Book review: Victory with Honour – The chronicle of Admiral Olusegun Ferreira’s command of NNS Okpabana

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It is gratifying to note that the rich bibliography of publications on naval warfare and maritime operations continue to expand, offering the reading public a wide variety of topics within this genre to choose from and gifting researchers with first-hand participant accounts of the events enunciated to enhance intellectual enquiry and policy analysis.

Indeed, the list of such rich historical accounts is dominated by books such as One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward), the published perspectives of Captain Edward Pellew, in command of HMS Indefatigable (described as “the greatest British frigate captain in the age of sail”), the nerve-wrenching account of Frank Gregory-Smith, in command of the escort destroyer HMS Eridge which sailed for a grueling 18 months between Tobruk and Malta under German controlled airspace during the Second World War. His experiences resulted in a famous book titled “Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander.” There is also the iconoclastic book, “Stand by for Action” by William Donald detailing his exploits commanding first a corvette, and then a destroyer, to escort East Coast convoys in Norwegian waters during the Second World War.

From the above-mentioned, we might be tempted to conclude that many navies the world over have brilliant commanders and that their experiences always make for spectacular publications to titillate our imagination. This thinking would be a function of the fact that oftentimes, commanders do not write about experiences that expound on their professional failures, choosing to keep those in the archives and so denying us access to the other side of the success stories that we are more familiar with. To illustrate this opinion, let me cite the very brilliant Captain Will Rogers, United States Navy (USN), who was given command of the first ever Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser in the USN and was a shining star before the Bandar Abbas tragedy during which that ship under his command shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 civilians — an unprecedented blunder that practically ended his incredibly fascinating career.

The fate of this brilliant officer underscore the fact that sometimes, there are factors directly within and indirectly beyond the control of men and women entrusted with great responsibilities that will determine whether they succeed or fail in their assignments. The author of the book being herewith reviewed alluded to this as well when in his preface, he submits that “…although the job of a commanding officer of a seagoing ship can be prestigious, dignifying, honourable and arguably the best job in any navy, it can also present some of the most perilous of circumstances that can ruin careers and even lead to loss of lives and materiel in other situations.”

It is however gratifying to observe that we have many more successes than failures in the bibliography on naval operations and the book, “Victory with Honour” by Rear Admiral Olusegun Ferreira of the Nigerian Navy (NN) gifts us with yet another brilliant account of a successful command of a modern man-o-war in the form and shape of the frigate, NNS Okpabana.

Ferreira’s book blazes a trail in the sense that Nigerian military officers usually do not write of their experiences, not because they do not possess the intellectual capacity to do so, but simply because it has not been a tradition in the country’s military.  With the exception of the many erudite accounts of the civil conflict in the late 1960s which saw Nigerian and Biafran commanders document their experiences and opinions, we rarely come across accounts from Nigeria’s military officers. Admittedly, not every military operation can be made available for public consumption, given the implications of that for national security, however, there should be aspects of such professional exposure that can serve to document important facts and details, enlighten the general public, and help enhance the professional competence of younger officers. It is my considered opinion that Victory with Honour is a good candidate for fulfilling all three.

It is a good candidate because in its 343 pages, 18 chapters and an epilogue, it chronicles seven sea training exercises (popularly referred to as naval manoeuvres), one major and globally acknowledged successful anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Guinea, and addresses other important happenings on the navy and naval operations, including exercise Obangame/Saharan Express and ship borne helicopter operations. Indeed, Ferreira sets about detailing the contribution of the ship under his command to the already glorious contribution of the Nigerian Navy to enhancing national, regional and international security. Vice Admiral IE Ibas, erstwhile Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) concurs, affirming, in his foreword to the publication that “I am confident that the experiences that have been chronicled will find the readership it deserves and mentor future generations of upcoming commanding officers of naval platforms and leadership in the Nigerian Navy.”

Before highlighting some of the experiences that the former CNS alluded to, Ferreira first expatiates on the concept of navies and the essence of seapower. He cites three authorities to explain both, educating the reader of the fact that the functions of navies are essentially three: military, diplomatic and policing (all of which apply to the NN). He also quotes one authority as affirming that there are roles essentially for two types of navies’ viz the postmodern navy and the modern navy, while he quotes another authority to confirm the fact that “maritime security issues cannot be resolved by any single State.”

Great powers take their navies seriously and the author provides a brief analysis of China’s emerging strategic maritime interests and her effort to advance these, while contrasting this ambition with US interest in maintaining herself as the dominant hegemon in the South China Sea and the implications of this rivalry for bilateral relations between both powers. He proceeds therefrom to argue that Nigeria had long foreseen herself as possessing maritime interests which must be protected and advanced, leading to the birth of the NN in 1956 to protect and guarantee those interests by being a “vanguard of Nigeria’s sea power aspirations, whilst playing a central and critical role in providing a safe, secure and enabled maritime environment for socio-economic activities to thrive.”

It is no surprise therefore that the author devotes the entire Chapter 2 to expounding on the origin, growth and statutory roles of the NN. He uses the liberty of his knowledge to give the reader a deep historical excursion into the history of the NN, submitting that it is “statutorily charged with defending Nigeria’s territorial integrity, maintaining the country’s sea lanes of communications and safeguarding her maritime resources. (In this, the author provides a lucid account of NN operations during the unfortunate Nigerian civil war, explaining the salient role it played in suppressing the rebellion, including its amphibious operations, whose high point was the capture of Bonny Island by the Third Marine Commando Division of Colonel Benjamin Adekunle—other amphibious operations being the landings to re-take Delta ports i.e. Warri, Koko and Sapele, as well as that to establish a beachhead in Oron to facilitate the capture of what is now Cross River State.)

One must not fail to add here that the Bonny landing in particular and the other amphibious operations in general remain perhaps the only large scale opposed amphibious military operations undertaken to date by any African navy. The NN also undertakes flag cruises to friendly countries in support of the country’s foreign policy objectives but the author averred that in recent time, the navy has been more focused on policing roles due to multidimensional maritime threats confronting the country.

The writing of this book might not have been necessary without a letter addressed to the author and which he received on Friday 30 October 2015. That correspondence informed him of his appointment as Commanding Officer (CO) of NNS Okpabana, one of the frigates in the fleet of his country’s navy and his functioning in that capacity exposed him to many situations — some pleasant, others comprehensively challenging — over which he was a principal actor and for which he has graciously shared his experiences as contained in this fascinating book. Interestingly, on his first patrol as CO of NNS Okpabana, the author ensured the arrest of two vessels, MT Mona and MT United Trader. What a way to start!

Taking over a ship that had been part of the US Coast Guard (USCG) had a lot of history behind it. The author takes the time therefore to give a good background to the ship, given that it is “the central character of the book.” He informs that, together with NNS Thunder, it was part of the two ships acquired from the US and had been previously designated as USCG Gallatin (call sign WHEC 721), a Hamilton-class high endurance cutter (he gives more information on how ships are given their designations, including in the Royal Navy and how that might have influenced the designation of the USCG ships).

Specifically, and like its sister ship, NNS Okpabana has a crew of 160, displaces 3 340 tons and requires 1 million litres of fuel (i.e. 33 000-litre tankers x 30) to be fully filled up. It also has the capacity to accommodate a single HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. It completed its last assignment with the USCG on 11 December 2013, was de-commissioned on 31 March 2014 and transferred to the Nigerian Navy on 7 May 2014 under the US Foreign Assistance Act. Together with NNS Aradu and NNS Thunder, they form the Thunder-Class frigate fleet of the Nigerian Navy.

Those interested in military maneouvres will find Chapter 6 exhilarating as the author brilliantly explains the entire spectrum of Exercise Treasure Guard, all the platforms that were involved, the top Admirals who monitored the exercise and the ubiquitous exercise control officers who kept the COs and their personnel on their toes throughout that undertaking. The account is also laced with very good images of the ships in formation, the helicopters deployed, the naval SBS commandos involved in opposed boarding operations, fire-fighting drills, gunnery exercises and of course excellent mess arrangements to round off such a serious business!

In similar vein, the author would give succinct accounts of similar exercises — Obangame/Saharan Express (page 123-196), Operation Tsare Teku I (pages 197 to 210), Exercise Opia Toha (229 to 248), Exercise NEMO (pages 249 to 258), Operation Tsare Teku II (pages 259 to 280) and Operation Tsare Teku III (pages 291 to 298). These exercises depict the effort of the NN to maintain a state of complete operational readiness at all times, the organic engagement with sister services and international cooperation with other navies and political authorities towards ensuring regional and international maritime safety and security.

It is pertinent to highlight the author’s comprehensive account of Exercise Obangame/Saharan Express held in Port Harcourt (Nigeria) and Douala (Cameroon). The author explains that it was “facilitated by the US Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF),” as an “at-sea maritime exercise designed to improve cooperation amongst participating nations in order to increase maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG).” Participation involved the navies of the Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, France, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, the UK and the US.

It is instructive to note that the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) was also a key participant in the exercise. One important detail in the account of the author regarding preparation of NNS Okpabana for the exercise was the fabrication of spare parts for the frigate at Owode Onirin, a suburb of Lagos. In fact, following that successful effort and experience, the author preaches the need for the authorities to bolster the latent industrial capacity inherent in Ikoku (Port Harcourt), Aba (Abia State) and Panteka (Kaduna State) to enhance the growth of the domestic military-industrial complex.

While exercises are simulations of potential actual scenarios that may occur and for which the military needs to prepare, those actual events often occur without notice and in ways in which even the simulated exercises may not have anticipated. This was exactly what happened later and required NNS Okpabana to intervene. Indeed, the high point of Admiral Ferreira’s book for me is therefore the military operation to locate, identify and rescue the hijacked vessel, MT Maximus, an Indian-flagged oil tanker. This operation is the stuff of which action-adventure movies are made and I am sure many Nigerians, Africans and indeed all lovers of this genre of movies would not only love to read about his account, but be proud of the efforts of our navy and its gallant officers and ratings, especially the team that risked their lives to rescue the crew of the distressed MT Maximus.

The author provides detailed and succinct accounts of how the entire rescue situation unfolded — from the hijacking of MT Maximus off the coast of Cote d’Ivoire, how the pirates successfully evaded the efforts of the Togolese and Ghanaian navies to accost the hijacked vessel, to its arrival and interception within waters adjacent to Sao Tome and Principe.

Imagine getting a call from the number one naval officer in the land directly on your mobile phone to prime you for a mission when you had barely spent a few days at home (and while helping your kids with their homework)? Imagine having to abruptly suspend maintenance of a key component of your warship, seek to locate most of your 168 crew members who had dispersed well beyond Lagos city on a pass in a few hours (in such a chaotic traffic situation that Lagos presents) so you can have the required personnel to embark on your mission, heading out to sea in search of a ship whose name had not only been changed by the pirates (to MT Elvis-5 to further obfuscate efforts at executing a rescue) but whose Automatic Information System (AIS) had been switched off by the criminals to deny its being located electronically?

All the above-mentioned were the reality confronting Admiral Ferreira, in addition to steaming after a hijacked vessel that lay 400 nautical miles away from the location of his ship and had lead time over him and his gallant crew! These were the ingredients of the looming chase and exchange of fire with the pirates, their eventually being subdued, the rescue of all crew members of the hijacked vessel who were on board (two had been take away by the pirates before NNS Okpabana’s rescue mission began) and the liberation of MT Maximus exactly eight days after the ship had been hijacked off Ivorien waters!

It is commendable that the author gives credit to every single member — officer or rating — who played key roles in not only the rescue of MT Maximus, but in other facets of the operations in which NNS Okpabana took part. This isn’t a General who ascribes every action and success to himself as some military authors are wont to do, but one who duly gives credit and commendation to those for whom it is due. This in itself is a hallmark of true leadership and professionalism.

The author waxes syllogistic in his advocacy for the institution of ship borne helicopter operations, explaining the cost-benefit analysis and relying on his experience and skill as a naval combat aviator to press home his case. That case is indeed compelling, but the reader is not informed as to whether eventually and despite the extensive preparation of NNS Okpabana for accommodating a helo on board, this has seen the light of day. For this reviewer who is somewhat conversant with the NN, I find it rather intriguing that the author would need to make such a compelling case given the fact that (as he also alluded to), NNS Aradu (classified a frigate but considered a destroyer in my humble opinion) had been in the vanguard of such quest since it had two Lynx helos for ASW operations embedded on it. The fact that Nigeria has also started acquiring OPVs in reasonably good numbers (NNS Unity and NNS Centenary and the two new versions being built in Turkey) should make the author’s case a done deal so to speak without any need for such strident advocacy! I even go further to aver that in this modern era of UAV technology, the NN should be giving serious consideration to the proposal of the author given the fact that it already has platforms that can embark UAVs specially-configured for various forms of maritime operations and the modalities for embarking and deploying them could benefit from systems already provided to aid ship borne helicopter missions.

Rear Admiral Olusegun Ferreira wrote this book as a Commodore, though the events so chronicled took place while he was a Captain. Now he is a Rear Admiral and in my view, has distinguished himself as a truly fine officer, seaman, aviator and gentleman. His style of writing enables any reader to digest the book effortlessly and though there is the use of certain naval and military jargons, they are easily explained when a recourse is made to Google. He masterfully presents the issues his book addresses in simple English which nonetheless underscores his very good command of that language. The use of photographs, graphs and other diagrams — 152 in all — to illustrate the book makes it very easy on the eye and pleasurable for the reader. Indeed, to have this number of illustrations in a 343 page book is extremely unprecedented (for a publication that is not dedicated to photography) and serves to explain the painstaking research undertaken by the author. I just add that his ability to obtain images that did not even belong to the NN or that was shot by its personnel attest to the goodwill he enjoyed with the owners of those pictorial property.

Admiral Ferreira’s Victory with Honour is an excellent addition to a growing list of works on Nigerian military history, regional and continental maritime safety and international peace and security. I wholeheartedly commend the publication to all readers and everyone with a thirst for knowledge, adventure and connoisseurs of excellent literary enterprise.

Publisher: authorHOUSE UK

Number of pages: 343

Availability: Amazon.com; Barnes & Nobles; iBooks; Kindle.

Additional information/purchases can also be sought through: https://www.olusegunferreira.com



Review written by Adebayo Olowo-Ake, author of several strategic policy papers and various publications, including ECOMOG & EUROCORPS — Models of An African Strategic Peace Equation, an independent study for the then OAU (now AU) that influenced the adoption of regional standby brigades in Africa (instead of a centralised and previously touted African High Command). He has 20 years’ experience in humanitarian relief operations, humanitarian diplomacy and provision of instruction to military forces on Laws of Armed Conflict. He is the in-coming Director/Principal Research Fellow at the African Resource Development Centre (ARDC), Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached on [email protected]