Chiemelie Ezeobi who was onboard Nigerian Navy Ship OKPABANA for nine days, writes on the quest for safer seas

It was 10:37am on a certain Sunday. The sky was bright and the weather clement. At sea it was no different. It was miles and miles of endless blue water. The serenity was unrivaled. At sea, it was a life of its own as vessels sailed to their destinations unhindered. One of the vessels at sea between Opobo and Oron waters on that certain day was Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) OKPABANA. Deployed to maintain safety at sea, the vessel with its 150 ratings and 30 officers were patrolling the waters from Onne waters to the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) for the Operation 2016 Obangame Saharan Express.

Still basking in the euphoria of the recent high profile recovery of a hijacked oil tanker and its 16-man crew and arresting seven pirates, the Nigerian Navy (NN), kick started Operation Obangame Saharan Express 2016, an international annual exercise, on a high note. The exercise, which was started in 2010, is a joint maritime interdiction and interoperability venture between the NN and navies of other countries.

Apparently, it was not an exercise in futility as the patrol yielded results that day. Although simulated, the vessel had apparently received a distress call from Motor Tanker (MT) Centenary. The vessel was under pirates attack and radioed for help. It was just a simulation of the real life situation when the same NNS OKPABANA rescued a 16-man crew of Merchant Vessel (MV) Maximus and arrested six of the pirates and another possible accomplice weeks ago at the coat of Sao Tome.

In this instance, it happened that at about 20 minutes after the observer from the Defence Headquarters, Air Vice Marshal SM Kudu landed NNS OKPABANA using the Nigerian Navy Helicopter 09 that morning, MT Centenary radioed at about 10.37am. At about 11am, they radioed back that the pirates had taken over the bridge (the control room) of the ship.

The next time contact was made from the distressed ship was done by the pirates who radioed at about 11.01am to threaten to kill all the crew members onboard. At about 11.05am, the Commanding Officer (CO) of NNS OKPABANA, Captain Olusegun Ferreira summoned the Special Boat Services (SBS), the navy’s equivalent of the U.S. Seals, commander and briefed him with specific instructions to rescue the ship’s crew. After mustering its men to both the starboard (right) and port (left) boat decks, the team left at exactly 11.26am.

This time, they had aerial protection from the NN Augusta 09 helicopter flown by Commander Adewale Odejobi and Lieutenant Commander Samuel, alongside Lieutenant Commander Abubakar Maigado, because it was an opposed boarding, meaning that the pirates had resisted attempts for the naval personnel to board. To reinforce their resistance, they fired off warning shots, which made the personnel withdraw and then reinforce back. Their persistence paid off and they boarded even though the enemy ship did not release the Jacob’s ladder for them to climb. In the scenario, there was also casualty evacuation done by the elements of the Special Boat Services (SBS).

About Obangame Sub-Saharan Express

Since Nigeria relies heavily on the sea for commerce and international trade like any other maritime nation, the 2016 Exercise Obangame Sub-Saharan Express was timely and quite germane given the need to jointly tackle the security challenges of piracy, poaching, smuggling, oil theft, trafficking and other transnational crimes. Thus, the exercise entailed interoperability and creating a maritime domain awareness, as part of a multinational training organised by America and African Partnership Station (APS).

The exercise is a maritime interdiction based on simulated scenarios of the most prevalent transnational crimes at sea, also designed to improve cooperation among participating nations for the benefit of the GOG. Bearing that in mind, the 2016 engineered partnership and synergy was not just between 32 countries but between appropriate agencies, who all gathered for the exercise.

Its core objectives was geared towards improving the maritime domain awareness capability of concerned nations, enhancing the maritime interdiction capabilities of maritime forces and inculcating the spirit of interagency and sub-regional cooperation amongst maritime forces and concerned countries. This is because the insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea, has led to the loss of billions of dollars by countries within the coast of West Africa, particularly countries like Nigeria which relies on sea for commerce and international trade.

Thus, it gives cause for concern when such huge resources and potentials in the Gulf of Guinea are being undermined by multifaceted domestic, regional and international threats and vulnerabilities.
So collaborative opportunities like this seek to curb maritime illegalities, which is also in line with the Chief of Naval Staff’s, vision of zero tolerance for maritime illegalities.

Started in 2010 as one of the four United Nations Naval-Forces Europe-Africa-facilitated regional exercises and focuses on increasing capabilities to deter piracy, illicit trafficking and other maritime threats. Over the years, it has gone from basic tactics to regional cooperation, with the core essence being to improve the capacity of the African navies to combat crime in order to allow economic activities at sea to flourish.

The exercise served as an aim to increase the collective ability of African, European, South American and United States maritime forces to work together in order to increase maritime security and sustain global commerce. Furthermore, it was an avenue to buttress the cliche that ‘there is strength in numbers’, as well as strengthened regional cooperation to help address challenges that no nation is capable of tackling alone.

Countries Involved

Hosted in Cameroon for the second time, the participating countries included the navies of the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), São Tomé and Principe, Spain, Turkey, Denmark, Portugal, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Italy, Benin Republic, Angola, Brazil, France, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Espanyol, Ghana, Togo and Cote D’ivoire.

The Nigerian Contingent
For the exercise, the naval contingent included the Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command, Rear Admiral Atiku Abdulkadir; Officer-in-Tactical Command, Commodore AMO Sunmola; the Commanding Officer, NNS OKPABANA, Captain Olusegun Ferreira; his Executive Officer, Captain Abdulraman Mohammed; incoming Fleet Commander, ENC, Commodore Rasaq Babalola; ENC’s Chief Operations Officer (COO), Commodore Adebayo Ayinde; Naval Headquarters (NHQ) observer Captain Richard Shammah; as well as the Captain Suleiman Dahun, the information coordinator for the exercise and Lieutenant Commader Solomon Wadak, an observer.

For the deployment of fleet, the NN deployed three vessels, NNS THUNDER, OKPABANA and CENTENARY, with an NN Augusta helicopter, as well as elements of the Special Boat Services (SBS). While NNS PROSPERITY was deployed from the Western Naval Command, NNS OKPABANA was deployed were from Eastern Naval Command and NNS CENTENARY was deployed from Central Naval Command.

In the Beginning
Before the exercise proper, there was a press briefing onboard NNS OKPABANA headed by the
Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command, Rear Admiral Atiku Abdulkadir, before the Nigerian contingent sailed to Duoala, Cameroon, through the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) waters.

While addressing newsmen onboard NNS OKPABANA, Rear Admiral Abdulkadir had said, “This exercise is aimed at bringing our partners to train as well as practice maritime interdiction and interoperability. This year’s exercise was tagged Operation Obangame Saharan Express because the exercise area is from Morocco to the Mediterranean and then the Gulf of Guinea.

“The Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibas and the navy will continue to put more effort towards curbing the different crimes at sea. Also, the full compliments of Regional Maritime Awareness Capability (RMAC) and the Falcon Eye have been deployed too to support maritime interdiction while at sea.”

At the briefing were the OTC Sunmola; CO NNS OKPABANA and THUNDER, Captains Olusegun Ferreira and Julius Nwagwu, respectively. Also present were the outgone and incumbent Command Operations Officer, Eastern Naval Command, Commodores Ime Ekpa and Rasaq Babalola, respectively, as well as the Captain Dahun.

Events at Sea

After the take off at Onne Ports in Rivers State, the sea exercise began the next day as the vessel sailed through the GOG and for nine days patrolled Brass, Bonny and Opobo waters and exercises conducted were counter illicit trafficking, search and rescue, counter-piracy, energy security, as at-sea ship boarding and queries, air operations, communication drills, regional information sharing and anti-illegal fishing, as well as advanced medical training. Also, exercises featured were tactical maneuvering, vessel boarding search and seizure (VBSS).

And the last but not the least were the fire drills, which had all onboard the vessel practice fire simulations. During the drills, Marine Engineer Officer (MEO), Commander Joshua Dalong, said the exercises were routine. He said. “We usually have drills and exercises whether at sea or alongside, so if there is a real life situation, we can tackle it.”

Not left out was the Gunnex exercise where all including the journalists including THISDAY reporter, Chiemelie Ezeobi, shot the MI6 and the 50mm calibre.

In one of the days at sea, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Air Chief Marshal Gabriel Olonishakin, was flown onboard the vessel by the navy helicopter. Represented by Air Vice Marshal Sahfiy Kudu, the CDS said the collaboration among regional maritime stakeholders will curb issues of piracy in the GOG.
Afterwards, in an interview with journalists, the OTC and the CO, Commodore Deji Sunmola and Captain Olusegun Ferreira, said the exercise was to assess the capacity to conduct maritime operation within existing frameworks, as well as the operational capability to conduct maritime interdictions as well as law enforcement operations.

Stating that Nigeria has recorded enormous gains since its first participation in 2010, Sunmola said the exercise provided a forum to exercise ships and aircraft and enable the officers and men to train with other navies of the world. He said, “Security of the seas is important and impacts us all. The ability to govern the sea helps counter problems such as trafficking of people and illegal material, oil bunkering, drug trade, illegal fishing and piracy.”

Also, Ferreira said the navy has been focusing on various operations aimed at combating the myriads of criminalities and illegal activities in the nation’s maritime domain. He also said the navy has an increased capacity to monitor and checkmate maritime crimes, especially crude oil theft, illegal bunkering, sea robbery and piracy.

Inter-Agency Cooperation
This year, there was an inter-agency cooperation between the NN other agencies of government. Sent as observers, they include Inspector Samuel Agholor of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS); Mr. Watchman Simon of Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA); Mr. Macaulay Olayinka of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); Elisha Danjuma of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC).

On his experience Agholor, said it has exposed him to the capabilities of the NN and the SBS especially and their ability to rescue hijacked vessels. He said with this inter-agency cooperation, there is no doubt that the marine unit of the customs will always communicate with the navy whenever there is distress.

On his own part, Olayinka of the EFCC said the trip gave him a better insight as to the human and material resources arresting a criminal vessel costs, adding the job of his agency, is to prosecute vessels and suspects arrested by the navy. He said, “This exercise has further solidified the existing relationship between both agencies.”
Danjuma of the NSCDC while commending the navy on their efforts to secure the nation’s waterways, said the experience was an eye opener.

The Ambassador’s Visit

Nigeria’s High Commissioner in Cameroon, Ambassador Hadiza Mustapha, with her entourage vested NNS OKPABANA and she commended the Navy for its participation in the exercise. She said, “This is the second Obangame Express I have witnessed. It is always nice to see our ship in harbour of a foreign country flying our flag. The exercise itself is very important for our military, particularly the navy to show we have full control of our maritime domain. It is also a very good way of promoting maritime diplomacy. So, we are very happy and proud to have NNS OKPABANA here”

The Closing Ceremony

At the closing ceremony held on Thursday, the United States Government through its United States African Command (USAFRICOM), charged all African navies to ensure there is no rogue activities at sea, especially in the waters bordering their respective nations.

In an interview with defence corps from different nations, the Deputy Commander, USAFRICOM Military Operations, Vice Admiral Michael Franken said, “I appreciate the regional navies that participated in this exercise in the last the seven years with USAFRICOM. It’s an exercise with 32 different nations and international organisations. It was principally designed to enhance maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, stretching almost a thousand miles up and down the coast.

“The numerous countries here are from four continents. It’s the standard of international protocol for maritime security and to share information on best practices to enforce laws of maritime security on our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

“It is important for all African nations to realise that that Africa is a maritime continent where all your trade and the sea is our international commuting source. Uniform standard of security is the very essence of this exercise. For the United States, we consider our self altruistic nation. We are a maritime nation, therefore, we all benefit from the secure maritime trade and from knowing what to expect with maritime trade in each nation.

“There can be no rogue activity at sea. We want to encourage that the GOG of nations. We have seen this in the past, a continuous improvement of GOG nations and the various ministries within each country the best practices and the necessary tenets for good conduct.

“The United States is only here as an international partner, so what benefits the GOG benefits the U.S. and what benefits the U.S. benefits the farther nations of the Pacific Ocean to China and straits of Malaka and all trade international partners.”

On the achievements he said, “We enacted the Yaounde Code of Conduct and this is a non-binding international agreement that the GOG nations have enacted to lay down the standards which each country is expected to follow. Information exchange and the rule of law, which is very important for all things maritime. No one likes international trade surprises.”

Afterwards, the Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command, Rear Admiral Atiku Abdulkadir, said, “Our benefit from this exercise is that in terms of training, we have developed our capacity. It also afforded us the opportunity to see our equipment and platforms have performed and operated alongside other countries and being effective in the provision of maritime security.

“To a large extent, Exercise Obangame Express has been effective in terms of surveillance at sea in terms of crude oil theft and hijacking. We have been to the sea to see, access and analyse what they are doing and go after them accordingly. Again, we have also seen an increase in our capacity in engaging vessels at sea.”