Exercise Obangame Express 2023 (OE23), the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western and Central Africa, has concluded in Nigeria.
The closing ceremony was hosted in the Nigerian Navy’s Admiralty Conference Center in the Naval Dockyard on 3 February, included remarks by US Air Force Lieutenant General Kirk Smith, deputy commander at US Africa Command, and Nigerian Navy Vice Admiral Awwal Gambo, Chief of Naval Staff.
“What you heard today is a great example of multiple partners coming together and understanding shared challenges, and shared opportunities,” said Smith. “Precision is what makes us perfect, attention to every little detail is what makes us professional. The most important part is what we learn from the exercise to make us better for the next time that we come together.”
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Calvin Foster, director of Maritime Partnership at U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, also accompanied Smith during his visit to Nigeria for the closing of exercise OE23. While in Lagos, Smith and Foster met with Nigerian leaders at the Joint Maritime Security Training Center, Western Naval Command, Naval Air Base Ojo, and the Special Boat Squadron. The tour provided a comprehensive review of the multi-faceted approach Nigeria, and other partner nations, are taking in the region’s maritime security domain.
Nigeria, OE23 host and a key leader in the Gulf of Guinea’s maritime security, has been critical to the success of Obangame Express 2023. Gambo emphasized the importance of the exercise, and how continued practice and improvement on maritime challenges improves the security and stability of the nations involved.
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success,” said Gambo. “These are powerful testimonies of steadfast commitment… enhancing maritime security across the board. In particular, these efforts are facilitated into the integration of Obangame, national capabilities of navies, and coastguards in achieving holistic and sustainable maritime security attention in the Gulf of Guinea.”
A comprehensive roster of events elevated this year’s exercise. Ashore, armed forces from the Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and the U.S., alongside international law enforcement agencies, conducted expertise exchanges on forensics collection, combat defensive tactics, first aid at the JMSTC. At the Lagos-area Maritime Operations Center, a multi-national team exchanged lessons on the monitoring and reporting of suspicious vessels at sea, and the communication network of maritime assets against transnational threats.
At sea, the participants conducted training in countering the trafficking of persons, narcotics, illegal fishing, and piracy, as well as Visit, Board, Search and Seizure simulations – all while maintaining communication and working in concert with partner and allied ships.
In conjunction with the operational training, the exercise featured developments with the Women, Peace and Security initiative, and multiple concerts by the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) Band. Notably, the NAVEUR-NAVAF Band was hosted by Chief Dr. Nike Davies-Okundaye, an internationally-acclaimed Nigerian artist, Channels TV, an internationally-syndicated news program, and the University of Lagos.
Conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF) and sponsored by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), OE23 is designed to improve regional cooperation, information-sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of participating nations to counter Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing and other sea-based illicit activity.
During the exercise, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa Band also had several performances throughout Lagos, including at galleries and schools. The band had the opportunity to play music and collaborate with local musicians, building partnerships and relationships that hopefully will last a lifetime. As we can all appreciate, music is a universal language, one that we can all enjoy.
And lastly, we sent three admirals or flag officers to participate in this year’s Obangame Express. We’re committed to supporting African initiatives and solutions to shared maritime challenges, and that is often best achieved when our collective leaders are able to talk directly to each other.
The participating nations during OE23 included Angola, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Canada, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, France, Gabon, The Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Italy, Liberia, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, Togo, and the United States. Also participating will be the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
In a media briefing last week, Rear Admiral Chase Patrick, Director, Maritime Headquarters, US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, shared some of the work accomplished during Obangame Express. “We’ve recognized that exchanging ship-boarding techniques is not enough to combat transnational maritime crimes. This year we included several training opportunities for maritime and police forces to practice and demonstrate the proper collection and reporting of evidence. Judicial prosecution helps to close the loop on all the hard work that’s being done at sea by our boarding teams. We had personnel from the US Coast Guard law enforcement team as well as US Army Special Forces work together with our partners on comply and entry measures, and also had support from other agencies such as Interpol and INL, who provided training on database prosecution techniques.
“We recognize that African problems can only be solved by African solutions, and that is why we’re here, to learn from each other and share ideas to enhance maritime security and to ensure the waters surrounding Africa are secure and conducive to long-term prosperity.
“So at US Naval Forces Africa, we’re committed to being a reliable and long-term partner in Atlantic Africa. We believe that the safety and security in the waters surrounding Africa are critical to maintaining a stable and safe global environment. But due to the very large size of the continent and the complexities that – of the security situations within every country, we also recognize that no one country can provide, yeah, that safety and security across the continent alone.”
Patrick said some of the security areas where the US engages its partners specifically involve IUU fishing; any form of trafficking; and piracy. He noted that piracy statistics in recent years have been coming down, “and that we attribute to the improved cooperations that’s happened in West Africa. I’d also add that certainly in the early years of this exercise, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, so that’s actually improved the ability for us to do coordination at sea and communication between the regional MOCs [Maritime Operations Centres].”
He said the evolution of Obangame Express demonstrates how much it’s grown. “Initially, Obangame Express started as a communications exercise with a small number of at-sea training opportunities. So 12 years later, we’ve grown into the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western Africa…And this year we’ve got 32 nations who are participating in this exercise. So we’re really proud of it, and we’re really proud of what our partners have accomplished.”