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Dozens of top naval officers from Nigeria, Belgium, Benin Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Spain, Togo, United States and France converged recently on the Gulf of Guinea to tackle the security challenges in the region.

The one-week exercise, tagged Obangame Express 2012, was organised by the participating countries in collaboration with major stakeholders in the Gulf of Guinea in order to nip the menace of sea pirates in the bud.

Daily Sun learnt that the Obangame Express 2012 was put together to assist West and Central African countries to build the capacity towards combating problems of pirates that steal resources of the region and making the waterways dangerous.

The exercise was a multinational maritime interdiction exercise designed to update countries in the Gulf of Guinea on the fundamentals of conducting policing operations at sea. It provided an opportunity for participating countries to showcase their naval might.

The Nigerian Naval Ship NNS THUNDER led other combat vessels from other 11 countries in the naval manoeuvre. As gathered, the water was safe for legitimate maritime operators during the exercise as pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea went on leave. The United States Navy that came with a frigate also displayed its drone aircraft capable of carrying out reconnaissance and return to the vessel.

France showcased its amphibious assault ship Siroco, which first berthed in Lagos before proceeding to the exercise area. Other African countries also came to the exercise with patrol vessels and other smaller crafts.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had recently enjoined international community to build on its resolution 2018 (2011) to counter the growing menace of piracy in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea region through coordination and logistical support to regional security initiatives.

The appeal came after the UNSC special team visited Benin, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola in connection with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. According to the UNSC's assessment, the increasing crime waves in the region undermined socio-economic development efforts in the region. The council noted that the pirates have become more violent and systematic, targeting lucrative cargo such as oil onboard the ships, rather than taking hostages for ransom as in East Africa. It added that incidents of piracy reported to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) had risen from 45 in 2010 to 64 in 2011, urging countries within the Gulf of Guinea to unite in order to respond effectively to the growing threat of piracy along their coasts.

Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, who actively participated in the joint exercise, admitted that Nigeria stands to benefit a lot from the exercise, particularly getting rid of challenges in her maritime domain. He stated that protection of the territorial waters in the country and the entire West African sub-region rests on the Nigerian Navy's transformation agenda. He expressed the commitment of the force and Nigeria to a regional military exercise, saying the exercise would pave way for economic and socio-cultural activities to thrive in the region.

His words: 'Our commitment to Exercise Obangame Express is in tandem with one of the pillars of the Nigerian Navy Transformation Plan 2011 to 2020. I believe the same benefits are applicable to all the participating countries. Consequently, the Nigerian Navy remains committed to the ideals of the Africa Partnership Station and its subsidiary programme such as the exercise just concluded.'

Nigeria's Defence Minister, Dr Bello Mohammed, who graced the exercise, also advocated synergy among nations to protect the maritime environment and the Gulf of Guinea. He noted that Nigeria, like any other maritime nation, relied on the sea for economic, commercial and socio-cultural activities. The reliance, he said, included other wider national interests that are very critical to the survival and wellbeing of the country and its citizens.

'It is quite true that no nation can effectively confront these challenges all alone because of their transnational nature,' Mohammed said.

He was optimistic that the exercise would further help boost the ongoing efforts to promote cooperation among member countries of the Economic Community of Central States (ECCAS) and those of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Mohammed continued: 'Nigeria will therefore continue to support any project that would help to combat the security challenges that are prevalent in our contemporary maritime environment.'

The United States Consular General to Nigeria, Mr. Joseph Stafford, described the exercise as very important because it brought together countries of the Gulf of Guinea and the United States. He maintained that the exercise would help build the capacity of African navies to secure the waters of the Gulf of Guinea and boost economic activities.

In a chat with Daily Sun, Commanding Officer (CO) of the US Destroyer 14 Squadron, Commander Mill Kem, who commended the Nigerian Navy for making the waterways in the Gulf of Guinea safe for maritime operators, asserted that the exercise would help to curtail criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

He, however, explained that the presence of the US Navy at the exercise was not to undermine the capability of the Nigerian Navy in policing her economic zone but to share maritime knowledge.