

“In my home language of Ewe, there is a saying that knowledge is like a baobab tree, My father, Cephas used to say this often. He explained you cannot wrap your arms around a baobab tree because of its size, and in the same vein you can never wrap your arms around knowledge. Your desire to extend the reach of your knowledge should not end at graduation. You should continue seeking it throughout your life.”

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777