Indian Ocean Commission helps African island states fight maritime crime

The Baba Ali, a Seychellois fishing vessel, was crossing the Seychelles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) when authorities intercepted it in May 2021.

Through an operation coordinated by the Seychelles Air Force, Seychelles Coastguard and its National Information Sharing and Coordination Centre, authorities embarked and inspected the vessel. What they found –– about $1.2 million worth of heroin and hashish –– indicates the scale of the threat from regional trafficking.

The drug seizure and arrest of three Seychellois and four Indonesian nationals showed the island state’s efforts to boost maritime security were working, Seychellois Fisheries Minister Jean-Francois Ferrari told a conference Press.

“With the help of the intelligence gathered, we were able to conduct an operation on this vessel and placed it in the hands of the police,” Ferrari said. “I will not be able to go into details as this is a police matter, but according to the information we gathered, the total amount of drugs on board Baba Ali was three times the amount we picked up. , as some have disappeared in the Indian Ocean.”

An archipelago located about 1,800 kilometers northeast of Madagascar, the Seychelles comprises 115 small islands, which makes its waters difficult to control. The same goes for other island states in the western Indian Ocean, including Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the French island of Reunion.

Over the past 25 years or so, however, island nations have gradually strengthened maritime security by joining the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), which has helped them increase law enforcement cooperation. , intelligence sharing and cross-border coordination to combat maritime crime.

The commission is the only intergovernmental organization composed exclusively of island states. The European Union (EU) funds its maritime security efforts around Africa.

main drug route

The island nations lie along a notorious stretch of the western Indian Ocean which for decades has been a drug transit route. Other maritime issues in the region include illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; piracy and kidnappings; and trafficking in arms, people and wildlife.

The region’s maritime security problems have had disastrous societal consequences. Seychelles has the highest per capita heroin consumption rate in the world. Other island states in the region are facing similar challenges, including an influx of cocaine, cannabis, synthetic cannabis, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

“Per capita consumption [of heroin] in Seychelles and Mauritius, it’s crazy,” Yann Yvergniaux, senior analyst at Trygg Mat Tracking, a nonprofit that provides fisheries intelligence to countries and organizations, told ADF. “There are so many drugs being transmitted that some end up on the local market. Some involved in the trade do recreational drugs. It’s horrible. In the Seychelles, some shipowners told me that they could no longer find young crew members because they were all on drugs.

The islands lie in and around the Mozambique Channel – a 1,600 kilometer waterway between Madagascar and East Africa that carries around 30% of the world’s tanker traffic. The waters are a major route for the shipment of heroin to Western Europe from Afghanistan via Pakistan.

The Comoros lie near the center of the channel’s northern border, and Reunion and Mauritius lie east of Madagascar’s 4,800 kilometer coastline.

The amount of heroin seized along the Indian Ocean trafficking route more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Wildlife trafficking has also increased due to widespread poverty and increased demand for exotic animal products overseas.

The IOC’s involvement in maritime security in the region began in the early 1980s when cocaine and heroin became major sources of income for drug traffickers. The commission has gradually established a network of fisheries and law enforcement agencies that exchange information and conduct joint inspections at sea.

“Even if a [suspicious vessel] is in the waters of a country’s exclusive economic zone, the inspector may come from another country,” Raj Mohabeer, IOC’s mission officer, told ADF. “In this way, neighboring countries cooperate.”

A “sense of regional identity”

Inspections are typically initiated when neighboring states share information such as a vessel’s licenses and non-compliance history.

The IOC collaborates with regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the East African Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa under the maritime security program funded by the EU.

“This has been done by the IOC but also by FISH-i Africa, which is a mechanism that until recently basically did monitoring and surveillance of island states, but [it also includes] Kenya, Somalia and other states are exchanging information,” Yvergniaux said.

Yvergniaux, a former IOC financial analyst, added that a “sense of regional identity” among small island states has put them “on the path to regional cooperation earlier than other states on the continent.”

In 2019, the Regional Operations Coordination Center (RCOC) in Seychelles, which mainly conducts joint law enforcement actions at sea, worked around the clock with the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center based in Madagascar, which shares maritime information and alerts the RCOC in case of suspicious activity at sea.

Through the centers created by the IOC, seven countries have signed agreements to exchange and share maritime information and participate in joint actions on water: Comoros, Djibouti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.

“We are in the early stages of establishing a maritime security architecture that will monitor all vessels in the IOC region and analyze the behaviors and identification of vessels of interest,” Mohabeer said. “If a vessel of interest is something we need to check, we check it. We are only at the beginning of the implementation of the system, but we have already made a lot of progress. Unfortunately, COVID-19 arrived last year and hampered our progress.

The IOC continues to encourage East African coastal nations to join.

“We do this because we talk about commons like the ocean, but what do you see in the world?” said Mohabeer. “Few people consider the common good as something they should consider. We must work for the common good.

Despite the efforts of the IOC, maritime crime in the region shows no signs of slowing down. According to research by ENACT – Improving Africa’s Capacity to Combat Transnational Crime – around 40 tonnes of heroin pass through the region each year and 5 tonnes remain at landing sites.

In April 2021, the Tanzanian Drug Control and Enforcement Authority and the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force seized more than a ton of heroin from a vessel sailing in the western Indian Ocean, just northern Mozambique, The East African newspaper reported. Seven people were arrested.

Later that month, Tanzanian authorities seized 270 kilograms of heroin from a Nigerian and two Tanzanian accomplices who were smuggling the drugs by sea. A month earlier, two people had been sentenced to life in prison for trafficking 275.40 grams of heroin hydrochloride in Tanzania, the newspaper reported.

A model for continental Africa

A March 2021 report from the Institute for Security Studies says the IOC’s efforts to boost maritime security among island states could serve as a model for other African nations to follow.

Maritime information sharing and joint patrols have had some success in the Gulf of Guinea, where the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is rapidly depleting West African fish stocks and has led to an increase in attacks of pirates. The region accounted for 130 of the 135 maritime kidnappings worldwide in 2020.

The authorities formed in 2015 the West-Central Africa Working Group Fisheries Committee of the Gulf of Guinea to combat illegal fishing in the region. The participating nations are Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo.

The task force “works on the same basis of sharing licensing information” as the IOC, Yvergniaux said. “It’s still very new. Joint patrols are not happening now, but they are learning.

Written by Africa Defense Forum and republished with permission. The original article can be found here.

Lynn A. Saleh