A Regional United Front

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Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that Operation Opia Toha, ‘Togetherness at Sea’ was designed to forge a regional united front between the Nigerian Navy and the navies of other West African countries in a bid to secure the maritime domain from piracy, crude oil theft and militancy

It was the first of its kind. It was a maritime sea exercise planned for Africa nations, by an African nation (Nigeria), for the region (West Africa) and conducted in the Gulf of Guinea waters. This regional cooperation reinforced the truth of strength in numbers and sent a strong signal that that the region is united against maritime illegalities.

Although it was a one-day exercise, it was a huge step on the part of the Nigerian Navy led by the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ette Ibas.

This move, which has been commended by both foreign and local independent observers, came at the backdrop that all other regional exercises the African navies have ever participated in, were at the behest of either the Royal Navy, the United States Navy using the African Partnership Station (APS) and United States African Command (AFRICOM), respectively.

Thus, with the burden to create a sea exercise tailored at addressing African challenges in the maritime domain, Operation OPIA TOHA was borne. OPIA TOHA, an Idoma word for ‘Togetherness at Sea’ was organised by the Nigerian Navy and it involved navies of the West African region.

It was principally designed to enforce maritime security on our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), as well as enhance maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, stretching almost a thousand miles up and down the coast.

This is because a continuous improvement of Gulf of Guinea nations, will go a long way to enhance the recently enacted Yaounde Code of Conduct, a non-binding international agreement that the Gulf of Guinea nations have enacted to lay down the standards which each country is expected to follow, especially as regarding information exchange and the rule of law.
Therefore, after due preparations, the Regional Maritime Sea Exercise was held with the Nigeria Navy deploying vessels like NNS Prosperity, NNS Okpabana, NNS Kyanwa, NNS Thunder and NNS Centenary. Also deployed by the navy were its Augusta 08 helicopter and the Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

Other participating nations like the Ghana Navy deployed their Ghana Navy Ship (GNS) Chemle, while the Cameroonians deployed the Ghana Navy Ship (CNS). Although some of the regional navies didn’t deploy their ships, the French navy ship from France Lavallee also participated.
Other countries’ navies that participated in the one day sea exercise were France, Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Cote D’ Ivoire and the United Kingdom. While the NN deployed five vessels and two helicopters, France, Ghana and Cameroon each deployed a boat for the exercise
Aside the navies of other countries that came, other agencies of government with interest in the maritime sector were part of the sea exercise.

Events at sea
The formation sailed from the Naval Dockyard, Victoria Island and moved to the exercise area, which was 48 miles from the nearest coast (Forcados). The vessels moved to the exercise area in a procession led by the NNS Centenary, NNS Okpabana, Prosperity, Cameroon, France and then Ghana.
Alternating between the frequency of 120.50KHZ and the speed of seven knots, the course was at a point set at 090 and a latitude of 05 52, the exercise started with tactical maneuvers that saw the above mentioned navies maneuver tactically in a formation.

Also done at sea was the Vessel Boarding Searching and Seizure (VBSS) by the Special Boat Services (SBS), the Gunnery Exercise (GUNNEX), seamanship and Communication Exercises (COMMEX). Meanwhile, there was also room for the NN Augusta helicopter to perform its landing and taking off exercise while at sea.

But the high point of the exercise was the simulation at sea, when the naval ships encountered a Motor Tanker (MT) Jahu, with 300 metric tonnes of AGO, coming from Ivory Coast, that was hijacked by sea pirates. They boarded the vessel, rescued and freed the crew and arrested the pirates. It was an opposed boarding because the pirates were armed and opposed the boarding of the Special Boat Services (SBS), who were deployed from NNS OKPABANA. Earlier on, the assistance of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft was needed and it was deployed to fly over the area and detect the exact position of the hijacked vessel.

At the sea exercise were the Commandant, National Defence College (NDC), Rear Admiral Ilesanmi Alade; Chief of Naval Transformation, Rear Admiral Henry Babalola; Chief of Training and Operations, Rear Admiral Adeniyi Osinowo; Sierra Leonean Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Gen. Alfred Nelson-Williams (rtd); Namibia Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Peter Vilho, among several others.

Time out with Vice Admiral Ibas
During the course of the exercise, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ete-Ibas, addressed some certain issues including the recent threat of militancy in the Niger Delta region, acquisition of more platforms especially the arrival of NNS Unity, the completion of the second indigenously built Seaward Defence Boat (SDB) and rehauling of the nation’s flagship NN’S Aradu.

While describing militants attacking oil facilities and other infrastructure of government as enemies of state who must be dealt with accordingly, Ibas said there was need for more assets and platforms for the navy to enable it tackle tackle the challenges of the moment head on and effectively.

He said: “The Armed Forces of any nation are trained to fight enemies of the nation. For now, militants are enemies of Nigeria and we will completely eliminate them. We are doing our very best but still require much more from government to enable us do better. We need more assets. We have a vast maritime space to cover. We have the back waters as well where new emerging threats are coming from. Indeed, we need vessels to be able to dominate.”

Speaking on the arrival of NNS UNITY, the second vessel ordered from China, he said it would soon be delivered, adding that the SDB is almost complete, just as he said a survey is being conducted on NNS Aradu before recommendations can be made.

He said, “NNS UNITY will be with us in a short while. Already, the Second Seaward Defence Boat (SDB) is about 98 per cent complete. It has already been launched. Once they start the sea and acceptance trials, she should be able to join the service. For NNS ARADU, survey is being conducted. To put ARADU back means deploying resources into the system. But once we get the recommendation of the survey, we will be able to take appropriate actions.”

On the outcome of the exercise, he said the performance justifies the resources they put in, adding that with more of the exercises, the navy will do better.
Namibia’s partnership
It was Namibia’s first partnership that would bring it to Nigerian soil. Led by its Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Peter Vilho, it’s personnel also participated in the sea exercise to show their support for a maritime domain free of illegalities and criminalities.

Commending the NN for deploying men and material for the regional exercise, Vilho said it was a demonstration of the NN’s might and capabilities, adding that when compared to the navies of other third world countries, the Nigerian Navy has made major strides.

He said: “We used to do a few exercises in our region but we have never had one like this with many vessels and nations participating. The Nigerian Navy has been able to muster so many vessels at sea in this exercise. I am here personally because we were supposed to also bring a vessel for this exercise but it developed technical problem.

“So, I said we are still going to participate and continue since we already registered our interest for it. We are a bit farther from the Gulf of Guinea region but we believe that things can be tackled before they get worst. That’s why we find out about challenges from other parts of the world in order to prevent them.

“Both navies are working towards cementing the existing relationship especially in training. We already have senior officers attending the National Defence College (NDC) in Abuja but I will still want some more junior officers to come. We are discussing on the possibility of a Namibian ship paying a port call in Nigeria.”

Ghana’s collaboration

Sailing from Ghana in the Ghana Navy Ship (GNS) Chemle, a snake class of boat, the Ghana Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Peter Faidoo, was fully a part of the sea regional exercise.

He said, “This is the first time so many navies have had an exercise on its own unlike previously when it has been on the prodding of the United States African Command (AFRICOM). On the issue of piracy, the Nigerian Navy has a robust Special Boat Services (SBS) and they are very good at opposed boarding and we are deficient in that aspect Ghana navy but we have already sent our personnel to learn.

“The Gulf of Guinea is considered to be very dangerous but it is not good for only the Nigeria Navy to protect their waters, it will still affect them because the spillover from other countries will also affect them. But the Nigerian Navy has been very generous so that together we will have a seamless and safe water.”

The Royal Navy’s commendation
Sent to monitor the exercise as an independent observer for the Royal Navy (United Kingdom), Commander Shaun Quinn, said although the navy had struggled a little over the years, it has now come to its own. He said, “The navy has struggled a little but in the last couple of years, they have started getting better at what they do. With the Nigerian government relying heavily on oil, the navy is important in providing security especially on the maritime domain.

“The sea exercise was a good one. It was good a number of nations came together. Although some of the nations did not provide ships of aircrafts, the gains of the exercise will spur them to participate in further exercises. Already, the Nigerian Navy has proven its capabilities by organising the regional exercise and another good thing was that they brought in other maritime agencies. It should be done often.”

Observer’s conclusions
Although there were official observers, there were still some very senior officers onboard NNS Prosperity who monitored the exercise and gave their conclusions.

According to the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC), Rear Admiral Fergusson Bobai, who also doubles as the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC) and Commander of the Task Group, said the objectives of the exercise were met in the sense that the joint forces proved that language was not a barrier to effective maritime security.

While addressing the need for more acquisitions of platforms including vessels and air lift power, are acquired based on threat scenarios he said, “The Nigerian Navy’s contemporary threats are in our back waters and that is where we have militancy, crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism, so, we must look for proper mix of vessels to fight them. Off Shore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) are one of the good vessels we can use to patrol our offshore installations. Helicopters are a force multiplier because they can be sent out to survey and feed the ship back on its findings so that the right platform can be deployed to go and confront the particular challenge.”

Also speaking, the Chief of Naval Transformation, Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, expressed delight at the participation of other friendly navies, adding that they all performed creditably well. He said, “They performed creditable well. All the formations kept stations and the firing exercises were smooth. I think the VIPs onboard have been very impressed. But as more exercise progresses, more trainings will be undertaken. I was here to observe the exercise and see new innovations that the NN can key into moving forward.

“For us in the navy, we must corporate. Most of the collaborating efforts have been foreign driven. This is the first time that we are taking and conducting this on our own. So, it is for us as a region a beautiful thing because even your presence alone at sea is a strong deterrent to would be criminal.”

Stressing that the walls have been broken down on the maritime domain between nations, especially as regards communication, he said, “The navy’s operating theatre is not like visual boundaries but what affects littoral states will have a carryover effect on the maritime domain. Look at MT Maximus that was hijacked by pirates in February and was rescued by the NN, was coming from Cote D’ivoire. So we cannot but work together. So, this exercise is a right step in the right direction because most of the sea exercises conducted are driven by the United States, and Royal Navy but this is a good initiative for navies of the Gulf of Guinea and we will build on it.”

On his own part, the Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP) Rear Admiral Osinowo, who also doubled as the Officer Conducting the Exercise, while doing the debriefing said it was to consolidate on the recent gains of the combined regional exercise under the auspices of Operation Obangame held in Duoala, Cameroon.

He said, “This operation afforded us the opportunity to sharpen our skills on anti-piracy operations, test our ability to share information and contend criminalities within the Gulf of Guinea. It also tested the tactical skills in Vessel Boarding Searching and Seizure (VBSS), Gunnery Exercise (GUNNEX), seamanship and Communication Exercises (COMMEX).

“It was the first indigenous exercise planned, hosted and executed by the navies of the Gulf of Guinea. So this is a major feat. It marks the beginning of appropriate doctrine and we had a team of independent observers who gave their own objective observations.”

Having successfully organised and hosted a regional maritime exercise, many argue that the navies of the region must not rest on its oars, rather build stronger partnerships that would be a force multiplier and tackle headlong maritime illegalities and criminals.