U.S. Naval Forces Africa works with our African partners to bolster security institutions across the continent at all levels – local, regional and national. Our long term efforts are intended to enable our partners to improve maritime security along their coastlines, territorial seas, and exclusive economic zones, but also beyond their own borders and throughout the region. Enhancing the capabilities and capacity of African security institutions will assist African states to create a more secure and stable African continent, which can lead to more prosperous future.
In West Africa the Gulf of Guinea is crucial to economic development because economic prosperity is tied to the maritime domain. This requires that the maritime countries of this region have strong, professional military and law enforcement institutions that can provide the setting for maritime trade to flourish. When maritime trade freely sails across the seas, economic development and the opportunity for prosperity are possible. Seaborne trade is the lifeblood of global trade.
Currently the Gulf of Guinea is vulnerable to illegal activities within territorial waters, all of which degrades the ability for regional and global trade to occur freely and benefit the region. Maritime security is a collective effort that cannot be accomplished by independent countries. Maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea requires a collaborative strategy and approach.
This past week, I visited Lagos, Nigeria, where I met with senior Nigerian Navy officials and the heads of many West African navies to discuss maritime issues and how best to address them. My visit was in conjunction with the closing ceremony of exercise Obangame Express 2019 (OE19), and was focused on enhancing military-to-military relationships between leaders of the exercise’s 33 participating countries. The exercise plays a crucial part in bringing together Gulf of Guinea nations, as well countries from West Africa, Europe and North America.
OE19 was the largest iteration of the exercise to date. Along with participation from 33 countries, the exercise included 2,500 personnel, 95 ships and 12 aircraft. As impressive as these numbers are, I am extremely excited with the evolution of the exercise and its complexity from where we began in 2010. As an example, more than 80 scenarios were worked across five maritime zones as defined by the Yaounde Code of Conduct, utilizing seven national military command centers and 19 maritime operations centers. If you look at the sheer size of the Gulf of Guinea, incorporating this amount of coordination and executing these scenarios over a vast region is no small feat.
This shows how far we have come in nine years and it highlights the progress we make when working together – with our Gulf of Guinea nations, West Africa states and our European and North American allies and partners. As part of the exercise’s evolution and increasing complexity, the exercise had a few significant firsts.
For the first time, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter participated in the exercise. USCGC Thetis (WMEC 910) conducted training with our African partners on maritime law enforcement throughout the exercise, and it marks was the first time a Coast Guard cutter has operated in the Gulf of Guinea since 2012. Now, the cutter will continue training with our partners in the region for the remainder of its deployment.
Cote D’Ivorian naval forces incorporated drug-detecting dogs for the first time in the exercise. The canine team worked to search a simulated narcotics smuggling vessel and ultimately find contraband that was hidden there. Another first was members of the Nigerian Navy’s special boat services fast-roped from a Nigerian helicopter onto the deck of a Nigerian warship. This was the first vertical visit, board, search and seizure of a non-compliant vessel.
Finally, and I think most impressive, is that Nigeria opened its Maritime Domain Awareness Training Center. The center will serve as a training hub for West African countries, and will contribute to improving communications between partner nations. This center will increase the frequency at which training can occur, and will cut down on costs for African maritime nations, who will no longer need to send their personnel to Europe or North America for training.
This type of capacity building remains paramount to ensure that the downward trend in piracy continues and addresses the growing threat of illicit trafficking of drugs, arms, and persons in the region. These efforts will help countries protect their own resources and help provide these resources for their prosperity and their people.
I am pleased at the maturation of our partnerships and look forward to future engagement between our maritime forces, which will only become more complex in future exercises. We need this complexity in OB19, so that each year we are continually “moving the ball forward” and becoming more effective in the Gulf of Guinea and throughout West African.
We have had major successes since 2010 when this exercise began. Comparing the exercise from 2010 to now, is night and day. When we began the exercise in 2010, many African countries lacked the facilities, capacity, ships, or maritime operation centers to monitor what was occurring within their coastal domains—they were suffering from what we call “sea blindness.” Today, the West African nations have a series of facilities and radars that enable them to coordinate and collaborate across the maritime domain.
We have the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, which means that when a vessel gets underway to challenge nefarious activity in the maritime domain it is about to share information with other countries that have contiguous borders like Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana. They can all compare notes by utilizing their maritime operation centers to help each other combat illicit activity in their exclusive economic zones and territorial waters. There is still a little bit of fog, which we call, “sea fog.” So we have some work to do. But as these regional maritime countries get more opportunities working together, the better they collaborate, and less severe the fog becomes. We will continue to practice this again next year.
As important as the exercise was, it is important to highlight two important personal matters. I have known the Nigerian Chief of Staff, Vice Adm. Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas, for four years now. I consider him my brother-in-arms in the Gulf of Guinea.
Our actions to assist our African partners in the Gulf of Guinea would be less effective without his leadership. This shows the importance of relationships, and that to have these types of relationships, we must be present. Much of the successes attributed to these regional operations and exercises are due to the continued efforts and engagements of the Nigerian navy.
While in Lagos, I had the opportunity to attend a reception hosted by USCGC Thetis. Aboard Thetis, I met U.S. Ensign Panashe Isaiah Mutombo. Ensign Panashe was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. He and his dad made the journey from Zimbabwe to New York City when he was six-years old. ENS Mutombo and I have something in common. Like him, I am a nationalized citizen and we are both living the American dream.
He recently graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy last year, and is now driving a coast guard cutter. This is the first time he’s been back to Africa. The diversity found in the American people is one of the many things that makes America great, and it is one of the U.S. military’s strengths.
Finishing up, I told all the attendees at the closing ceremony that this is truly the maritime century for the Gulf of Guinea. The collective success of all nations depends on our efforts in the maritime domain. I congratulated everyone on an outstanding exercise Obangame Express 2019. Next year will be the 10-year anniversary of the exercise and I hope to be part of that celebration.
Our close partnership will continue to bring stability to Western Africa through exercises like OE19. Together, we will strengthen the ties between our nations and work to accomplish our combined goals of maintaining regional stability.