Nigeria: How Obangame Express Is Helping Keep West African Waters Safe - U.S., Nigerian Navy Chiefs

The criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea have been reduced drastically due to the Obangame Express exercise, Obed Ngalabak, the flag officer commanding western naval command has said.

Mr Ngalabak, who spoke during a telephonic press conference on Obangame Express 2013 on Wednesday, said the transnational nature of maritime crime makes it difficult to be tackled by one country.

The conference was jointly held with Eric Conzen, commodore of U.S. military sealift command, Europe and Africa.

"I would say that if not for anything, Nigeria has benefitted a lot from this exercise since its inception, because over the years we've had a lot of criminal issues in our waters, ranging from piracy to smuggling and poaching and other maritime criminal activities," said Mr Ngalabak, a rear admiral, who spoke through a representative.

Now in its ninth year, Obangame Express 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.

This year's exercise will bring together 33 countries from the Gulf of Guinea nations, Europe, North and South America, as well as several regional and international organisations.

Mr Ngalabak said the level of cooperation between the Nigerian and the U.S. navy has been "encouraging" as the latter has helped in the training Nigerian naval personnel in areas such as arresting of vessels, evidence collection, and special forces.

He said the collaboration has also helped establish a good information-sharing platform with other African countries.

He added that more than 50 vessels have been arrested in the past three months as a result of the collaboration.

"Today, if there is a criminal activity going on in, maybe Gabonese waters or maybe Togolese waters, it is very easy for us to get information and... the vessel of interest is running away from their own waters and so it's easy for us to get this information and arrest it."

Mr Ngalabak said in the past, it was difficult for the Francophone and Anglophone counties as well as the Portuguese and other nations to understand one another.

"But with this Obangame Express, we now understand ourselves better. So that mutual trust has really established, that once we... here in Nigeria, the other countries normally fall in place and we'll get it done as a team.

"So it's a very good thing for all the forces."

The majority of the sub-region's economic activities rely on the safe and lawful use of West African coastal waters, according to Mr Conzen.

He said the skillful participation of all the countries reinforces the fact maritime security is a collective effort.

"It is my third year travelling down to the Gulf of Guinea from Naples, and every year I'm amazed at the collective effort of all participants to continue to successfully increase the scope and complexity of the exercise," said Mr Conzen, who is the exercise director for Obangame Express 2019.

"The exercise spans five operational areas and covers more than 2.3 million square kilometres.

"Exercise Obangame Express will focus specifically on counter-piracy, energy security, counter-illicit fishing, and counter-illicit trafficking. This year will also feature training and search-and-rescue operations and advanced medical training.

"The exercise will include a wide variety for all participating forces, including at-sea ship boardings and queries, air operations, communications drills, and regional information sharing.

Obangame Express is 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. The Nigerian Navy is hosting the 2019 exercise from March 14 to 22.

The word 'Obangame' comes from the Fang language of southern Cameroon and other parts of Central Africa. It means "togetherness."

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