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 of Africa?
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 security actors.
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.
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 and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). 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 Egypt, 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.
Written by Barthélemy Blédé, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Dakar