Last year saw an almost total absence of reports of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the western Indian Ocean and off the coast of Somalia. This is the laudable outcome of concerted international and regional counter-piracy efforts.
Since 2012, there has been an annual decline in the total number of reported attempted and actual attacks in the region. The decline has led to calls for reforms to four key international counter-piracy institutions in the new 'post-piracy' environment.
These reforms are important, but will not provide lasting solutions if African maritime, economic and developmental interests are neglected.
It will therefore be vital that local stakeholders, such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), drive new developments.
The drop in piracy figures means that many counter-piracy institutions and mechanisms are now seen as costly, inconvenient, cumbersome and unjustified. In their present configuration, many of these measures also seem inadequate. New maritime security tasks entail more than simply keeping piracy suppressed, but are also about simultaneously building blue economies and conducting peacebuilding in Somalia.
Far up on the list of priorities has been revising the size of the so-called high-risk area (HRA), which has long been sought by countries such as India and Egypt to reduce the costs of trade and insurance. The area is a 'core reference zone' for all counter-piracy operations and analysis. Its geographical coordinates map out a space that informs insurance calculations, danger pay for crew, planning of routes and the hiring of private security guards.
Critics have argued that the HRA is too large, as it includes areas where Somali pirates no longer seem capable of capturing crews and vessels. A new, smaller HRA was subsequently demarcated, and took effect from December last year - although some insurance underwriters are concerned that the risk has not been sufficiently reduced.
The second area of reform focuses on the strategy of the United Nation's Contact Group for Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS); an informal grouping of states that coordinates counter-piracy actions. The CGPCS held a strategy meeting in Mumbai, India on 1 February, where members prepared the agenda for its 19th plenary session in July.
This suggests that members feel an approach that reflects the reduced risk of piracy is needed. Whether they could produce a relevant and internationally agreed-on new strategy for cooperation is uncertain. One of the priorities for CGPCS must be to continue important investigations into piracy networks, which could reappear in the future and must be brought to justice.
The third area of reform is amending the International Maritime Organization's Djibouti Code of Conduct. The code was created in 2009 to encourage cooperation among western Indian Ocean states affected by piracy through training, capacity-building and information-sharing.
The amendments to the code show that signatory states are beginning to implement holistic and cooperative maritime security measures, as opposed to mechanisms that only deal with piracy. The code's reporting centres and contact networks could also help build a richer picture of maritime domain awareness by gathering and mapping reports of other maritime crimes, such as illegal fishing or human trafficking. These crimes are often encountered during counter-piracy patrols.
There is no guarantee, however, that signatory states would attach the same importance to these other transnational threats and crimes as they had to piracy. And as counter-piracy activities naturally dwindle, this could result in reduced overall cooperation if states devote fewer resources to the upkeep and functioning of the centres.
The fourth change relates to the counter-piracy patrols and missions that are currently operating in the western Indian Ocean; and whether these should be extended.
The mandates of the 'big three' international patrols - the European Union's Operation Atalanta; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Operation Ocean Shield and the Combined Maritime Forces' Combined Task Force-151 - will expire at the end of 2016. More immediately, the Southern African Development Community's Operation Copper will expire on 1 April 2016.
The patrols can be renewed, but the changing context and circumstances may lead many contributing states to reconsider supporting these missions. Given the almost total absence of recorded incidents of piracy, this might mean a drastic reduction in the size and capability of these operations. However, any reduction in the greater capability of the international community could increase vulnerability to renewed attacks.
One actor that will not be taking this approach, however, is China. The Asian superpower recently announced it had come to an agreement with Djibouti to create naval 'logistical facilities'. The Chinese seem keen to downplay the negative connotations of the term 'naval base', which implies interference and has imperialist connotations. Instead, the Chinese prefer that their actions and intentions be seen as minimal, and for a common or international good.
The new base will have an effect on counter-piracy operations, as China's profile will be enhanced as its ships benefit from improved logistical support, but could also lead to changes in Chinese foreign policy and peacebuilding capabilities. In the words of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, the new Djibouti base will 'enable the Chinese troops to better fulfil escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability.' As China prefers to operate independently of international cooperative counter-piracy missions, however, it is unclear how the state intends to better contribute to existing peacebuilding programmes.
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.
As Lee Willett, formerly a senior research fellow in maritime studies at the Royal United Services Institute suggested in 2011, 'major powers ... appear to be using their navies' role in the counter-piracy campaign to increase their presence, influence and leverage in the region'.
This is a key point, which requires further research, with cautious eyes, into the interests of major powers such as China, the United States and the European Union. How, for example, do these states intend to support regional peace and stability initiatives, as well as economic development, in partnership with African states and organisations?
The solution to piracy lies in the creation of sustainable economic alternatives and holistic maritime security. This means that 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. This solution cannot be achieved, or realistically attempted, without the involvement, support or leadership of African organisations and their own maritime strategies.
The implementation of the AU's Africa's Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050 and the adoption of IGAD's Integrated Maritime Security Strategy are pertinent in this regard. The visions of peace and prosperity bound up in these documents, and the concept of a blue economy that informs the AU's Agenda 2063, are central to any long-term solution to piracy and maritime insecurity.
A combination of effective international counter-piracy efforts and strong commitments to local and regional peacebuilding can pave the way to safe and secure seas, resilient littoral communities and a thriving African blue economy. However, there is a long way to go still.
As Nicholas Kay, the outgoing United Nations special representative to Somalia has warned, 'The biggest mistake the international community could make would be to say, "Oh, Somalia, job done. Politics and security are reasonably OK and now we can turn our attention elsewhere."'
If this occurs, we might look back on 2016 as the year when, all good intentions aside, counter-piracy actions actually had a negative impact on maritime security in the western Indian Ocean and East Africa - paradoxically when there was no more piracy to counter.
Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria