To the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), time is ripe to withdraw from the Indian Ocean because the sea has become calmer than at any one time in the last six years. So its military personnel officially withdraws from fighting piracy on the Indian Ocean Wednesday.
For local importers, however, uncertainty prevails as to the continued suppression of Somali piracy in the regional waters.
“The withdrawal may be an issue going forward. The regional community has not yet fully addressed the root problems of piracy,” said Kenya Shippers’ Council executive Gilbert Langat.
It was only six years ago that piracy on the Indian Ocean was a spectre looming large over Kenya and her neighbours. The global economy was also taking an estimated Sh1.8 trillion ($18 billion) hit from Somali piracy.
In Kenya, tourist numbers dwindled. Insurance and the costs of imported goods rose as shippers started approaching the Port of Mombasa with caution, sometimes taking roundabout routes to avoid the Horn of Africa.
Regional and international players swung into action. The United Nations Security Council declared piracy an international threat. The United States (US), Nato and the European Union (EU) all launched operations on Indian Ocean as did a bevy of other countries such as China, South Korea and Japan.
These efforts seem to have worked. Since 2012, there has not been a major pirate attack on Western Indian Ocean. Four years of calm coincide with the self-determined deadlines for some of the major operations on the Western Indian Ocean.
Nato has decided not to renew its mandate to police these waters, citing the relative calm as well as the need to turn its attention to migration crisis playing out on the Mediterranean Sea and to keep the Russians in check on the Black Sea.
While the EU will stay on until 2018, the writing is on the wall that these major multilateral forces are unlikely to stay put— especially considering the estimated Sh32.9 billion ($323 million) bill attached to the maintenance of naval forces in the Indian Ocean waters.
The imminent reduction in force may cause jitters in some quarters. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has noted that despite the lull, there is a danger of resurgence in Somali piracy and that maintenance of military forces is essential for deterrence.
Already, there are indications that piracy may be facing a resurgence, albeit on a small scale. In a recent report, the Oceans Beyond Piracy organisation noted that there were 15 people held by Somali pirates in 2015 after small regional vessels were attacked.
Nevertheless, analysts point to the unsustainability of relying on foreign naval forces as a deterrence against piracy. Rather, they say, the countries in the region need to take ownership of the anti-piracy efforts.
The termination of Operation Ocean Shield “sends a clear signal that international navies will not deal with piracy forever.
While the EU fills the gap (and will in the long run), the regional countries need to develop their own strategies,” says Dr Christian Bueger, a Cardiff University scholar who has researched the subject of Somali piracy.
He points out that even with ongoing efforts to build capacities in Somalia, the country is still miles away from being able to handle the threat of piracy by itself.
Among the countries that lie on the Indian Ocean, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Kenya as key regional players have a role to play in leading the process to sustainably police piracy. However, national rivalries, between India and Pakistan for instance, may hinder these efforts.
Additionally, national commitment to fighting piracy may be in question. Despite the recommendation of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), Kenya has shelved plans to establish a Coast Guard, and will instead rely on the collaboration of existing agencies to tackle illegal fishing and piracy on its waters.
Multilateral organisations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Contact Group on Piracy also provide avenues for regional cooperation.
Ultimately, though, security on the Western Indian Ocean would be tied to the economic opportunities on offer to residents in the region. Countries, therefore, find themselves in a bit of a catch-22 situation.
To secure their waters, they must invest in a competitive blue economy, estimated to be worth Sh2.2 trillion ($22 billion) in the Western Indian Ocean. At the same time, such an economy is reliant on secure waters.
“Maritime authorities must build a safe, secure and sustainable blue economy, rather than simply patrol the seas against piracy while failing to tackle poverty and underdevelopment,” writes Timothy Walker, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
Although Nato is packing up and leaving, there still remain a number of global powers patrolling the Western Indian Ocean. Under the guise of tackling piracy, both China and Japan have established bases in Djibouti. South Korea also has a presence. How willing these countries will be to leave the regional waters is still in question.
“China’s presence also raises pertinent questions about outside powers using the threat of piracy as a pretext for military intervention, or to exercise influence in international relations in the region,” writes Mr Walker.
The expected tensions between these nations as well as with the countries that border the Indian Ocean ought to be considered as a serious concern.