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Africa’s governments must help protect subsea cable infrastructure for better cyber defense
Author: Francois Vreÿ
Published: 25/10/2023

​October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. In an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian, Prof Francois Vreÿ (Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa) writes that Africa's governments must work together to protect subsea cable networks and energy-related infrastructure along the continent's coastline for better cyber defense.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Francois Vreÿ*

During August 2023 South Africans experienced intermittent internet difficulties that endured longer than expected due to a cable break in the Eastern Atlantic in the Congo Canyon bordering Central Africa. Eventually, it came to light that four cable systems – West Africa Cable System (WACS), South Atlantic 3 (SAT-3), Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) and an Angolan connection – were damaged by the subsea mud and rock slides. Over time, a cable repair ship of Orange Marine stationed in Cape Town, but working off Kenya at the time and dedicated to repair cable breakages off Africa repaired the damaged cables to restore connectivity.

What remains somewhat opaque in all of this is the extent of subsea cable networks and energy-related infrastructure traversing the oceans off Africa and the growing debate on protecting subsea infrastructure. This debate is rapidly heating up as instances of human interference act as catalysts given the 2022 Nord Stream sabotage in the Baltic following the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the damage to the Balticconnector subsea gas pipeline between Estland and Finland across the Baltic in October 2023.

In addition, a quick glance at the map of submarine cables around Africa on the Submarine Cable Networks page offers a colourful snapshot of the current state of multiple and ever-growing subsea networks off the African coast. These networks provide coastal states and landlocked countries in their hinterlands with data flows and internet connections.

As we observe Cybersecurity Awareness Month during October, we should also take note of the current debate on how to protect the growing physical data and energy infrastructure on the seabed, as well as the products they carry, from human and natural interferences. It is easier to frame and respond to natural and accidental interferences or damage by ways of mitigation and responses as shown by the Léon Thévenin cable repair ship dedicated to the African coastline. Deliberate human interferences by way of sabotage from terrorism, insurgents, as well as state actors like navies and shady or non-state entities operating deep-sea vehicles or vessels, are much more difficult to deal with. The risk, however, remains as the world's demands for secured energy and data flows grow. Data and energy have become primary sources of economic growth in the 21st century and therefore the demand for secured access increased and become a critical feature to users.

Turning to Africa, Agenda 2063: The Africa we want as well as the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) rely heavily on secure subsea energy infrastructure as a fundamental infrastructural element for delivering services, growth, good governance and commercial goods and connectivity on the continent and with partners in Europe, South and East Asia, and the USA. Africa also houses extensive offshore energy hubs off East and West Africa that contain their own subsea networks to extract, process and shift energy products. Add to this the future growth clean energy demands through wind farms at sea that must connect to other sites and bring power to the African coast, then the current and future scope of safe and secure subsea infrastructure become a greater concern. This also underlines the immature protection debate on critical subsea infrastructure and data networks as a more difficult domain to master.

Identifying threats and vulnerabilities for subsea data cable networks is quite mature and framed as natural, accidental, and systemic. All three offer scope for repair interventions by way of known damage repair methods where the private sector tends to take the lead. Two difficulties plague and hinder the protection debate. First, how to overcome the conundrum of critical infrastructure on the seabed belonging to private corporations and stretching over multiple state and international jurisdictions. Cooperation, private-public partnerships and offering facilities to house protection and repair operations is one way that governments and regions such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) can contribute. This is probably more a question of political awareness and will to understand and respond with regimes of cooperation.

Second, a more difficult issue is the one regarding state interference by specialized agencies, navies and even front organisations engaging in grey zone warfare. Protection in this case is much more premised upon building a global consensus on when subsea infrastructure becomes a legitimate target – whether the physical infrastructure, or their product flows. As for the latter, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)'s programme on Building a more secure world plays a leading role with its programme on cybersecurity and the recent publication Wading murky waters: Subsea  Communication Cables and Responsible State Behaviour.

The overall imperative is to build a global consensus on rules and best practices to protect subsea cable infrastructure that has become such primary conduits for the proper functioning of national and international systems. This is, however, a slow and difficult process as the systems on the seabed, as well as its protection and the UNIDIR programmes take place out of sight and in a world largely invisible to citizens and many societies despite their dependence on the data and energy flows.

Countries like South Africa can contribute to the difficult protection debate by helping to ensure better safeguarding of the numerous cable networks off the SADC coast and spreading further afield into and from the Gulf of Guinea, and the Indian Ocean. If South Africa is regarded as a gateway to Africa, then it must also be the digital gateway and take the lead to make possible the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) as well as help African societies move forward in the digital world. To do this, politicians and key stakeholders in South Africa must team up with their African partners and turn their gaze towards the coast to help protect the vast potential housed in the subsea infrastructure on the seabed of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans washing onto Africa's shores.

*Prof Francois Vreÿ is an Emeritus Professor at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa in the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University.