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Red signal for sea pirates, oil thieves

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IF reining in armed robbers and other criminals has proved difficult, the war against sea pirates and oil thieves can best be described as doubly difficult.

While the former count their criminal proceeds in millions, the latter’s single haul could be in billions, enough to bring down a nation to its knees economically.

Fighting pirates and oil thieves is not a tea party anywhere in the world. They are cartels operating in groups with extensive capital outlay like the drug cartels.

They are vast in the nuances and international laws governing operations in the waterways as well as the limitations of law enforcement agencies in the maritime sector.

As a result, no nation can successfully fight these criminals without international collaborative efforts.

Indeed, to tame these criminals, Nigeria and 20 other countries including the United States of America took the giant steps by deploying their naval platforms in the troubled Gulf of Guinea.

In the past, navies of the world had relied on their strength alone to patrol their waterways but with the successes gained from partnerships in the past, they are beginning to have a rethink.

Nigerian Navy led by the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin, was a huge partner for the 2015 international maritime ‘show of force’, which had 21 participating countries from Africa, United States and Europe.

Tagged “Exercise OBANGAME Express”, a Cameroonian word for “Togetherness”, the maritime security operation, which is the fourth, is geared towards curbing illegalities especially piracy and crude oil theft in the maritime domain.

The world navies warned all perpetrators of illegal activities including vessel hijacking, piracy, oil lifting and buying of stolen products in the waters to quit even as they deployed dozens of vessels to carry out the one-week sea operation code named “Exercise Obangame Express”.

The patrol of the waters kicked off on March 19, 2015 with NNS Okpabana patrolling the Gulf of Guinea and Ghana waters all night with newsmen for seven days without berthing. The Vessel and other participating vessels berthed on March 26, 2015 at Tema, Ghana to mark the closing of the event.

At a briefing prelude to sail, the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC), Rear Admiral Jonah Ango; had said a total of 18 ships were expected to partake and provide opportunities for all participating countries to look for a lasting solution to maritime illegalities.

He said since Nigeria, like any other maritime nation, relies heavily on the sea for commerce and international trade, there was need to jointly tackle the security challenges of piracy, poaching, smuggling, oil theft, trafficking and other transnational crimes.

He said, for four years now, Nigeria has participated in Operation Obangame to enhance maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea adding that the exercise entails interoperability and creating the maritime domain awareness as well as a multinational training organized by America and African Partnership Stations.”

He said the exercise would consolidate the efforts of the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin, whose stance towards eliminating oil theft and other illegalities was unflinching.

The exercise, he said, is a maritime operation based on simulated scenarios of the most prevalent transnational crimes at sea, also designed to improve cooperation among participating nations for the benefit of the Gulf of Guinea.

The Command Operations Officer (COO), Commodore AMO Sunmola, said the challenges of arrests and being able to see through the prosecution has been a source of burden on the navy, thus, created another need for the exercise.

The word “Obangame” comes from Cameroonian language meaning “Togetherness”. African participants selected the name as proof of their commitment to promoting regional cooperation among navies of the countries in the Gulf of Guinea.

It began in 2010, as one of the four United Nations Naval-Forces Europe-Africa-facilitated regional exercises and focuses on increasing capabilities to deter piracy, illicit trafficking and other maritime threats.

Over the years, it has gone from basic tactics to regional cooperation, with the core essence being to improve the capacity of the African navies to combat crime in order to allow economic activities at sea to flourish.

Hosted in Ghana, the participating countries included the navies of the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), São Tomé and Principe, Spain, Turkey, Denmark, Portugal, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Italy, Benin Republic, Angola, Brazil, Cameroon, France, Norway, Germany, and Belgium.

This year, the NN deployed three vessels, NNS THUNDER, Okpabana and CENTENARY, as well as one Shaldaq boat, NNS Ikot-Abasi, with a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) maritime patrol aircraft.

Besides the fleet it deployed, the human resource deployed for the exercise was led by the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC), Commodore OH Ngabalak, who also doubles as the Commanding Officer NNS ARADU.

This year, however, the navy built on its synergy with other stakeholders. According to the Command Operations Officer (COO), Commodore AMO Sunmola, for the NN to effectively reduce maritime crimes, there should be collaboration, cooperation and synergy of efforts including support from other Nigerian maritime stakeholders such as Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Nigerian Ports Authority, Directorate of State Security, Nigerian Customs Service, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Department of Fisheries and Ministry of Justice amongst others.

Explaining the reason for the synergy, he said although the NN has the power of, it does not prosecute; hence, all other maritime security agencies need to be fully conversant with their responsibility in maritime crime and security.

While Mr. Peter Gopye represented the Federal Ministry of Fisheries, DSC Uwandu and Idiegha ThankGod, represented the Nigeria Customs Service. The NIS was also represented by the Assistant Controller, Lagos Marine Patrol Unit, Mr. Ode Adapoyi. Hajia Hajara Yusuf represented the Federal Ministry of Justice in the vessel.

Several operations took place during the exercise, such as  Search and Seizure Techniques. There were also drills onboard. The exercise also afforded the NN the opportunity to focus on improving its interoperability of communications and sharing of the maritime domain awareness information.

To ensure that personnel are ‘ship shape’ in terms of operational efficiency, four scenarios were created for the participating countries while, the NN participated in two only.

After days of non-stop patrols, the Nigerian Navy personnel onboard NNS Okpabana played out its first simulation of a weapon smuggling situation four days after it ‘set sail’.

The Nigeria frigate had received information of a vessel engaged in Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the vicinity of the Lagos Roadstead and they were directed to intercept and board the American vessel, HSC Spearhead, known in the exercise as Sea Bounty.

Special Boat Services (SBS), elements Nigeria’s equivalent of the United States Navy Seal, who then observed some irregularities in the vessel’s documentation, then boarded the IUU vessel.

After securing the vessel and the personnel, the SBS team led by Lieutenant Sule Manir, conducted a board, search and seizure exercise after it ascertained that the vessel was not actually carrying what it had earlier declared.
In fact, the vessel was conveying illegal weapons to an unknown destination. Upon interrogation, they confessed that they were indeed conveying some illegal arms and thus were arrested and brought in for prosecution.

The second scenario was that of a hijacking situation of a German vessel. The event commenced off the waters of Benin Republic, just at the Bight of Benin, where an oil tanker laden with petroleum products was hijacked off at Cotonou.

The hijacked vessel sailed off to Togolese waters and subsequently made a rendezvous with another vessel off Ghanaian waters.

The products were then transferred to a second vessel off Ghanaian waters and proceeded eastward traversing through Togolese and Benin waters before finally entering Nigerian waters on Day five of the exercise.

Immediately the information reached NNS Okpabana through the Maritime Operational Centre (MOC) ,the TG15 arm of the exercise intercepted the hijacked vessel and was subsequently boarded by the Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO) of the SBS and the crew arrested.

The last were the fire drills, which had all onboard the vessel practice fire simulations. Not left out was the ‘Gunnex’ exercise where all including newsmen fired the MI6 and the 50mm caliber weapons.

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