Maritime Security- U.S. and West Africa Join Forces
This year’s US-led Obangame Express, a military exercise designed to help
countries along the western coast of Africa counter illicit sea-based activity,
ended last week with a symposium in Abidjan. Ivorian Navy captain Yeman
Sran Achille said the annual training event, which dates back to 2011,
showed the United States (US) Navy’s commitment in the Gulf of Guinea.
But what do both parties gain through foreign military presence in this part
As its name suggests (‘Obangame’ means ‘to be together’ in Fang, a language
spoken in south Cameroon and other parts of Central Africa), the exercise
focuses on cooperation and collaboration among the various maritime
Countries in West and Central Africa benefit from the US’s expertise and
sponsorship of training for navy staff in the fight against maritime threats.
The Obangame Express also evaluates the implementation of the common
maritime strategy set up in 2013 in Cameroon when the Yaounde Code of
Conduct was adopted.
This is important as these countries’ maritime domains are constantly under
threat by criminals and bandits. Since 2011 this area has become the most
vulnerable in Africa to pirates – and this at a time, as ISS research shows,
when piracy globally has dropped. Illegal and unregulated fishing and illicit
trafficking by sea of all kinds are also big challenges for the region.
The Obangame Express exercise allows the countries to test the functioning
of their various national and regional maritime operation centres. It is also an
opportunity for states in the region to check on their neighbours’ progress in
terms of naval equipment.
The Americans, for their part, must be concerned about the protection of their
economic interests and those of their European allies in the Gulf of Guinea,
which provide, for example, 15% of the oil consumption of the US and 20%
of that of Europe.
The US has become the world’s police for the implementation of the International
Ship and Port Facility Security Code adopted by the International Maritime
Organisation in December 2002 following 9/11. The US Coast Guard periodically
assesses maritime ports to make sure they properly implement this set of security
standards to help prevent terrorism and maritime insecurity.
What do the US and West African states gain from a foreign military presence in
But besides economic and security issues, the US-led military exercise could
conceal strategic interests. Obangame obviously allows US naval forces to
acquire some control of the military terrain in the Gulf of Guinea. Edmond Kouadio,
editorialist at the Ivorian newspaper Le Nouveau Navire, agrees. ‘This hypothesis
is more than likely because it is common knowledge that military actions are
primarily centred on national interests,’ Kouadio told ISS Today.
So Obangame Express benefits both parties, which explains its sustainability,
increasing number of participants and complexity.
The first event held in Cameroon in 2011 brought together only nine countries.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Economic
Community of West African States (ECOWAS ) did not participate. This year,
Obangame Express mobilised 20 African countries (including Morocco and Namibia,
who are not part of the Gulf of Guinea), ECCAS and ECOWAS, 14 American and
European countries and some 50 military ships.
The 2017 course consisted of five scenarios conducted simultaneously in the
participating African countries. These exercises covered maritime piracy, illegal,
unreported and unregulated fishing, drug trafficking, marine pollution, search
and rescue, medical assistance and information sharing.
At the debriefing on 30 March in Abidjan, the organisers expressed their satisfaction
at the regional countries’ willingness to work together on maritime security. Ivorian
Maritime Police Commander Sékou Sanogo shared this sentiment when he
described how the country’s Antipollution Centre – told of a case of an accidental
oil spill in national waters (as part of a scenario) – rapidly activated the contingency
plan, and all public and private services quickly mobilised the equipment available
at the scene of the incident.
Concerning naval equipment, the Obangame Express organisers noted that not all
countries in the region were in the same boat. While Cameroon is relatively well
equipped, countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea still have no suitable ships
to monitor their waters. Also, the pooling of resources, as recommended to states
in the region, can only be effective if each country has at least some means.
US naval forces are conducting similar operations elsewhere in Africa. These are:
Saharan Express, originally focusing on countries in the north-west of the region
such as Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau,
Phoenix Express in the Mediterranean and involving Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and
Cutlass Express, which brings together countries of East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Although US naval forces can benefit from Obangame Express in economic and
military terms, this annual exercise is especially beneficial for states in the Gulf of
Guinea. It enables them to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their maritime
security systems, and fix the most pressing problems.