In a bid to secure the nation’s maritime domain, the Nigerian Navy recently participated in the seventh Operation Obangame Express held in the Gulf of Guinea, writes Chiemelie Ezeobi 

The statutory responsibilities of the Nigerian Navy have always been mapped out; these include protecting the nation’s maritime domain from threats, which might come in form of piracy, crude oil theft and trafficking. As expected, the navy constantly seek ways to hone their skills in carrying out their constitutional duties and one of such ways is participating in sea exercises, either local or international.

Thus for the seventh time, they actively participated in the international and regional Operation Obangame Express, a maritime interdiction and interoperability exercise, designed to not only boost the capacity of individual navies that participated, but also provides an opportunity for partner nations to work together, share information and refine tactics, techniques and procedures to assist African maritime nations in building capacity to monitor and safeguard their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

It therefore won’t be out of place to state that to a large extent, Exercise Obangame Express has been effective in terms of boosting surveillance at sea, given that each member nation in the region has specific exercises geared towards tackling the prevalent maritime challenges in their domain.

This year, for the Nigerian Navy, their focus was on anti-crude oil theft, anti-piracy, illicit drug smuggling and illegal and unregulated fishing. Sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the exercise was designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of Gulf of Guinea and West African nations to counter sea-based illicit activity.

This year, the exercise was conducted in phases within the territorial waters of the participating nations and being the seventh edition the exercise had 30 participating countries from four continents with scheduled and specific pre-planned scenarios initiated by the Exercise Control Group (ECG) and Maritime Observation Centres (MOCs), who tracked suspect vessels through Regional Maritime Awareness Centres (RMAC), Falcon Eye and other maritime capability gadgets.

According to an earlier brief by the Director of Naval Information (DINFO), Captain Suleiman Dahun, the multi-national annual maritime exercise was sponsored by U.S. Africa Command and is designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of Gulf of Guinea and West African nations to counter sea-based illicit activity.

He said, “Exercise Obangame Express’s purpose is to create realistic scenarios that reflect past piracy incidents whereby a hijacked vessel will transit from one territory to another.

“Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs) during the exercise will be challenged to recognise these illicit acts appropriately and share with other MOCs. Additionally, the exercise will test each individual maritime force to patrol their Exclusive Economic Zones and detect and prosecute illegal activity accordingly.”

Participating countries 

The exercise, which was conducted in phases within the territorial waters of the participating nations, saw 30 nations in attendance. The nations include Angola, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Nigeria.

Others include Norway, Mauritania, Portugal, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, South Africa, Togo, Turkey, the Netherlands, and the United States, along with regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

Nigeria’s fleet contribution 

The Nigerian phase of the exercise was conducted in the nation’s waters by the Nigerian Navy and platforms like Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) OKPABANA, NNS CENTENARY, NNS SAGBAMA and one helicopter were deployed to participate in the same region with French Navy ship, JACOUBET, which sailed into Nigerian waters from Cameroon.

What happened at sea

After the pre-exercise briefing onboard, NNS OKPABANA set sail from Onne Jetty manned by the Commanding Officer, NNS OKPABANA, Captain Abdulraman Mohammed and his Executive Officer, Commander Seyi Oladapo. The formation sailed from the Onne Jetty, Port Harcourt, Rivers State on a Thursday, and the frequency was alternated between 120.50KHZ and the speed of seven knots, the course was at a point set at 090 and a latitude of 05 52.

As expected given the time of the year, the weather was clement when the contingent totaling 160 personnel and crew- 35 officers and 125 ratings, as well as a handful of civilians boarded Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) OKPABANA to patrol from Onne waters to the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) for the exercise. At sea, it was miles and miles of endless blue water with a serenity that was unrivaled.

After the take off, the sea exercise began the next day as the vessel sailed through the GOG and for four days patrolled Brass, Bonny and Opobo waters to conduct maritime interdiction exercises as well as counter illicit trafficking, vessel boarding, search and seizure (VBSS), which was done by the Special Boat Services (SBS), unregulated fishing exercises and communication drills.

Meanwhile, there was also room for the NN Augusta helicopter to fly overheard the arrested vessel, giving it aerial coverage, although it did not land on the flight deck.

But the high point of the exercise was the simulation at sea, when the naval ship encountered a French Navy Ship, JACOUBET offshore Bakassi Pennisula, which was 35 nautical miles from the nearest coastline. The exercise area was symbolic because there are plenty oil rigs in that axis.

The vessel acted as a fully laden oil tanker with 300 metric tonnes of crude oil, that left Angola (Zone D) and was heading to Cote D’Ivoire when it was hijacked in Cameroonian waters. When the information was passed across to the navy, since the French ship had entered Nigerian waters, NNS OKPABANA was deployed to intercept it.

In another exercise, the same French ship played the role of a merchant vessel conveying illegal drugs, which the NN, upon suspecting it, deployed operatives of the Special Boat Services (SBS), who searched and seized it.

For the last exercise, which was done in Lagos waters, NNS OKPABANA improvised as an illegal fishing vessel, while NNS CENTENARY was tasked to pursue, intercept search and seize the contents. With that done, NNS OKPABANA set sail for naval dockyard in Victoria Island, where it berthed, thus signaling the end of the exercise.

Assessing the navy’s performance 

Like it has always been obtainable, each year, an Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) is appointed to oversee the exercise and this year was not different. This year, the Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command, Rear Admiral James Oluwole, who also doubled as the OTC and the Commander Task Group 17.1, was in charge.

During one of the days after the exercises were conducted, he assessed the navy’s performance and participation in the exercise. According to him, the personnel showed great improvement in discharging their duties.

Speaking on the exercise of the day he said: “We started around 3pm and the exercise lasted 90 minutes. It was an opposed boarding and it was successfully carried out because the personnel were able to secure the ship. This is the first part of the maritime interdiction exercise, where we use our special forces and detachment from the ship.

“They carried out VBSS. Two boats were lowered because it is unprofessional to use just one. We also had the U.S. trainers onboard the French ship to access the exercise. The other exercise executed was the anti-drug trafficking. From my assessment, we have given it our best shot. It also shows we have improved over the years since the commencement of Obangame Express in 2011.

“When we started, we had challenges such as inability to muster the ships we have now for this exercise. It is a big plus for Nigeria that three capital ships took part in this exercise. It shows we are ready and well prepared to take on the expected role within the Gulf of Guinea.

“This simulation started from Angola before we took over to enact our part of it. This shows that maritime crime has no boundary and the fight against such illicit activities must be done with the collaboration of all. We have had instances where ships are hijacked in Togo and ended up in Angola. But we all have a responsibility to go after the hijackers. Successes recorded by the navy in recent times can be attributed to the trainings we have received over the years. We have improved and have more assets to execute our own part of the maritime security deal within the region.

“Although we are at sea, there’s a behind the scene Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs), monitoring activities and telling us what has happened. It cuts across all stakeholders within ECOWAS and ECCAS. There is what we call threat migration. A militant today can become a pirate tomorrow. When he has been dislodged as a militant and is less busy, he could take to the high seas and constitute a threat.

“The training has also helped in the fight against illegal bunkering because it is the special forces we usually deploy to man oil wells/fields that are offshore. We have well trained personnel keeping duty at the fields 24 hours a day. If you check the statistics, you would see there’s drastic reduction in crude oil theft and it has reflected in the barrels of oil produced now.

“The training from this exercise is also useful to officers and men when they are onshore and posted to operational bases. So, the training has great impact on us. The U.S. initiated the exercise and it’s under their 1000 ships maritime strategy. They came up with the idea of bringing all navies of the world to collaborate since there’s no clear demarcation in the maritime domain. Once you go off your territorial waters, you enter international waters and anything can happen there.”

Stakeholders observations

Again, as was obtained in the past, stakeholders from relevant agencies often participate in the exercise and this year was not different as personnel of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and that of the Nigeria Customs Service participated.

From the customs was Assistant Superintendent of Customs (ASC) Shehu Ibrahim, who said the experience was a tough one for him, nonetheless, he added that it worthwhile for him.

In an interview with THISDAY after the exercise he said, “The navy and the customs have always had a long history of collaboration. Our responsibility as we board ships is to rummage and discover drugs. In the case the navy draws our attention to a drug case, they hand over the exhibits to us for investigation and prosecution.”

On what he feels the navy should do more next year he said, “There is need for more platforms to be added for an exercise of this nature and they should get more foreign ships to interdict with them unlike in this case where we only saw one foreign ship.

“There is need for more Special Boat Services (SBS) personnel to be deployed to board and search vessels and at the same time, the navy needs more funding to maintain their ships and keep them operational. Another flaw I noticed was that no helicopter boarded our ship like we were previously informed.”

For his NIMASA counterpart, Watchman Simon-Peter, he noted that last year’s exercise was better and more coordinated than that of this year, which he said was scaled down by two notches.

According to him, “This year’s exercise was a scaled down version of last year in various aspects. Take for example, the number of exercises and activities that took place; there were exercises like the Gunnex (gun exercise) that was skipped totally and the fire drills.

 “Last year also, we had series of boarding and opposed boarding exercises but this year, we just had one boarding exercise. I do believe that the recession has a hand in the scaled down activities though.”

He however charged the navy to improve on their information dissemination, as was obtainable in the past. He said, “During the previous exercise, which I participated in, we had pre-briefing before each exercise and post briefing afterwards. This year, we were kept in the dark and were only fed information on a-need-to know basis.

“Nonetheless, this exercise afforded me the opportunity to see the navy from a different perspective. I appreciate the service and its personnel for what they do. I learnt a lot in this exercise. I have seen how aerial cover is given during boarding. Most times we grumble that when we pass information to navy, they don’t give us feedback. But now, I have seen the distance covered to get to distress points.

“I also appreciate the navy for helping NIMASA execute its functions since we can’t come to the high seas. I believe if the good relationship between both agencies is sustained, together, we can make our waters safer. This is because although all NIMASA vessels are managed by the agency, we only use our patrol boats around the anchorage because our vessels cannot go to the high seas. That is why we have different MoUs with different government agencies for efficiency and effectiveness.”

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 cooperations 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 potential 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 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.

In all, the operation afforded the navy the opportunity to sharpen their skills on anti-piracy operations, test their 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), seamanship and Communication Exercises (COMMEX).

Thus, having participated in this year’s exercise despite the hitches, it behooves the Nigerian Navy  to tap into the benefit of the exercise, especially as regarding training and capacity building, which in effect will be a force multiplier in tackling headon maritime illegalities and criminals on the GOG waters.