ABOARD THE USNS SPEARHEAD IN THE GULF OF GUINEA — Team members wore different uniforms, spoke separate languages and relied on hand signals to communicate.
Made up of forces from Cameroon and Nigeria — neighboring countries that have historically shared little beyond a border — the special operations team inched forward together through the tight passages of this Navy catamaran during a recent vessel boarding exercise.
The drill, part of a larger Navy-hosted exercise held over several days in April, offered a glimpse of how local forces might work together to stop the kind of maritime crime that plagues this region.
It’s one of several signs of change in the Gulf of Guinea, where nations that have struggled to police territorial waters are embracing new offers for help. Many are working with a U.N. agency to streamline chains of authority among their security forces. Others, like Gabon, have sought help from the Navy in assessing their maritime forces. And countries along the most vulnerable stretch of coastline are receiving aid from a new European Union project aimed at protecting mariners.
Meanwhile, participation in this annual exercise, called Obangame Express and hosted by the Navy, has continued to rise, with countries like Ivory Coast and Angola joining this year.
“New countries, countries who formerly didn’t even have a platform to bring, are showing up with a ship,” said Capt. Nancy Lacore, the exercise director.
There’s a good reason behind the new sense of urgency. Maritime crime, long a scourge of the Gulf region, has escalated in the past year. Ships reported 46 armed robberies in Gulf waters last year — a likely undercount, experts agree — with many of them violent. Attackers took oil, crewmembers’ belongings and, more recently, crewmembers themselves, selling them back to their companies for ransom.
Illegal fishing, meanwhile, is estimated to cost Gulf economies $350 million a year, while drug trafficking through territorial waters is worth as much as $1.2 billion in illegal goods, according to the EU.
Concerns about disruptions to the high volume of oil and merchant traffic in the region make Gulf security a concern for the U.S. and European countries, said Byron Smith, the Navy’s director of Africa engagement for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa in Naples, Italy.
“Those are not only U.S., but global interests,” Smith said. “You interrupt the oil flow, then you have an impact on pricing and on the global community. You impact the free flow of shipping and trade like what’s happening on the east coast of Africa; it has an impact.”
Though often compared, maritime crime on Africa’s West coast differs significantly from the attacks near Somalia that made headlines several years ago. Most incidents in East Africa take place in international waters, making them true pirate attacks. West African attacks typically occur in territorial waters, making them armed robberies and the responsibility of individual states.
The number of governments on the crowded coast of West Africa discourages a single response or shared policy.
Somalia’s weak, western-backed government, by contrast, gives international forces a free hand to operate in its waters, resulting in a combined naval flotilla and free pursuit of pirates on land, which has contributed to plummeting numbers of attacks in recent years.
And while commercial ships operate off Somalia with armed security teams, in the Gulf of Guinea, each country provides a security team in its waters. Exchanging security crews each time a ship crosses a maritime border is seen as a waste of time for many ships, said Jon Huggins, director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a group that monitors piracy in Africa, and results in less trust between the teams and mariners.
“You kind of had a blank slate,” Huggins said of Somalia. “On the west coast, you have all these little chunks of territorial waters, which makes everything really kind of difficult.”
The response by the U.S. and the EU has been to “build capacity” — the term for improving a country’s security forces by training them, donating equipment and reforming their operations — and to encourage the region’s states to work together.
The Navy began training in the region in 2007 through its Africa Partnership Station, an annual event in which trainers pull into various ports for exercises. The Pentagon purchased coastal radar equipment and speedboats for local forces in 2008. And in 2010, the Navy began hosting the Obangame Express exercise, which focuses on boarding and maritime tracking and coordination.
Yet tactics are easily undermined by political decisions, as well as corruption or simple inaction. In Nigeria, for example, analysts often see connections between government officials and organized crime rings, especially those that target oil for theft.
And there is virtually no legal deterrent. According to Oceans Beyond Piracy, no suspect detained for robbery at sea has ever been prosecuted for it.
Many observers hope a code of conduct signed last June in Cameroon by leaders of 25 nations along the Atlantic Coast signals a new commitment. Nations agreed to share information and create mechanisms for reporting suspicious vessels and incidents, and they pledged to create an anti-piracy coordination center in Cameroon.
Many are now working with the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, on assessments of their capabilities and ideas for reforming their maritime forces. The organization will help implement parts of the agreement, developing standards across the region, providing education and seeking international donors to cover expenses.
Other support is coming from the EU project, known as Critical Maritime Routes in the Gulf of Guinea, which will spend about $6.3 million training coastguards and developing information sharing networks in a stretch of nations from Togo south to Gabon.
Gabon, meanwhile, is working bilaterally with the U.S. for an assessment of its own forces and interagency structure. President Ali Bongo Ondimba made that request directly to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus during the latter’s visit to Libreville in August.
Smith, the director of Africa engagement for the nearby Navy command, was recently in Libreville with Vice Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the Navy’s fleet for Europe and Africa, for a reception with Ondimba and to provide an update on the assessment, he said.
“At the end of the day, it needs to be a Gabonese product … we’re just trying to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Smith said.
Back on the Spearhead, the Nigerian-Cameroonian special operations team finished its boarding drill and moved on to the next phase of its exercise — storming a pirate base on a nearby beach. Whether such a team is a viable option for either country remains to be seen. For now, and the next few runs of Obangame Express, it may merely be a tool for training two forces at once. Change happens at its own pace in the Gulf, Huggins said.
“As in everything, it doesn’t move as fast as you’d hope.”