Niger Delta violence returns as oil prices plummet and both the Nigerian government’s ability and willingness to pay off former militants decreases. As the Nigerian Navy moves to counter this new violence, a largely unknown group called the “Niger Delta Avengers” has responded by “declaring war” on the Navy. Dirk Steffen, who recently published a CIMSEC article on this development, joins us to discuss the current situation in the Gulf of Guinea, the militant threats, government capabilities & intentions, as well as the methods and background of these pirate operations.
This is not the podcast to miss! It won’t make you an expert like Dirk, but he’ll have given us enough information to pretend to be one by the end of the podcast.
Many suspected it as the intensity of pirate attacks off the Niger Delta increased inexorably in the course of April, with 15 attacks between 1 and 21 April 2016. There is a contest going on between those termed by the authorities as “sea criminals” and the Nigerian Navy, which is tasked to suppress them.
After a period of détente following the Nigerian general elections in April 2015, the Niger Delta is once again stirring. Former militants had made their support of the new President Muhammadu Buhari (elected in April 2015) conditional on the continued payment of “amnesty stipends” and retention of inflated security contracts. Predictably, in the face of drastically reduced oil revenue, President Buhari’s only choice was to reduce those payments, make the remainder more accountable, and let the security contracts worth hundreds of millions expire. Additionally, he went after those godfathers who had systematically abused the amnesty under the previous presidency.
The issue of a court order against the figurehead ex-militant leader Tompolo (formerly the leader of the Niger Delta insurgency in the western Niger Delta) has further stoked the flames of discontent. While Tompolo remains a fugitive, new groups and former followers vie for preeminence in replacing him within his many criminal schemes and networks, using his persecution by the government as a justifying argument.
As attacks against shipping and pipelines increased in 2016, with 40 vessels attacked 74 individuals kidnapped off Nigeria alone this year as of 21 April 2016, the Nigerian Navy sprung into action. Sorties in response to attacks as well as the successful tracking and boarding of the hijacked tanker MAXIMUS (11-19 February) suggested that the Nigerian Navy was prepared to take up the challenge. Having demonstrated its effectiveness against the pirate modus operandi of hijacking product tankers in order to steal the cargo, the Nigerian Navy inadvertently redirected criminal energies to a more opportunistic and less predictable sea crime: kidnapping for ransom. This form of crime was traditionally (between 2006 and 2010) much practiced by smaller militant groups with less resources and without sponsors or patrons necessary for the more sophisticated and operationally vulnerable hijackings. Now it appears it has become a free-for-all for seaborne criminals in the Niger Delta. After a wave of inshore kidnappings in January 2016, attacks offshore the Niger Delta out to 120 nm increased throughout February and March. Virtually all of these were carried out by only speed boats without mother ship support and seem to have reached a temporary climax in April.
Challenge and Response
On 15 April 2016 the Nigerian Navy responded by launching Operation Tsare Teku (Haussa for “Protection of the Sea”) with a force consisting of NNS OKPABANA, NNS KYANWA, NNS SAGBAMA and NNS ANDONI as well as 3 other ships held in reserve. The Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta had previously banned 200 hp outboard engines – the propulsion of choice for the heavy speed boats of Niger Delta-based pirates and militants, and on 19 April the Navy impounded 26 boats equipped with such engines in Warri. On 22 April the Navy re-iterated the ban of 200 hp engines.
Within hours a group called the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) responded to these actions. The NDA had already claimed responsibility for the hijacking of the tanker LEON DIAS on 29-31 January and the subsequent kidnapping of 5 crew members. They also claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on pipelines including the Forcados export pipeline in February 2016. In a statement issued on 22 April they finally threw down the gauntlet:
“We are hereby calling on the Nigerian Navy to desist from such unlawful acts and recede the call for the ban on 200HP outboard engines as refusal to heed this warning of ours will spun us to declare a war on the Nigerian Naval Force. This war will aide us achieve nothing but expose the Nigerian Navy to the biggest embarrassment in the history of the force. It is also a promise from us that we shall make the waterways unsafe for any vessel or petroleum tanker if you fails to listen to our warning and still go about harassing and killing our people in the guise of escorting vessels along the Niger Delta creeks.”
The NDA are most likely a “mouthpiece” for a yet unorganised number of armed groups in the Niger Delta, but that makes them no less of a concern. Like the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) they may quickly turn into a rally point in case of an exaggerated military backlash. This presents the Nigerian Navy with a conundrum: while the suppression of acts of piracy falls squarely into the Navy’s remit, they have in fact inherited a legacy problem for which they are not well prepared.
Capabilities and limitations of the Nigerian Navy
The focus of Nigerian Navy operations since 2006 has been the fight against insurgents (between 2006 and 2009) and against illegal bunkering on the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta. The Navy forms part of the inter-agency Joint Task Force who currently prosecute a riverine campaign called Pulo Shield in the Niger Delta. For reasons of prestige, both the Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA) have long downplayed or denied the threat of piracy in Nigerian waters, engaging in semantic games that re-defined piracy (legally correct, but misleading) as “armed robbery” inside territorial waters or as “community issues.” At international and regional conferences, the previous Director General of NIMASA, Patrick Ziakede Akpolobokemi (now indicted for fraud along with his associate Tompolo), routinely grandstanded about Gulf of Guinea piracy without even uttering the word “Nigeria.”
The result is a Nigerian Navy that is geared towards riverine law enforcement operations, but that lacks a credible coastal enforcement capability in spite of recent acquisitions of four Offshore Patrol Vessels in 2015 (NNS OKPABANA, NNS CENTENARY, NNS SAGBAMA, NNS PROSPERITY) and measurable increases in tactical proficiency. The Achilles heel is the lack of true Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), insufficiently networked assets and ineffective command centers. The territorial organization into Western, Central and Easten Naval Command is suitable for riverine operations, but less so for the centralized approach required for MDA and counterpiracy.
A more or less permanent presence at sea by the Nigerian Navy is provided only by those patrol boats providing oil field security – contracted to private companies, but manned mostly by Nigerian Navy personnel. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between these security companies and the Navy, the patrol boats should remain available for “national security” purposes and share MDA information with the Navy. Contracted escort vessels have been detached from their commercial duties in the past to intervene in ongoing pirate attacks, but the reality is this arrangement deprives the Nigerian Navy of operational reserves and flexibility – such as would be necessary for an operation like Tsare Teku.
Operation Tsare Teku
Of the four vessels now assigned to Tsare Teku only OKPABANA and SAGBAMA can provide meaningful surveillance and pursuit capabilities. KYANWA is an elderly buoy tender (ex-USCGC SEDGE, WLB-402 – laid down in 1943) with a top speed of 12 knots and ANDONI is a locally built patrol boat with only standard sensors and a top speed of 21 knots. Only OKPABANA has a helicopter flight deck, but no organic helicopter. As in the MAXIMUS case, the Nigerian Navy would rely on the two Air Force ATR-42 Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. However, both aircraft are stationed in the north of Nigeria where they take part in the campaign against Boko Haram.
Three more vessels are slated to join the operation: NNS CENTENARY, NNS BURUTU and NNS ZARIA. Of those three only the recently acquired CENTENARY has a helicopter flight deck and an above average command and communications suite. BURUTU and ZARIA are both Singapore-built fast patrol craft that are suitable for EEZ patrolling and would be a valuable addition as fast responders – provided they join the effort.
Effectively, thus, the current offshore surveillance and deterrence element of Tsare Teku relies almost entirely on NNS OKPABANA, a former US Coast Guard HAMILTON-class cutter (ex-USCGC GALLATIN, WHEC-721) that has been in near constant use responding to incidents since January and taking part in the AFRICOM exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS/SAHARAN EXPRESS 2016 as one of the mainstays of the Nigerian Navy. The 48-year old vessel is now increasingly struggling with mechanical problems.
Wisely, the Nigerian Navy has therefore geographically limited the objective of Tsare Teku to what Ibas identified as the two major “hot spots” of pirate activity: the sea area off Brass (located on the southwestern tip of the Niger Delta in Bayelsa state) and off Bonny (the entrance to the sea ports of Onne and Port Harcourt in Rivers state on the south coast of the Niger Delta). While the Bonny area will be relatively easy to secure due to the converging traffic and proximity of pirate attacks to the Bonny River Fairway Buoy, pirate attacks off Bayelsa have been more dispersed and out to 120 nautical miles from the coast – often at night. This will present a challenge and attacks on Chevron’s Agbami oil field on 7 and 10 April show that the criminals have little respect for a weak naval presence. On 7 April, two tankers waiting to load at the terminal were attacked. NNS OKPABANA responded and was in the field on 7/8 April. However, just 2 days later, pirates attacked another tanker in the same location. Ultimately, it fell to the field security vessel to provide a timely response.
Attacks have abated since 21 April, but the cyclical, or surge-like, nature of attacks is typical for Niger Delta offshore violence. A number of hostages have been released over the past few days and more will be freed in the near future. All other things remaining equal, once the funds generated from the ransoms have been distributed and loyalties assured, a resumption of attacks should be expected.
In the short term all the Nigerian Navy will be able to provide is a sticking plaster. Just like in Somalia, the problem will not be resolved at sea. However, unlike Somalia, Nigeria actually has the sovereign power (and increasing political will, it seems) to address both the symptoms and the causes on shore. The control of inshore waterways and community engagement will form a part of the ongoing operation Tsare Teku. However, its success will also depend on the Nigerian Navy getting its own house in order. Ibas pointed out in 2015 “that most of the operations designed to eradicate the oil bunkering syndicates operating in the country’s waters were still achieving limited success because some navy officers and other security personnel were involved in the illegal activities.”
From an operational point of view, the best course of action for the Nigerian Navy in the short term (apart from a joint effort ashore) would be to fold the contracted field security and patrol vessels into a comprehensive scheme for merchant vessel protection, rather than allowing a large number of these vessels to be absorbed into one-on-one escort/security missions or “waiting for business.” This would not necessarily clash with commercial interests of oil companies operating convoys to and from their offshore installations. The idea here could be to coordinate and promulgate convoy schedules and open them for general shipping (much like the “national” convoys in the Gulf of Aden became open to ships flying all flags), thus maximizing the efficiency of existing operational naval vessels. Corridors could be extended in some cases or linked using other Nigerian Navy vessels or by sharing contracted patrol boats. This would have the added benefit of enabling the contracted patrol boats to pursue and apprehend attackers under the Nigerian Navy’s Rules of Engagement rather than having to remain purely defensive in accordance with the more restrictive Standard Operating Procedures of private security companies, which only allow a defensive posture.
Searching, sweeping, and deterrence patrols are likely to produce minimal results given the fleeting nature of the threat, the size of sea area, and the complexity of the Niger Delta coastline. Instead, the most valuable assets – like OKPABANA, CENTENARY, and the Sea Eagle fast patrol craft should be held in readiness as fast response assets. The low number and limited response radius of the vessels (for as long as the OPVs do not routinely operate helicopters on their missions) would probably not make it efficient to use them “on station” in the transit corridors in the way this was done in the Gulf of Aden. Continuous sea time would also aggravate the already precarious maintenance issues of some vessels.
In summary: the Nigerian Navy will be on the defensive in the short term for whatever comes at it from the creeks of the Niger Delta. This is not as ignominious as it sounds since command of the sea (however limited in geographic scope) is by definition a defensive strategic objective. Initially however, the Nigerian Navy will also contend with serious constraints ranging from a lack of awareness of what plays out in Nigerian waters outside the coverage of coastal radar stations and the Automated Identification System (AIS), as well as insufficient assets (or readiness of those assets) to effectively police the offshore littoral. The Nigerian Navy, even if it wishes to engage the merchant marine – as recently suggested by Vice-Admiral Ibas, will not initially benefit from the support of the merchant marine. Past experiences of naval officers’ connivance with criminals, corruption, extortion, and bullying at the hands of the Nigerian Navy have undermined industry’s trust in the Nigerian Navy. It will take time and fence-mending to reassure the international shipping community so that they will provide the indispensable data the Nigerian Navy would need in order to maintain MDA and effectively co-ordinate shipping in a piracy-threat area. Until then, operations like Tsare Teku will be largely symbolic. It may make life a little more complicated for the pirates, but not unduly so in the foreseeable future.
Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.
Featured Image: NNS KYANWA alongside NNS THUNDER at Apapa Naval base (Lagos) in 2014. Photo: Dirk Steffen
On 11 February 2016, fourteen Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates in two speedboats attacked the product tanker MAXIMUS (ex-SP BRUSSELS) 70 nm south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They hijacked the ship with the intention to steal part or all of its 4,700 metric tonne diesel fuel cargo, sailing it to a position ca. 300 nm south of Lagos, Nigeria over the next few days. The case ended with an opposed boarding of the tanker by the Nigerian Navy, which left one pirate dead and six apprehended; the remainder fled on their support vessel, taking two crewmembers of the MAXIMUS as hostages.
What began as just another product tanker hijacking developed into a model case for regional maritime security cooperation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The first asset to track the hijacked tanker was the Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS SPEARHEAD, stationed in the region for training and exercise support as a part of the African Partnership Station. SPEARHEAD identified the hijacked ship and shadowed it for two days as it sailed from Ivorian into Ghanaian waters. Then the CTF 63, Capt. Heidi Agle, handed over to the Ghana Navy, which continued to shadow the ship until it crossed the extension of the maritime boundary to Togo, about 200 nm offshore at that point. While Benin and Togo were not able to mobilise vessels to that distance from the shore, Nigeria was.
On 17 February the MAXIMUS, now re-named MT ELVIS-5 by the hijackers, had reached a position about 300 nm south of Lagos, roughly north-west of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. While an unknown mother ship had probably supported the actual attack on the tanker, another vessel, the small Cambodian-flagged tanker DEJIKUN, was likely used by the pirates in an attempt to steal part of the MAXIMUS’s cargo. The DEJIKUN was tracked heading south from Lagos on 16 February, arriving in the general area of the MAXIMUS on midday of 18 February.
Close on her tail was the Nigerian offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA followed by NNS SAGBAMA. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Navy’s Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, obtained permission to operate in Sao Tomé and Principe waters although the MAXIMUS was technically in international waters (albeit inside the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone). What followed on 19 February were eight hours of negotiations via VHF before a Nigerian Navy boarding team from NNS OKPABANA boarded the MAXIMUS in the evening of 19 February. The pirates briefly offered resistance, before one of their number was killed and the remaining six on board the MAXIMUS fled into the engine room where they eventually surrendered.
Both from an operational point of view, especially with regards to regional co-operation as well as from a tactical perspective, the mission was a success. None of the MAXIMUS’s crewmembers were injured, although several pirates escaped with two hostages onto the DEJIKUN. The ship was later found drifting off Benin, abandoned by the pirates who had also taken the hostages with them.
The liberation of the MAXIMUS was lauded as a model of regional co-operation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, even though Sao Tome and Principe, a nation with virtually no maritime security capacity, never reported to Nigeria or to the relevant Zone D reporting centre in the region (contrary to the official statements) when the MAXIMUS or DEJIKUN entered her waters. Nigeria eventually asked for permission to pursue the MAXIMUS into the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone under a bilateral agreement, which in the end achieved its objective, but also exposed some of the still extant weaknesses in the regional framework and capacities.
While diplomatically relevant, the message that the operation sent to the criminals was equally important: Gulf of Guinea states are increasingly willing and able to suppress maritime crime. It may only have been a beginning, but it may well be that the prospect of a forceful naval intervention has upset the plans of would-be tanker hijackers at a time when the economic situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly conducive to the theft and smuggling of fuel into the country.
For the navies of the region, especially the Nigerian Navy, success may become self-reinforcing. The Nigerian Navy has long labored under its dismal performance and reputation relative to its assets and manpower potential.It remains beset by corruption and inefficiency, but it appears that the change that the Buhari presidency has brought over Nigeria may have begun to affect the navy as well. The Nigerian Navy had already responded with some alacrity to the brief hijacking (turned kidnapping) of the LEON DIAS on 29-31 January, the attempted kidnapping of crewmembers from the SAFMARINE KURAMO on 5 February near Bonny River Fairway Buoy and more recently, assisting the BOURBON LIBERTY 251, which had two crewmembers kidnapped on 23 February 2016. In all cases, the Nigerian naval vessels arrived well after the attacks, although in the case of the SAFMARINE KURAMO the attackers had to abandon their attempt to extract the crew from their citadel and were forced to leave the ship. While not entirely satisfactory to those involved, it is progress over previous years. Before, the navy hardly ever responded to distress calls at all, and when they did, it more often than not created bad blood between them and the merchant marine community through heavy-handed practices.
It is likely that the response to similar incidents will remain hit-and-miss for some years to come, especially if the circumstances are less favorable than in the MAXIMUS case. The MAXIMUS episode benefited from the presence of the USNS SPEARHEAD, which was conveniently deployed in the area for the upcoming African Partnership Station’s OBANGAME EXPRESS 2016 exercise (17-25 March 2016) as well as from some serious tactical mistakes made by the pirates. However, amongst other contingencies, the OBANGAME EXPRESS exercise seriesrehearses responses to precisely this type of scenario. In a way, the incident therefore reflects the journey the navies of the regions have made since the inception of OBANGAME EXPRESS and it will surely provide interesting input for the upcoming iteration of the exercise. The Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ekwe Ibas, has credited OBANGAME EXPRESS with meeting its objectives. His challenge will now be to follow up and maintain, as he said, the “resolve of the navy to deploy more ships to maintain the current record of sea patrol in order to tackle maritime security challenges.”
Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 and 2015 both at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.
Between 19 and 27 March OBANGAME EXPRESS, African Partnership Station’s annual exercise since 2011 took place off the coasts of West African states between Côte d’Ivoire and Angola. It is the fifth iteration of this exercise that has grown from nine participating nations in 2011 to 23 this year, including 12 Gulf of Guinea countries. Crucially, the framework for OBANGAME EXPRESS has changed since the last exercise. On 25 June 2013, 22 West and Central African countries signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a document that obliges the member states to co-operate on preventing and prosecuting all forms of maritime crime and illicit activities at sea and to share information between each other. OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015 was the first exercise in this series to rehearse and test the new structure and, where they existed, procedures.
Broadly speaking, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) provides for a hierarchical information sharing and co-ordination structure that includes all countries from the two regional economic communities – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The YCoC structure envisages an Inter-regional Co-ordination Centre (ICC) for the strategic level, regional reporting centres for both ECOWAS and ECCAS and below those, for operational co-ordination, Multinational Co-ordination Centres (CMC), grouping the Gulf of Guinea countries into five zones: A, D, E, F and G.
One of the key differences of this year’s OBANGAME EXPRESS was that it took place off all the Gulf of Guinea states’ coasts rather than in a single exercise area. This made for a realistic setting regarding the command and control as well as logistical challenges for the region’s navies. It also allowed the YCoC structures to be tested with realistic timeframes, as target vessels transited through the Gulf of Guinea nations’ waters. It also added another layer of complexity to the already very demanding schedule of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. Was it too much, given some of the modest outcomes of last year’s exercise? Was it an exercise in window dressing? Or is the Gulf of Guinea on a good path towards becoming part of the “global network of navies” as the exercise’s officer in tactical command, Commodore John Rinko (USN), predicted during the opening ceremony in Accra, Ghana? The truth, as always in this region, is probably somewhere in between.
The core functionality that this exercise tested was that of the 21 Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs) on national, sub-regional and regional levels and their ability to communicate, co-ordinate and direct maritime interdiction operations (MIO) represented on a tactical level by patrol boats, boarding teams and special forces teams.
It became clear during the exercise that the information flow functioned broadly as envisaged by the YCoC despite a lack of reporting standards and procedures, absence of a common interpretation of the situation picture, organisational and technical deficiencies (which affected some MOCs more than others). There is also still an overreliance of many MOCs on tracking vessels via their Automated Identification System (AIS) signals. Given that the majority of criminally active vessels in the Gulf do not broadcast this signal, in addition to an increasing number of merchant vessel switching off their AIS as a self-protection measure as per industry guidance, it effectively reduces any Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capability to near zero outside coastal radar range. This is a particular challenge also for tracking and combating illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities, since many fishing vessels do not have AIS transponders or choose to switch them off while poaching.
Additionally very few Gulf of Guinea nations, such as Ghana, have integrated their coastal radar stations into their MDA systems. Farther south, in the Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo and in Angola there is no meaningful coastal radar coverage at all at the moment. On a positive note: the Nigerian Navy, as the first Sub-Saharan navy ever, transmitted a radar picture via data link from a vessel to the MOC. Given the recent acquisition of three more large Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV), this at least opens the prospect for a better surveillance of the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Beyond the artificiality of the exercise, however, old suspicions and prejudices are hard to eradicate. While Nigeria and Cameroon played their part well in exercising tracking and intercepting suspect vessels at the border between Zone E and Zone D, Cameroon does not grant Nigeria the right of hot pursuit into her territorial waters in real life. Equally, the Ghanaian chief of naval staff, Admiral Biekro, casually announced the formation of an “information-sharing coalition” comprising Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin, conspicuously leaving out the elephant in the room. Circumspection in sharing information with Nigeria is widespread in the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea and, based on the performance of Nigerian criminal networks and their current relationship with the Nigerian political and military elites, certainly justified.
Nevertheless the Nigerian Navy was determined to contribute as best as it could in the face of political constraints. The detachment of one of the Nigerian Air Force’s precious ATR-42 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), which are used as reconnaissance planes in the campaign against Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northeast, was a signal that, whatever the shortcomings, Nigeria was willing to engage. Only a few days later, the same MPA flew out to south of Sao Tomé to assist in the real-world episode of the scuttled IUU fishing vessel THUNDER. This mission, too, reflects the spirit of the YCoC; Sao Tomé lacks air assets for Search and Rescue (SAR) – for the purpose of the exercise this had been simulated just a few days earlier by a Portuguese Air Force P-3 Orion flying out of Sao Tomé.
On the tactical level, results were also mixed, ranging from pleasant surprises to disappointments. All navies struggled with the absence of formalised and trained procedures for Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO). The teams deployed by the African nations typically lacked consistent tactical skills for boat handling, boarding and close-quarter including room-clearing as well as command procedures. Poor communications equipment aggravated those shortcomings; usually only the team leader had a VHF radio to communicate with the mother ship. The dismal performance of the Nigerian SBS team was particularly disappointing after last year’s credible performance. However, this year’s team which boarded the German frigate BRANDENBURG in an opposed boarding scenario was actually a land-trained team that had seen combat in Nigeria’s northeast. The tactical deficiencies that this team displayed are a lesson for those (especially in the private sector) who believe that combat experience alone is sufficient qualification for succeeding in maritime security missions.
Togo’s embryonic MIO capability on the other hand made visible progress since last year. While tactics where still not near anywhere that would enable the Togo Navy to carry out anything else than compliant boardings, the team appeared more professional and self-assured than last year. Once on board, the team, which included specialists from other agencies, made a good job of securing the crime scene and preserving and collecting evidence.
Ghana’s MIO teams for the exercise received a three-day pre-sail training by the German Navy’s naval infantry. It was also a useful lesson for the Ghana Navy that the exercise should really test real arrangements rather than such made specifically for the exercise. In this case Ghana had hand-picked four MIO-teams from different vessels for OBANGAME EXPRESS. Lack of familiarity of the boarding officers with their teams as well as the inclusion of non-naval specialists from the Police, Fisheries etc. made for very mixed results.
The risks of the lack of formalised procedures were apparent during the real world incidents of the MT MARIAM and FV LU RONG YUAN YU 917. Both vessels were hijacked by Nigerian criminals in January and February 2015 respectively and subsequently recovered by Ghana Navy boarding teams from the patrol boats BLIKA and CHEMLE, both of which took part in the exercise. In the case of the MT MARIAM luck and good improvisation played a great part in the success of the mission. The Ghana Navy boarded the tanker 26 nm outside the port of Tema (the BLIKA having unwittingly passed the tanker INVICTUS, which had siphoned off the MARIAM’s cargo, on the way) with a boarding team comprising a mere seven persons (in addition to the two-man crew of BLIKA’s sea boat). The fact that five of the eight suspected pirates on the MARIAM were hidden away in a water tank without guns only emerged after a while and after the initial team (of five persons) had almost given up the search. The remaining three suspects were holed up in the chain locker. One of the apprehended suspects from the water tank was used as a mixture of human shield and go-between when the Ghana Navy team had to approach the only entrance to the compartment through a narrow corridor. Fortunately, the three remaining suspects gave up and then, bizarrely, tried to hide themselves in the small compartment. In the end it was perhaps fortunate that, whether abetted by the MARIAM’s crew or not, the Nigerian criminals chose to place themselves into a position where the small Ghana Navy team could deal with it effectively. However, the vignette also holds a strong message that in the case of a non-compliant or opposed boarding this vessel recovery would not have gone ahead or if it had, could have ended in disaster due to the inadequacy of the boarding team.
The Ghana Navy’s Flag Officer Fleet, Commodore Mark Yawson, and the Director of Operations, Commander Derrick Attachie saw this exercise as an opportunity to improve and to identify what should be the navy’s priorities in training and procurement. Clearly, this is what an exercise is designed to do, but in some cases there remains some doubt that even though there is a will to address deficiencies identified in the exercise capabilities may not be available. Low operational readiness of some navies, absence of reliable fuel supplies (even for the exercise), systematic communications infrastructure shortfalls (poor internet, a “gap” between VHF and HF coverage at sea) are not problems easily addressed without a significant increase in funding, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in the short-term. Some improvements, while noteworthy and laudable, are improvements from an extremely low level, such as those made by Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo or Sao Tomé and Principe. In the latter case, in spite of great personal engagement by junior officers and NCOs, there appears to be very little top-level support. The evaluator for the Sao Tomé MOC pointed out that the centre did have a higher level of performance some years ago, but that it seemed the operation had been started from scratch again.
The true “success” of OBANGAME EXPRESS over the years is really in highlighting all these aspects and tracking progress – or absence thereof. The annual exercise also provides a benchmark and while the political message will always be one of continuous improvement, the analytic tools are actually fine-grained enough to register the nuances of change in either direction. As in 2014 the closer look at the individual results and how they came about raises the question of “sustainability” of the progress achieved so far. It is evident from this year’s results that gains made in the past can be lost in no time for as long as the effort does not become systemic.
There is a strong desire by the US to get other nations more involved in the maritime security effort. With the EU’s new Gulf of Guinea action plan the time may be auspicious to broaden the base of this capability-building effort with more permanent and long-term commitments by extra-regional powers (where this is desired), but with a view to “responsibility sharing”, rather than an open-ended engagement. This effort will be complex, given different priorities: Europeans and Americans are worried about drug trafficking while most West African governments are more concerned with the smuggling of cigarettes and oil products. Piracy is another priority for the EU and the US while it is less important for many African politicians who have to fight against pirate fishing to be able to feed their growing populations. The road ahead is still long. And as this year’s exercise showed: it also is not straight.
Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015 as an observer during the German Navy’s MIO-team training in Ghana before transferring to the Exercise Control Group as a Liaison Naval Officer. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed here are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.