As memories of the Nigerian Navy’s recent hosting of Exercise Obangame Express 2023 linger, Festus Akanbi writes that the success of the programme, which ran between January 23 and February 3, is a testament to the Nigerian Navy’s determination to advance regional and multinational cooperation to sustainably secure Nigeria’s maritime environment and the wider Gulf of Guinea
This year has kicked off on an important note for the Nigerian Navy, with the hosting of Exercise Obangame Express 2023, the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western and Central Africa, in collaboration with US Africa Command and US Naval Forces Europe and Africa.
This year’s edition featured 32 countries from the Gulf of Guinea and beyond, coming together to “improve regional cooperation, information-sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise.”
In March, barely a month after the end of Exercise Obangame Express 2023, Nigeria will commemorate one year since the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) announced the country’s exit from the Global List of Piracy-prone countries. This feat came as a welcome follow-up to the IMB’s Global Piracy Report of July 2021, which indicated that Nigeria had recorded its lowest number of piracy and sea robbery against ships attacks in 27 years.
These remarkable milestones are the fallout of the unprecedented naval and maritime security investments by the Buhari administration through initiatives such as the Falcon Eye Maritime Domain Awareness System, commissioned by President Buhari in 2021.
Other investments include the purchase of several new platforms, including a brand-new Hydrographic Survey Ship, NNS LANA, and a new Warship, the Landing Ship Tank (LST) NNS KADA, whose first operational assignment was to support the ECOWAS Stabilisation Force in Guinea Bissau in August 2022.
Two brand-new Seaward Defence Boats (SDBs) are currently under construction by the Naval Dockyard Limited in Lagos. At the same time, in September 2022, the keel-laying Ceremony of two 76-metre Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) took place in Turkey.
Weeks after the March 2022 IMB announcement on Nigeria exiting the Piracy List, the Nigerian Navy launched one of its biggest operations in years, Operation Dakatar Da Barawo, to curb crude oil theft and vandalism in the creeks of the Niger Delta.
The operation, launched in partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited has since begun yielding fruit. So far, more than N80billion worth of stolen petroleum products have been seized or recovered, with hundreds of arrests made. Notably, oil production, which had been declining since the start of 2022, reversed course and began climbing steadily from October, a feat that all stakeholders have roundly commended.
Speaking recently, the Hon. Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Sylva, said, “I am happy to announce that there is a significant improvement in crude oil production, with both Nigerians and the international community acknowledging the improvement.”
The Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, has consistently stated his determination to achieve this goal and has expressed gratitude to President Buhari for providing the money and the resources to record the significant progress being recorded in the fight against maritime piracy and criminality.
One of the high points of the fight against maritime criminality was the interception, in August 2022, of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), the MT Heroic Idun, a timely action that helped abort unauthorised entry into a producing Nigerian oilfield.
Working with Nigeria’s regional partners, through the Yaoundé Architecture, a Gulf of Guinea maritime safety and security coordinating mechanism covering 19 countries, the Nigerian Navy successfully alerted Equatorial Guinea to arrest the vessel, which had by then fled into the country’s waters.
Interestingly, the West Africa Regional Maritime Safety Centre (CRESMAO), based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and the ECOWAS Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC) Zone E (covering Nigeria, Benin, Niger, and Togo), two critical operations centers within the Yaounde Architecture, are currently headed by Nigerian Naval Officers.
Following the arrest and investigations by the Government of Equatorial Guinea, the Ship owners paid a substantial fine, after which it was handed over to the Nigerian Navy and duly repatriated to Nigeria to face justice. A Federal High Court is currently trying the case in Port Harcourt.
MT Heroic Idun is the most high-profile of several rogue vessels arrested by the Nigerian Navy in 2022. According to the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Gambo, “The arrest of MT Heroic Idun will serve as a deterrent to those who are stealing our crude.”
But, of course, the arrest and trial have not come without resistance from the influential owners and elements behind the VLCC. They have been waging a vicious international propaganda campaign against the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian Navy. But the Chief of Naval Staff has made it very clear that he will not be deterred and that justice will take its due and transparent course through the Nigerian legal system.
Nigeria’s hosting of Obangame Express to kick off the new year is a testament to the Nigerian Navy’s determined efforts to advance regional and multinational cooperation to holistically and sustainably secure Nigeria’s maritime environment and the wider Gulf of Guinea.
It is because of this unwavering commitment to partnership that the CNS and Naval Headquarters hosted delegations from the European Union, China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation, the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, the African Union, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the European Security Academy, the Italian Defence firm, Leonardo, and the United States Navy Office of Security Cooperation, among many others, at the Naval Headquarters in Abuja. In this spirit of partnership and engagement, the CNS also attended Euro-Naval 2022, the Sixth Symposium of Chiefs of Staff of Navies of the Gulf of Guinea in Paris, France, and the XIII Trans-Regional Sea-Power Symposium in Venice, Italy, among others.
In October 2022, President Buhari awarded him the National Honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), and a month later he was in Banjul, Gambia, to receive the Award of Most Outstanding Naval Chief in Africa, presented at the 17th Edition of the Africa Security Watch Awards and Conference (ASWAC).
In 2023, the partnerships are set to continue, and Obangame Express 2023 is just the beginning. Speaking at the closing ceremony on February 3, 2023, Vice Admiral Gambo noted, memorably, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is a success.”
Nigeria has continued to deter pirates away from its waters. To show for this, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has now delisted the country from its piracy list.
The Chief of Naval Staff, who announced the news last year at the Joint Nigeria-European Union collaborative ceremony held at the Western Naval Command in Apapa, Lagos, praised the federal government’s commitment and decisive initiative on the Deep Blue Project to combat the threat of maritime insecurity on the waterways.
According to him, “The commitment of the Nigerian Navy towards maritime security has yielded dividends, and the Nigerian Navy has achieved a lot in safeguarding the Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria has continued to record successes in the anti-piracy war as activities of pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have reached an all-time low in more than a decade. The Nigerian Navy has continuously acquired new assets and has further improved its capabilities to maintain a large fleet and to operate far beyond its territorial waters,” he said.
Gambo said that Nigeria had a strong and professional navy with historic tradition and has collaborated with other Gulf of Guinea Navies to address maritime security.
“A notable result from the collaboration is the arrest of 10 pirates whose jail terms were secured for hijacking a Chinese fishing vessel, FV HAI LU FENG II, off Cote D’Ivoire in May 2020,” he said.
Gambo said that a state of the art Maritime Domain Awareness facilities comprising the Falcon Eye and the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability Centres allow the Nigerian Navy to monitor its territorial waters and beyond.
Speaking on Nigeria’s exit from the piracy list, occasioned by the Nigerian Navy’s increased counter-security operations against maritime criminality, oil theft, and other attacks, Gambo vowed to “sustain the tempo of our Maritime Security Operations efforts”, adding that”same will be extended to our neighbouring states to rid the entire Gulf of Guinea of acts of piracy and other criminal activities.”