Gulf of Guinea – Obangame Express 2015: Two steps forward. One step back

Between 19 and 27 March OBANGAME EXPRESS, African Partnership Station’s annual exercise since 2011 took place off the coasts of West African states between Côte d’Ivoire and Angola. It is the fifth iteration of this exercise that has grown from nine participating nations in 2011 to 23 this year, including 12 Gulf of Guinea countries. Crucially, the framework for OBANGAME EXPRESS has changed since the last exercise. On 25 June 2013, 22 West and Central African countries signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a document that obliges the member states to co-operate on preventing and prosecuting all forms of maritime crime and illicit activities at sea and to share information between each other. OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015 was the first exercise in this series to rehearse and test the new structure and, where they existed, procedures.

Broadly speaking, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) provides for a hierarchical information sharing and co-ordination structure that includes all countries from the two regional economic communities – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The YCoC structure envisages an Inter-regional Co-ordination Centre (ICC) for the strategic level, regional reporting centres for both ECOWAS and ECCAS and below those, for operational co-ordination, Multinational Co-ordination Centres (CMC), grouping the Gulf of Guinea countries into five zones: A, D, E, F and G.

One of the key differences of this year’s OBANGAME EXPRESS was that it took place off all the Gulf of Guinea states’ coasts rather than in a single exercise area. This made for a realistic setting regarding the command and control as well as logistical challenges for the region’s navies.  It also allowed the YCoC structures to be tested with realistic timeframes, as target vessels transited through the Gulf of Guinea nations’ waters. It also added another layer of complexity to the already very demanding schedule of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. Was it too much, given some of the modest outcomes of last year’s exercise? Was it an exercise in window dressing? Or is the Gulf of Guinea on a good path towards becoming part of the “global network of navies” as the exercise’s officer in tactical command, Commodore John Rinko (USN), predicted during the opening ceremony in Accra, Ghana? The truth, as always in this region, is probably somewhere in between.

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