Story by MAJ Brett Walker on 04/03/2019
Lagos, Nigeria For the tenth consecutive year, the United States organized a multinational naval exercise to improve maritime security along the African coast. This year's exercise is currently underway in the Gulf of Guinea. It involves 33 participating nations from around the world and nearly 100 individually evaluated events.
Obangame Express is a sponsored by U.S. Africa Command. It is one of three African regional Express series exercises facilitated annually by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet (CNE-CNA/C6F). The purpose Obangame Express is to test the ability of West African navies to monitor their territorial waters for illicit activity, communicate maritime domain awareness and coordinate with neighboring navies to interdict illegal activities. The name of the exercise is a constant reminder of the purpose Obangame means "togetherness" in several African dialects.
The principle illicit activities taking place during the exercise are piracy, forbidden fishing operations and trafficking in humans, drugs or weapons. Through their involvement in 10 years of Obangame Express, American and European officials have gained a greater understanding of the economically detrimental events arising out of the Gulf of Guinea.
"One of the things very few people were aware of before is the magnitude of the effect of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities on the region," said German Navy Cmdr. Dirk Steffen, who has been involved in Obangame Express since 2014. Steffen clarified that most of the African nations knew the effects of the illegal fishing, but the American and European governments did not recognize the extent of the problem.
"Obangame Express started out with a focus on the classic maritime threats, but it has evolved to reflect other things," said Steffen. "At least half the events now are illegal fishing."
He also explained that anti-piracy tactics remain a priority for Obangame Express because the Gulf of Guinea continues to have one of the world's worst concentrations of pirates. Indeed, the exercise is always scheduled for March, which Steffens describes as the climax of the pirate season.
"Much of what we do here is inspired by actual events that took place here," explained Steffens. "It improves the understanding of the patterns of crimes, not just for the Africans, but also for the Europeans and the Americans . . . I would say that OE is changing and shaping the approach by EU and non-regional countries to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa."
Steffens began his participation in Obangame six years ago as an evaluator aboard a German ship used as a target vessel a ship designated as a threat for purposes of the exercise. He has more than 21 years of experience as a Navy officer including work as a route clearance diver. He is also a security consultant and intelligence analyst for a private maritime security firm specializing in West Africa. He holds a masters degree in military studies with a focus on naval warfare.
"An improvement I have seen is [Obangame Express] moving from a centralized to decentralized exercise," said Steffens. "And I see African nations take a lot more ownership than they did five years ago."
He notes that Ghana and Senegal have made particularly strong progress. Cameroon and Ivory Coast have also improved significantly.
According to Steffens, historically Nigeria struggled with information sharing. However, under the current national leadership, the Nigerian Navy has changed. It has acquired new equipment including ships and radar and it has adopted new information-sharing policies. Now it is host to the tenth Obangame Express exercise.
"Nigeria lobbied very hard to get this in order to demonstrate their progress in the past few years," said Steffens. "They take great pride in the successes they have had these years. I think they are very keen to show the world their progress since 2014."
While modern equipment is important, the purpose of Obangame Express is to evaluate and improve upon the abilities of West African navies to communicate and cooperate in defense of their coastal waters.
"The first Obangame Express was held in 2010 to promote the importance of regional cooperation between all the navies in the Gulf of Guinea," said Rear Admiral Obed Ngalabak, Commander of Nigeria's Western Naval Fleet and tactical commander of Nigerian forces participating in Obangame Express 2019. "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."
The United States has an interest in security and stability in the Gulf of Guinea region for both humanitarian and economic reasons. This U.S.-sponsored exercise has grown in complexity since its initiation a decade ago.
"The birthplace of this exercise is in communications drills," said U.S. Navy Capt. Eric Conzen, director of Obangame Express 2019.
Obangame Express began in 2010. That year there were nine participating countries. By 2015 the exercise had grown to 23 participants. This year 33 different countries are taking part in Obangame Express. Throughout the years, many new countries have joined.
Torrance J. Porter, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Army and now the Deputy Director of Assessors for U.S. Navy Africa Command, has been responsible for supervising evaluations of the Obangame Express participants for the past four years.
"There is more of a spirit of cooperation in certain zones [of the Gulf of Guinea]," said Porter. "Now they actually contribute assets to the regional coordination center."
Porter believes Obangame Express facilitated that growth. He also thinks Obangame Express is assisting in the effective employment of a 2013 multinational cooperation agreement between Gulf of Guinea states.
"I would say that implementation of the Yaounde Code of Conduct has become ubiquitous across the Gulf of Guinea," he said.
The Yaounde Code of Conduct is the maritime security framework for West and Central Africa. It describes the expectations of the 22 signatory states in sharing information, cooperating in naval patrols and assisting in prosecution of maritime offenders. The Yaounde Code of Conduct is named for the capital city of Cameroon and one of its primary authors, Cameroon Navy Capt. Sylvestre Fonkoua, was also an architect of the Obangame Express exercise.
As the capabilities of the participants increased, so did the complexity of the exercise. In 2016 Obangame Express expanded to six days of open-ocean maneuver. That allowed more events to be planned for the exercise. On the 10th anniversary of Obangame Express, there are 95 planned events scheduled within the exercise.
Porter has seen what he describes as slow and steady growth in the capabilities of the Gulf of Guinea navies; not just in their patrolling proficiency, but also in their abilities to host Obangame Exercises.
"We have noticed over the past four years countries are starting to create their own training evaluators," said Porter. This is particularly true of Senegal, which provides trainers as well as trainees.
As a next step, Porter hopes to eliminate the formal list of events that is published to participants in advance. In years past, the Exercise Control Group, of which Porter is a member, tells the participants in advance what events will take place and in what zone of the exercise area. Forcing participants to cooperatively locate the threat and then identify the specific illegal activity along with an appropriate response will be the next evolution of the exercise.
"We have gone from simply just doing boardings to doing cross-border information sharing, and we've gone from that to doing rule of law in terms of evidence collection, and we've gone from that into feeding evidence into the judicial sector," said Porter. "That shows an increase in complexity and inter-agency cooperation, but we have not yet got to a less scripted exercise. It is still fairly scripted."
Ultimately, Porter would like to see the U.S. cede its organizational duties for Obangame Express to the host nations. Steffens shares that sentiment, but both Porter and Steffens believe handing the exercise over to the African Nations is a long-term goal.
"Very recently it was the case where [Gulf of Guinea navies] had to really focus on getting operations right for the exercise and all their other operations stopped," said Steffens. "But now many of the countries can do both at the same time. It makes them less dependent on OE. That is good news. If the exercise makes itself irrelevant at some point, then it has achieved its objective."
If all goes well, the next decade anniversary for Obangame Express will be celebrated with a transition of leadership from the United States to their partner nations in the Gulf of Guinea.