Can the new contact group add value in the Western Indian Ocean? 4 scenarios

by Christian Bueger

In early 2022 a subtle, but substantial shift took place in the Western Indian Ocean’s security architecture: The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (known as CGPCS) closed shop.

The CGPCS had been an instrumental part in containing piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Since its installation in 2009 it acted as the key multi-lateral coordination platform, developed joint strategy and enabled pragmatic solution for protecting shipping and building capacity in regional states. It was the key shepherd of counter-piracy operations, and enabled regular information sharing and dialogue between regional states, naval powers operating in the region, the shipping industry and international and non-governmental organizations.

A new contact group was born

At its 24th plenary meeting, under the chair of Kenya, the CGPCS decided to transform into a new entity, now named Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activities in the Western Indian Ocean (CGIMA).

This was the outcome of a lengthy deliberation process on whether a contact group on piracy was still needed in the light of the declining priority for piracy. It also reflected the substantial drop in interest in the group, with less and less representatives participating in the meetings. The idea for the transformed contact group was straightforward: to give more attention to all the other blue crimes in the region (e.g., smuggling, illicit fishing, pollution crimes) as well as terrorist activities.

In-person participants at the 24th hybrid CGPCS plenary

A remarkable silence

While it was agreed to change the focus of the grouping, the last plenary of the CGPCS did not discuss the institutional and procedural modalities for the new contact group. How should it operate? Should it continue the work of the CGPCS it was to replace?

Silently the participants were hoping for a steer by the UN Security Council which had scheduled a meeting on the matter in Spring. The Council meeting however did not take place, given the multilateral turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine.

By August 2022, little efforts had been made to discuss the prospects of the CGIMA –
a remarkable silence by Kenya, the chair, the former CGPCS Secretariat, the Indian Ocean Commission Secretariat, but also all of the participants of the 24th plenary. The lack of attention to the matter can partially be explained by the fact that much attention of the international community turned elsewhere in consequence of Russia’s new foreign policy strategies.

Regional fragmentation

We can also explain the silence by regional fragmentation. In the years of the decline of the CGPCS the majority of regional actors invested their energies into other, often better funded formats. It seems that everyone is busy in attending their preferred format, with little attention given to the broader structural picture in the region.

In the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), ministries of transport from the Eastern and Southern African region and the Arab peninsula discuss maritime security and safety. This is supported by the International Maritime Organizations, with funds from donors, such as Saudi Arabia and Japan. In the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings, military representatives and the industry discuss threats to shipping in the region, led by the European Union and the United States.

Another format known as MASE, assists states from the East African region to engage in information sharing and operational coordination, led by the Indian Ocean Commission and funded by the European Union. The Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime (IOFMC) provides the fourth major format. Led by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Programme, regional law enforcement representatives discuss cooperation.

The key point about CGIMA would be to bring the discussions of these groupings together and engage in a strategic dialogue to avoid overlap, identify gaps and priorities. Yet, with the relevant actors occupied with their preferred forum, for now, no one appears to take the leadership required to steer such a process. As I argue, this leaves the CGIMA with four scenarios.

Scenario 1: Sleeping beauty

With no country taking leadership, the most likely scenario of the CGIMA, is that it becomes a sort of sleeping beauty. It becomes an institutional set up that is formally there, but does not show any activity. It becomes a dormant grouping, which gradually will fall out of memory, but perhaps will be revitalized should an urgent need arise (such as a successful piracy attack).

Any interested state could in principle wake up the group by calling for and organizing a meeting. Preserving the institutional memory of the CGPCS (and CGIMA) might become important for doing so.

Scenario 2: Continuing CGPCS routine

If at least the current chair of the CGIMA shows engagement, then most likely the group might just continue the routines of the former CGPCS. Over the last couple of years, that has implied that the chair invites those on the CGPCS mailing list to a preparatory online pre-meeting to discuss the plenary agenda. This is then followed by a one-day plenary meeting mainly consisting of short briefings by the regional mechanisms (DCoC, SHADE, MASE, IOFMC), accompanied by some statements by interested states.

In this scenarios, it is likely that in a plenary meeting all the unresolved questions of the prospects of the group will lead to some controversy. This might imply that some participants interpret the meeting as unproductive, and interest to attend even further declines.

Much of the future will then depend on whether CGIMA succeeds in identifying a future chair, given that the mandate of the current chair expires at the end of the year. The new chair will struggle with how to bring value back to the meetings.

Scenario 3: Meta-coordination mechanism

If one or several CGIMA participants step up, take leadership and one of them is willing to take over the chair, a plausible scenario for the group is to become a meta-coordination mechanism for the region. In this scenario, the announcement of the 24th CGPCS plenary that the group would become “an agile platform for problem driven strategic dialogue on the key maritime security challenges in the Western Indian Ocean region” is taken seriously.

The core goal would then be to design a meeting format and agenda for the group that would allow the coordination of the existing regional formats across the spectrum of maritime security issues and across the key activities, such as maritime domain awareness, operations and exercises at sea, and capacity building.

Strong leadership is required to ensure that representation is at appropriate level (e.g. mid-level diplomatic representatives and chairs of regional formats). It also requires that the representatives of the other regional formats attend with a mandate to coordinate, and are willing to implement decisions made at CGIMA. One can also imagine that the other regional groupings hold their meetings back-to-back with the CGIMA to directly feed into the plenary agenda.

Scenario 4: A strategic dialogue platform

A fourth scenario not only requires strong leadership, but also entrepreneurship. A report presented at the 24th CGPCS plenary, suggested the idea, that the future GIMA, could become more of a general maritime security conference for the region. This could follow formats such as the Munich Security Conference in Europe, the Shangri La Dialogue in Southeast Asia, or the Our Ocean Conference. These are reputable and influential formats that thrive on the quality of discussions and high level representation.

In such conferences a significant number of experts participate. High level officials use them as a platform to announce strategies and plans or make important strategic statements and commitments. Taking such a course for CGIMA would be productive given that no comparable format in the Western Indian Ocean region exists. It would allow not only to discuss technical and operational components of maritime crimes, but also grand strategies and positions on the future of the region.

In such a scenario, a future chair would require strong knowledge partners that could guarantee the quality of debate, but also strong organizational skills to ensure high level attendance and diplomatic protocol.

Can CGIMA add value?

The novel grouping, the CGIMA, could fill an important gap in the Western Indian Ocean’s security architecture in the light of growing geopolitical interest in the region. Yet, from the present viewpoint it seems unlikely that this is an ambition that states and regional organizations want to pursue. It appears most likely, that 2022 will be the year that the CGPCS has closed shop, and CGIMA will become the sleeping beauty that awaits to be kissed awake.