In defence of Nigeria’s maritime space

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Despite the panic caused by the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), operatives of the Nigerian Navy (NN)  last week demonstrated their commitment to defend the country from maritime threats report PRECIOUS IGBONWELUNDU and HALIMA BALOGUN.

These, certainly, are not the best of times for Nigeria. The economy is shrinking no thanks to plummeting oil prices occasioned by the global Coronavirus pandemic. This situation is in addition to large scale terrorism, resource theft, economic sabotage, piracy and sea robbery along the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) coastlines that affect shipping and lead to hike in maritime insurance which also negatively affects the economy.

Blessed with abundant mineral and natural resources, the GoG region comprised of about 472 million people in 26 counties, has an estimated 24billion barrels crude oil reserves; contributes five million barrels daily to global crude chain, accounts for 40 percent and 29 percent of Europe’s and America’s petroleum products consumption.

It is therefore not surprising that the region remained a resource provider and primary conduit for international trade; has overtime become a hotbed for multinational syndicates involved in sharp practices including illegal bunkering, piracy, Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, human trafficking, narcotics and firearms smuggling all aimed at destabilising the region.

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Conversant with these realities, the Nigerian Navy (NN) last week deployed its might to the GoG region to checkmate activities of these criminal elements and ensure all threats to the country’s economic and security wellbeing in the maritime domain were waded off.

For three days, naval operatives, embedded journalists and other relevant maritime stakeholders sustained patrols up to 50 nautical miles from Lagos Anchorage with participating vessels conducting both joint and independent sea control exercises.

Codenamed TREASURE GUARD II, the exercise saw the deployment of four capital ships including NNS THUNDER, NNS NGURU, NNS DORINA, NNS ANDONI; two tugboat- TUG DOLPHIN RIMA and TUG Commander UGWU; two maritime patrol helicopters and two detachment of the navy’s elite force known as the Special Boats Services (SBS).

Although the exercise was held within the Western Naval Command’s area of responsibility (AOR), warships were deployed from the Eastern and Central Naval Commands to ensure wide coverage, just as the country’s backwaters were adequately manned to prevent vandals from having access to oil pipelines, just as representatives of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, (NDLEA) and Ministry of Justice (MOJ) were on ground to foster interagency synergy.

While at sea, the exercise did not only serve the purpose of improving personnel’s professionalism and capabilities through various simulations enacted but also served real time deterrence purposes as the navy’s presence on the high seas within those period sent the criminals packing.

Flag-off

Prior to the commencement, there were speculations that the exercise might be cancelled following the confirmation of COVID-19 cases in Lagos and Abuja. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the annual multinational sea exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS was called off.  Mindful of the dangers of leaving the GoG region unpoliced, the NN proceeded with Treasure Guard II, solely sponsored and executed by Nigerians.

Kicking off the exercise at the headquarters Western Naval Command (WNC), Flag Officer Commanding (FOC) Rear Admiral Oladele Daji said they prepared for three months with series of coordinating conferences with international partners as well as with maritime law enforcement agencies.

He said the cancellation of OBANGAME Express did not really have adverse impact on the navy’s preparations as “all the ships have taken their logistics provided by the naval headquarters and we are good to go.”

Daji said the exercise would boost the confidence of global shipping community, demonstrate and evaluate the navy’s maritime operation centres’ interoperability as well as its tactical interdiction capability.

According to Daji, the first phase of the exercise which held in 2016 at the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) recorded commendable achievements as lots of vessels involved in illegalities were arrested, which he said gave the seafarers confidence to once again ply the waters.

He said: “They (criminals) were switching off their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). They were arrested and that gave the seafarers confidence to once again ply our routes. If you look back, about four years to five years before then, there were concerns about ships calling at Nigerian Ports.

“That is why we deemed it important again to re-enact Exercise Treasure Guard II to increase the confidence of the global shipping community in Nigerian waters.

“It is very important that we acknowledge the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas for approving the transmutation of the Nigerian leg of Exercise OBAGAME EXPRESS 2020 which was cancelled due to health concerns. “The approval of Exercise Treasure Guard 11 is a clear demonstration of the avowed commitment of the CNS to harness and deploy all the capabilities of the navy in conjunction with other agencies. That is to ensure that collectively, we secure and protect all the assets in our waters,” he said.

Thereafter, participating ships sailed from their different jetties, with NNS Dorina, NNS Nguru and NNS Andoni leaving from NNS Beecroft Jetty.

At sea, the participating ships undertook various simulations such as aerial insertion, emergency search and rescue, Gunnery Exercise (GUNNEX), medical evacuation, underwater warfare, Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS), tactical maneuvering, counter-piracy, human and drug trafficking drills all designed to work up the warships and personnel in line with NN doctrine of operations.

In the first simulation, NNS NGURU played the role of an oil tanker that was hijacked by pirates off Lagos waters. The simulation which was an opposed boarding scenario, saw the naval personnel racing to the distressed vessel after receiving a call, forcefully rescuing the crew members who were held hostage and arresting the pirates. Some of the criminals died in the operation while others sustained injuries and were evacuated by the helicopter for medical attention.

For the second scenario, NNS DORINA acted like a vessel loaded with firearms which was pursued and intercepted by NNS NGURU, weapons recovered and suspects arrested for arms trafficking.

The participating ships then proceeded to take positions through series of formations to oace way for safe area for the GUNNEX. Having achieved the required formation, other safety measures such as activation of the fire alarm, fresh water on standby to cool off the barrels were taken before the firing took place.

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At inquiry, it was discovered that the purpose of the exercise was to test the efficiency of the weaponry as well as send signals to criminals that the navy was well prepared for any eventuality.

Briefing reporters at the end of the exercise, the Officer in Tactical Command, Rear Admiral Elkanah Jaiyeola, said its essence was to consolidate on the efforts of the Nigerian Navy towards ensuring that the treasures within the nation’s maritime domain were properly safeguarded and also allow the Nigeria Navy to work with other agencies towards ensuring effective coordination and collaborations.

“From the very beginning, part of the challenges we face in our waters are issues of piracy, IUU fishing, human trafficking and sometimes arm trafficking. So, what we witnessed as we commenced the exercise was that of a reported piracy and we combined the efforts of our Maritime Domain Awareness Centres which alerted of the report and we were able to inform our fellow unit for what we call intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance and they were able to identify the location of the vessel and of course we vectored some of the assigned ships to go intercept, board and find out what happened.

“Aside, you will realise we had an exercise in illegal fishing and report of arms and ammunition. That’s where we had the unopposed body where one of our ships was able to board and interrogate and of course we were able to discover some seized weapons. Aside, we had the gunnery exercise where we were able to test our weapons.”

Analysing the achievements of the exercise, Jaiyeola said it improved on the synergy between participating agencies adding that the Navy has been able to work with their men in the area of weapon handling and perfecting their art of seamanship.

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