With US Help, Africa’s Coastal Nations Are Learning to Work Together

Senegalese, Portuguese, Spanish, and U.S. service members conduct small boat exercises in Dakar, Senegal, in the Gulf of Guinea in support of 2019 Africa Partnership Station on July 9, 2019.

U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams

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Senegalese, Portuguese, Spanish, and U.S. service members conduct small boat exercises in Dakar, Senegal, in the Gulf of Guinea in support of 2019 Africa Partnership Station on July 9, 2019.

Maritime security only works when entire regions cooperate.

About a decade ago, most coastal African countries lacked the gear and know-how to effectively track maritime threats. Just as importantly, they lacked the kind of international agreements that would help them work with their neighbors on maritime security. And most fundamentally, some governments lacked — and to this day continue to lack — the recognition that this was a problem, primarily because they didn’t understand the economic value of their maritime domain. 

But maritime security is key to a coastal country’s economic prosperity and political stability. So the U.S. Navy has steadily been working with our African partners to improve their ability to monitor their maritime environment, track and respond to threats, and to cooperate with other regional security forces.

Cooperation is critical; in its absence, bad actors can evade one country’s security forces by simply moving to neighboring territorial waters. So the U.S. Navy launched the Express series of exercises to bring together maritime security and law enforcement organizations from around various regions. 

The longest-running is Phoenix Express, now in its 15th year, which focuses primarily on the Maghreb and links 14 allies and partners from the north and south shores of the critically important Mediterranean Sea, and beyond. The newest is the eight-year-old Cutlass Express in the west Indian Ocean, which has been hosted by four coastal nations and welcomed forces from 11 more. Last year, the Somali Maritime Police participated, marking the country’s first presence in a security exercise beyond its borders in nearly three decades. This year’s edition saw an Indian frigate, Trikand, working alongside the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Chung-Hoon

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These exercises grow continually more complex. Take Obangame Express in the Gulf of Guinea, whose first editions focused mostly on communications procedures between a few neighboring countries. This year’s event, the ninth, brought forces from 33 countries to practice more than 80 scenarios that crossed national and regional boundaries and drew on seven national military command centers and 19 maritime operations centers. Given the size of the Gulf of Guinea, this coordination is no small feat. Our African partners have worked hard to achieve greater proficiencies and the exercises are an opportunity for all involved to learn and grow.

The cooperation continues into real-world operations. After the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Thetis finished up with Obangame Express, it joined the Nigerian Navy and Cabo Verdean Coast Guard for operations under the U.S. Navy’s African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership program. In this Operation Junction Rain, U.S. boarding teams advise, assist, and accompany African partners during real-world law enforcement operations against illegal fishing, illicit trafficking of all forms, piracy, and pollution. U.S. experts work side-by-side with their African counterparts, enforcing African laws in African waters. 

Over the last decade, Africa’s coastal countries have steadily improved their abilities to work together and share information, even as pirates and other malign actors have tried to exploit the seams by operating across different territorial waters. In 2013, the Gulf of Guinea coastal nations developed and signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a key agreement to improve maritime interoperability. This powerful framework established objectives and improved inter-region coastal relationships and joint capabilities that have reduced illegal activities in the Gulf of Guinea. And just this year, Nigeria opened a Maritime Domain Awareness Training Center, built with assistance and equipment from the U.S. Navy. Located in Apapa, near the port of Lagos, this hub will allow African forces accustomed to sending personnel to Europe or North America to get training far more cheaply and frequently closer to home.

Given Africa’s size, its lengthy coastline, and its many (and often contested) boundaries, littoral African states must work together to build maritime security, maintain maritime domain awareness, and counter illicit activity. Through hard work, perseverance, and continued training with each other, Gulf of Guinea partners have increased their maritime domain awareness and ability to share information effectively and efficiently. We are seeing similar results and success in North and East Africa, where increased regional interoperability is disrupting nefarious actors and illicit activities.

This is why the U.S. Navy continually engages with our partners to improve interoperability and develop regional solutions; we all benefit from working side-by-side and building lasting relationships in the process. Together, we are building progress toward a more stable and secure Africa.

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