Obangame Express: Protecting the Gulf of Guinea

Chiemelie Ezeobi and Mary Ovie write that the 2019 Operation Obangame Express, an international maritime interdiction exercise comprising 20 African nations and 11 foreign allied countries,  may have come and gone, but the lessons learnt are inherent for the protection of the Gulf of Guinea waters
Lying across 19 coastal and island states, the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) coastline, which stretches from the waters off Senegal to the south of Angola, is a treasure trove of rich resources. Comprising 26 countries grouped into two Regional Economic Communities (RECs), namely Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS, 11 states with the return of Rwanda) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS; 15 states), the GoG countries’ total population is about 472 million, with 160 and 310 million inhabitants for ECCAS and ECOWAS, respectively.

Covering a surface area of 11,755,258 square kilometers, including a coastline of over 6000 kilometres from Senegal to Angola, the GoG countries have an estimated 24 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, that is five per cent of global reserves; five million barrels of crude oil per day; 40 per cent of Europe’s petroleum consumption, and 29 per cent of US petroleum consumption.

The GoG is also the primary conduit of international trade and is central to the economy of the associated regions. It is increasingly looked upon today as resource provider and critical contributor to national growth and prosperity of the several nations lining its coasts and even those landward and with no shared boundaries.

However, despite its inherent potentials, the GoG currently faces one of the world’s most severe maritime security challenges, which includes terrorism, resource theft, and sabotage of supporting infrastructure, piracy and sea robbery, crude oil theft, Ilegal, Irregular and Unregulated Fishing (IIUF), human trafficking, narcotics, arms and smuggling.

Recently, in a bid to find lasting solutions to the myriad challenges bedevilling the GoG, 31 nations recently gathered at the Admiralty Conference Centre, Naval Dockyard Limited, Victoria Island, Lagos, for the 2019 Operation Obangame Express. 

Obangame Express 
Now in its ninth year, Obangame, a Fang language of southern Cameroon, which means “togetherness”,   is an annual multinational maritime exercise designed to improve cooperation among the participating nations in order to increase maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea.
The 2019 Operation Obangame Express witnessed the participation of five zones;  Zone A which comprises Congo and Gabon, Zone D which comprises Cameroon, Zone E which comprises Nigeria, Benin Republic, Niger and Togo, Zone F which comprises Ghana and Zone G which comprises Morocco.
The 12-days exercise, which was hosted by the Nigerian Navy (NN) is in its ninth run. This year, the NN hosted 20 African navies and 11 allied nations.
Hosted by the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ette-Ibas, eight Nigerian Navy Ships including two offshore patrol vessels; NNS Centenary and NNS Unity, two helicopters, one ship each from US, Portugal and Morocco participated in the Lagos area.
As usual, the exercise was aimed at assessing and improving the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) law enforcement capacity, promoting national and regional security, improving knowledge of African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) planning and operations, and shaping security forces assistance efforts.
However, the overall objectives are often to excercise each of the participating countries capabilities in Maritime Domain Awareness and Maritime Interdiction Operations. Sponsored by the US Naval Force Africa (US NAVAF), Operation Obangame Express is an annual multi-phased exercise which promotes the importance of regional cooperation between all the navies in the GoG. It is designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information sharing and enhance the collective capabilities of Gulf of Guinean and West African nations to counter illegalities in the maritime domain.
Specifically, the exercise objectives include to demonstrate and evaluate maritime operation centres interoperability across the region and demonstrate and evaluate tactical maritime interdiction operations capability. Also to demonstrate and evaluate operational capability to respond to maritime events, prevent and counter maritime threats; demonstrate power projection and the ability to effectively operate as a multinational force under a regional control authority; demonstrate and evaluate maritime operations Centre operability with tactical units and evaluate and acess Africa Partnership Station (APS) training effects.”
Hosted by the Chief of the Naval Staff, Nigerian Navy, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, Obangame Express is also part of a comprehensive strategy by U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa to provide collaborative opportunities among African forces and international partners that address maritime security concerns.
Participating Countries, Organisations
This year, the NN hosted 20 African navies and 11 allied nations. Among the African nations are;
Angola, Benin Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, Guinea, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Gambia, Morocco, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, São Tomé and Principe, South Africa and Carbo Verde.
The 11 allied nations are United States of America, United Kingdom,  Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, Danish, Canada, Belgium, and Brazil.
The regional organisations that participated were
Participating Federal Agencies
The various federal agencies of Nigeria that participated were the Federal Ministry of Justice, Nigeria Police, INTERPOL, Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Nigeria Custom Service (NCS), Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), National
Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Nigeria Maritime Administration  and
Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the National Drug Law and Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).
Opening Ceremony 
At the opening ceremony, all participating nations converged on Nigerian Navy Dockyard in Victoria Island, Lagos. At the opening ceremony were senior leaders from the U.S. Africa Command and the NN representatives of maritime forces from the Gulf of Guinea, Europe, North and South America, as well as regional and international organisations.
According to Ibas, the region was frequently being challenged by multifaceted and evolving maritime threats leading to unpredictable threat-levels and deepening conditions inimical to peace and security. Of particular concern, he said, was the realisation that many of the threats posed great danger to effective exploitation of the maritime environment and increasingly manifest as transnational and cross-border crimes, hence, the need for a united response by regional navies and coastguards.
He said: “This esteemed assembly is no doubt fully abreast of the gains of the African Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS) 2050 and the Yaoundé Code of Conduct of 2013, which have facilitated capacity building within a defined architecture for regional maritime security Operations. These instruments have also emplaced standards for inter-regional co-operation based on law enforcement at sea, information sharing and training, further enhancing multilateral collaboration in the GoG.
“This is the spirit that birthed the OBANGAME Express as a tool for enhancing the collective capabilities of GoG countries to counter sea-based illicit activities by improving regional cooperation.”
Delivering the welcome remarks, United States Consul General, John Bray noted that ObangameExpress has grown in leaps and bounds, both in complexity and in accomplishment.
He said: “We note the efforts by regional navies to work together in the spirit of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct which 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.”
As part of the events to open the 2019 Obangame Express, Bray and Ibas commissioned the Nigerian Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Training School in Apapa. The training school was built by the Nigerian Navy and equipped by the United States Navy.
“The Maritime Domain Awareness Training School in Apapa is one of the most evident examples of our enduring partnership. This school will be a regional center of excellence in the area of maritime domain awareness where neighboring countries will be trained,” Bray added.
In her remarks, Director, Directorate of Intelligence, U.S. Africa Command, Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, lauded the commitment of the 33 nations scheduled to participate in this year’s exercise.
According to her, illicit maritime activities such as illegal fishing, trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people, as well as the ongoing threat of piracy, undermine the rule of law, food security, and economic development in the region.
“This exercise is a clear demonstration of the United States’ dedication to combat these illicit activities and help our partners in the Gulf of Guinea to provide security for their resources, their economy, and their people. ObangameExpress 2019 will make the region a safe place for maritime commerce and ultimately help increase prosperity of the region,”  Berg said.
Leadership Symposium
In between the maritime exercise was the three-day Senior Leadership Symposium (SLS), a global gathering in all ramifications. Held between March 19 to 21, the symposium elicited discussions geared toward finding solutions to  common maritime security challenges by
heads of navies and coastguards across the GoG, as well as international partners.
In essence, the aim of the symposium was for all participating navies to rub minds together and decipher a lasting solution to maritime crimes such as sea robbery, piracy, crude oil theft, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, human and illicit trafficking of weapons and drugs among others, which constitute serious challenges to the development of all countries in their respective regions.
On Tuesday, Vice Admiral Ibas, gave the keynote address, while Dean Mangold of the NWC made the opening remarks and Rear Admiral Nancy Lacore of NAVAF handled the introductions. Thereafter, Rear Admiral Saunes of the NWC gave a presentation on ‘Navy, Coast Guard, whole of government relationships’, while Prof. Hensler of the NWC have a presentation on ‘Find, fix and finish threats in the maritime domain’, while Captain Brew, JAGC of  (CJTF-HOA) and Ms. Ward (DILLS) and Mr. Serina of UNODC sat on the panel to discuss ‘Establishing maritime legal frameworks and maritime governance’.
Another panel on ‘Naval forces and interagency integration’ saw Captain Schoonover (MOTR, USCG); Commander Atonfack, who is the Cameroonian Minister of Defence; Mr. Bamele (CDI-SEPCIM) and Commodore Mougilim of the Nigerian Navy, deliberate at length. Finally, Ms. Moss of the Maritime Intel Fusion Centre Atlantic did a presentation on ‘Data fusion cell’.
On Wednesday, handling the panel on ‘Regional threat assessment’ were Dr. Bell of Stable Seas; Mr. Sernia of UNODC and Ms. Kirillas of Interpol. The next panel was on ‘commercial shipping operations in the GoG and this was handled by Mr. Large of BIMCO; Mr. Gibson of Shell-OCIMF; Captain Escarras and Lieutenant Commander Parsonage of MDAT-GOG.
Also treated was ‘Maritime security policy update in the GoG region’ by Captain Bell Bell of ICC/ICC, while  ‘Operationalising the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCC)’ was presented by Sr. Captain Konan of CRESMAO and Captain Midianzou of CRESMAC.  ‘Execution of combined maritime operations under the YCC’ was handled by Captain Founkoua of Zone D, Commodore Gaya of Zone E,
Minister Duarte of Zone G, Vice Admiral Ferreira of Angola Navy and Rear Admiral  Mendoua of Cameroon Navy and Commodore Bankole of the NN, who sat on the panel. Finally, war games preparation was handled in a presentation by Prof Landsman of NWC.
On Thursday, which was the final day, theObangame Express update started the event before the War game execution on ‘Integrating the YCC into the operational context’ was handled by
Prof Landsman, Lieutenant Colonel Fitzpatrick of USMC and, Mr. Johnson of NWC. After this was the post war games assessment, also handled by the aforementioned trio.  It was wrapped by up SLS review and positing a way forward.
Exercises at Sea 
While at sea, the participating platforms conducted exercises like 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 manoeuvring,  vessel boarding search and seizure (VBSS).
Before the sea exercise began proper, the flag off was done by Rear Admiral F.O Isaac, Chief, who reiterated the core values of the exercise as; improving and promoting security of the GoG.
At sea, the Official In Tactical Command(OTC),
Commodore Dike Ikechukwu, who noted that the exercise was planned to kick against anti-piracy  and bunkering amongst other maritime crimes, said the role of the participating ships are encapsulated in the NN total spectrum of maritime strategy.
Day two of the sea trip, exercises like anti-arms smuggling and anti-narcotics held, as well as Gun Exercises (GUNNEX). The anti-arms and narcotics smuggling began at exactly 10am. The simulation saw the  Portuguese ship interrogate NNS Centenary. What played out was that NNS Centenary had wrongly declared that they were only carrying spare parts, only for them to find drugs(cocaine)onboard, which led to arrest of the captain and five crew members.
The second exercise started at exactly 14:35pm, which involved six ships including two vessels from
NN, and one respectively from Portuguese, Cameroon, Morrocco and US. The contingent carried out battle formations before the exercise proper.
On day three, the simulation of illegal drugs and fishing happened. After the illegal vessel was arrested, they were interrogated, arrested then handed over to the immigration, further persecution.
Afterwards, a search and rescue operation was carried out during the simulation of a hijacked vessel.  Day four saw the repitition it search and rescue operation. However, helicopter landing and medical evaluation also took place.
In the course of the sea trip, Lieutenant Commander, Ayo Pacheco, while speaking with the press, said the exercises brought out their operational capabilities, thus ensuring that they have improved in all aspects. He further stated that this year’s edition was one of the best because of the level of cooperation in their tactics, especially during the search and resuce simulation.
Afterwards, the Commanding Officer, NNS Centenary, Captain Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan, in an interview with Defence correspondents said Operation Obangame has brought together nations of the GoG and other foreign partners, adding that the operation has helped in distributing flow of information from one region to the other.
 Meanwhile, Western Naval Command Fleet Commander, Commodore Dickson Olisemelogor, said they achieved their expectations during the sea trip. The commodore, who also doubled as the Tactical Commander for Zone E, said they have achieved a lot in terms of human capacity development e.g patrol and conducting activites.
Closing Ceremony
At the closing ceremony, which was held at the naval dockyard, the Defence Minister, Mansur Dan-Ali noted that maritime illegalities constituted serious challenges to the development of the countries in the region. Dan-Ali who was represented by Director Navy, Ministry of Defence, Patrick Ekawu said these illegalities had evolved beyond the scope and capability of individual nations to tackle, hence the need for joint effort.
He said: “I am further honoured by the participation of navies and coast guards across and outside Africa  which evolves the essence of collaborative commitment towards s determined regional effort at forging a common approach to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea Region.
“The scourge of various forms of illegalities such as sea robbery, piracy, crude oil theft, poaching human and illicit trafficking of weapons and drugs among others constitute serious challenges to the development of the countries in our region. One commonality amongst these maritime threats is that they have become transnational and have evolved beyond the scope and capability of one nation to combat. For must of the Gulf of Guinea Navies and Coast Guards therefore, one of the major implications of the emerging security equation is the increasing demand for maritime policing functions. Regrettably in the past decade, a huge capability gap has emerged amongst Gulf of Guinea Navies and Coast Guards, the efficient discharge of these roles.
“ The situation increasingly gained rise to the need for greater international collaboration as well as interagency cooperation across various national capabilities and policy levels. It is against this background that Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS has remained relevant in developing the capabilities the various navies and coast guards in the Gulf of Guinea to combat maritime security challenges within their maritime domain, collaboration with international partners, relevant maritime security agencies and organisations.
“Let me at this juncture specially commend the navies of the Kingdom of Morocco, Portugal, the United States and other regional navies that have dispatched warships and personnel to participate the sea exercise, which involves multiple simulated maritime three scenarios and responses. I also commend our US partners for the initiative to bring heads of navies and coast guards from nation within the Gulf of Guinea and beyond together for the Senior Leadership Seminar, which enabled us to share experiences that would provide veritable platform to collectively proffer practical and sustainable solutions that will address the myriad of maritime security challenges in the region. These efforts would hopefully translate into a safe, secure and enabling maritime environment for socioeconomic activities to thrive in the Gulf of Guinea.
“Furthermore, I wish to acknowledge other initiatives of our partners towards encouraging and bolstering regional cooperation and collaboration in practical terms and on sustainable basis. These include the sustainment of the Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS series since 2010, establishment of the Regional Maritime Domain Awareness facilities in coastal states across the Gulf of Guinea and commissioning of the Regional Maritime Domain Awareness Training School at Apapa during the Opening Ceremony of this exercise just over a week ago.
“These are powerful testimonies to the dogged commitment of the US Government to enhancing maritime security across the world. In particular, these efforts have greatly facilitated the integration of organic national capabilities of nave and coast guards aimed at achieving holistic and sustainable maritime security regime in the Gulf of Guinea.
“Finally, permit me to reiterate that the magnitude of most maritime threats and their inter-connectedness, coupled with the fact that they provide such a diversity of impact s demand that we keep coming together to fashion collaborative framed responses. I make bold to state that no single Navy or Coast Guard can go it alone. It is therefore hoped that the lessons form this exercise would be developed into collaborative action plans to support strategic level initiatives to enhance our collective preparedness to meet emerging future maritime challenges in the every changing strategic security environment.”
Earlier, the CNS, Vice Admiral Ibas, said given that the set objectives at the beginning of the operation were about working out each participating country’s capabilities in maritime domain awareness,
implementation of regional maritime agreements and interoperability of African, European, Atlantic, and US militaries and agencies towards improving maritime safety and security in the GoG, then the exercise was a huge success.
He said: “This conclusion is not without a basis. Pursuant to the objectives, the exercise showcased the use and importance of communication among the nations in the respective maritime zones, especially in areas of maritime interdiction operations. It also created a platform for the NN to practice the operationalization of the Harmonised Standard Operation Procedures for arrest, detention andprosecution of criminal vessel in our waters.
“The exercise of the task elements in anti piracy, hostage rescue operations and tactical fleet manoeuvres in particular are most
rewarding. Furthermore, I recognise among the several other highpoints the valuable practice of the Special Forces in VBSS operations, and insertion/extraction of troops, evidence collection from crime scenes in conjunction with the MDAs in furtherance of law enforcement and the staging of mock MEDEVAC. In all of these, the NN
is humbled by the enthusiasm of the participating navies from GoG States, albeit at other simultaneous theatres of the exercise and other allied navies of the US, Portugal and Morocco towards addressing prevalent threats in Nigeria maritime domain and in GoG as a whole.
“The prospects of greater integration of the established maritime security mechanism covering ECCAS 4 zones (A-D) and ECOWAS zones E, F and G as a structure to support security in the GoG has pleasantly been raised both from the understanding secured from the complimentary Senior Leadership Symposium and in the combined exercise.
We can by this achievement look forward to a greatly enhanced mutual support operations at sea.”
Hinting on the successes of the navy across board, Ibas further revealed that within the past three years, over 80 errant vessels have been arrested for various acts of illegality. “MT TECNE and MT NIPAL were caught in the act stealing crude oil loading facilities in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Suffice to state that the NN arrested a total of 30 vessels in 2018 for involvement in various forms of illegality in the nation’s maritime domain. This indicates on the face value a downward trend when compared with 37 and 45 arrests recorded in 2016 and 2017 respectively. These arrests have served as deterrence and helped to support the huge national dependence on the maritime economy.”