To ensure enhanced safety and security in the maritime domain of Zone E through operational patrols and sustained presence at sea, Nigeria, Benin and Togo recently activated a joint maritime and air surveillance and intervention of the Gulf of Guinea waters. Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that the Joint Maritime Operations and Patrols, JMOP, did not only send a signal to maritime criminals, it also fostered and strengthened the synergy between the three navies
Themed “Enhancing Maritime Security Through Collaboration for Regional Prosperity”, Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo recently activated a joint task force codenamed ‘Operation Safe Domain 11’ to ensure enhanced safety and security in the maritime domain of Zone E.
This regional Joint Maritime Operations and Patrols (JMOP) was activated through operational patrols and sustained presence at sea, including air surveillance and intervention of the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) waters.
The joint exercise, which is continuous, was recently flagged off at Cotonou Port Naval Base, Republic of Benin, and involved vessels from participating nations with Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Aba, commanded by Commander Samuel Fiyai, leading the fleet.
After the flag off, the three vessels from Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo- NNS ABA, Patrol Vessel OTI and Patrol Vessel PENDJARI, respectively, patrolled and monitored the total water area of 105,746 square nautical miles (sqnm) during the five-day operation.
It is pertinent to state that all three members states including Niger Republic are members of the Maritime Zone E countries established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS) in 2013.
Wholly sponsored by ECOWAS and Member States of Zone E, the operation was based on the successes recorded by the pilot exercise carried out in November 2021. They include: the improvement of obtaining and sharing daily and weekly intelligence reports among member states, maritime stakeholders and partners in the zone; the successful arrest and trial of pirates onboard a Chinese fishing vessel, FV HAILUFENG 11 and vessels of interest such as STI SOHO; and the operation also led to foiling the attacks and setting free TOMMI RITSCHER and MAXIMUS with their crew.
The operation was targeted at tackling piracy and other maritime crimes, all within the framework of policing duties at sea so as to deny pirates and other maritime criminals freedom of action that otherwise thrive on the Zone E flank of the GoG waters.
This is because these security challenges often undermine the economic development of the zone while endangering the livelihood of local coastal communities and seafarers in general.
Speaking at the inauguration, the Director of Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC) Zone E, Commodore Aniedi Ibok, said the operation was in furtherance of the implementation of the MOU on Joint Maritime Operations and Patrols (JMOP) agreed upon by the countries involved.
According to the director, the objectives of the patrols and joint operations are to
pool resources of the States parties; make the maritime resources interoperable; evaluate the Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs); and
operationalise the right of hot pursuit as defined by the rules of engagement and multilateral and bilateral memoranda; and finally, secure the maritime area of the ‘Maritime Zone E’.
He stressed that the adopted strategy comprise research and exchange of information, adding that this was to ensure enhanced safety and security in the maritime domain of zone E through operational patrols and sustained force presence at sea.
He also noted that it would strengthen cooperation amongst Zone E countries’ navies and other maritime actors through capacity building in maritime law enforcement operations, intelligence sharing and technical assistance amongst others while laying the foundation for further joint/combined operations.
At the flag off, theBenin Chief of Defence Staff, Brigadier General Fructueux Gbaguidi, who was the special guest of honour and flagged off the operation, said the operation was germane because the country had been facing piracy issues on its waters.
He said that was one of the reasons why all four nations came together to form a formidable force against piracy and maritime crimes, adding that the collaboration of these countries led to the establishment of ‘Op Safe Domain I’ in 2021 and the success of the operation has led to ‘Op Safe Domain II’ in 2023 which made it possible for to realise the objectives of securing our waters and checkmating the activities of pirates and sea crime in our maritime domain.
Also speaking, the Benin Republic Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Captain Jean Le’on Olatoundji stressed that only collaboration of countries can help improve the fight against the disastrous activities of piracy, adding that
‘Op Safe Domain II’ demonstrated the member countries’ common will to face the threat in the maritime domain and piracy in the zone.
Noting that the issue of sea blindness was gradually being eradicated, the Director, Regional Maritime Security Coordination Centre, West Africa, Commodore Richard Shammah, said countries are now becoming more aware of the great economic importance of what the sea offers to their various economies.
After the flag off, the CO of NNS Aba, Commander Fiyai said the operation would afford all participating nations to be familiar with each other’s operating procedure, which will ensure a more effective and seamless patrol.
Three days after its flag off, the vessels at sea returned for the closing ceremony after it optimally achieved what it set out to do. But the navies were quick to stress that it does not in any way mean their continuous regional presence at sea has stopped.
Expressing satisfaction with the conduct of the operation, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Emmanuel Ogalla, who was represented by the NN Deputy Director of Operations, Commodore Shuaib Ahmed, stressed that purpose of the joint operation was primarily to ensure the permanent, joint and coordinated control of the Maritime Zone E’ with a view to ensuring maritime safety and security.
The CNS said the operation not just bolstered the existing relationship between the navies of the participating countries, but it also consolidated their diplomatic ties and economic ventures, adding that it made the environment safe, secure and hitch-free for economic activities to thrive within the maritime zones of Zone E.
Noting that there was an improvement in the interoperability of equipment and that the exercise also bridged the gap between language barriers, he said the success of Operation Safe Domain I and II would open doors for other operations to continuously ensure a safe and secured maritime environment.
Also speaking, the Minister Delegate to the Benin President for National Defence, Mr Fortunet Nouatin, said the operation had improved the security and safety in the maritime space of Zone E, adding that it took into account a patrol zone which extended toward the outer limit of the EEZ.
“This is why I will like to express all my gratitude to the brother and friendly country, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for all the efforts made, which has led to these results today,” he said as he appreciated the commitment and role of the Nigerian Navy helicopter in the operation, charging all to keep up the momentum in order to ensure a safe and secure space for all users of Zone E maritime space and the GoG waters.
Giving details about the zone’s expanse, the Director, Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC), Zone E, Commodore Aniedi Ibok, said the zone’s maritime sector covers a total of about 106,000 square nautical miles (nm) from the coast of Togo, Benin and Nigeria, again reiterating that ships from each country would continue to be at sea, communicate and interoperate when there are issues of hot pursuit or any crime that is cross border.
He vowed, “The criminals will not have a free way on our waters because our waters are governed and that is the statement that we have come to make.
The Nigerian Navy, Beninese Navy and Togolese Navy are all awake to their duties and will be there all round clock to make sure that pirates do not have freedom of action anymore. Those doing business in the waters legally would have the opportunity to carry out their businesses without harassment and he guaranteed safety of life at sea.”
In his observations, the Beninese CNS, Capt. Jean Le’on Olatoundji, said since the operation did not report any anomaly in terms of security, the can go ahead and congratulate the synergy of actions, characteristic of the fight for the security and safety of the maritime space of the Gulf of Guinea.
Furthermore, he commended the political and administrative authorities, as well as staff of MMCC and all the personnel of the navies of Zone E member countries involved in the organisation.
Giving account of his experience at sea, the CO NNS ABA, Commander Fiyai, said that operating together had made them observe the strengths and weaknesses of their interoperability, which he said would enable them address the latter and capitalise on their former.
He said: “This sends a message that there is no hiding place unlike before where you can operate in Nigeria and crossover to Benin for safety because of diplomatic immunity. Most importantly the criminals and those with criminal tendency have seen the aggressive patrols by member states of maritime Zone E, operating together without gaps.
Now, we are working together and we will give pirates and maritime criminals hell on all fronts.”