A symposium on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea was held in Dakar, Senegal, on 19 and 20 September. The event brought together the chiefs of naval staff of 17 Gulf of Guinea countries committed to cooperative actions initiated in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in June 2013.
The Yaoundé process, which was approved last year at the African Union summit in Lomé, Togo, aims to develop work in common and improve the efficiency of African states in maritime safety and security. At the political level, the process involves the main regional organisations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC). As a result of a common political will to secure the region in order to ensure its prosperity, the process will also implement a regional strategy for maritime safety and security with concrete actions to combat identified threats.
Strategic region, many threats
With over 6000km of coastline and 140 million tonnes of merchandise passing through the western part alone (i.e. a quarter of all African shipping), the Gulf of Guinea is of significant strategic importance. It is one of the world’s major oil producing areas and home to important fisheries. But it also faces many security threats, all of which are potential factors of destabilisation. These range from acts of maritime banditry and piracy to trafficking of all kinds of goods, including drugs and weapons; pollution risks; illegal fishing in highly productive waters; migratory flows and overcrowding of coastal mega-cities. Add to this terrorism, with radicalisation supported by Islamists operating from the Sahel strip.
Facing these challenges, the states bordering the Gulf of Guinea have decided to join forces and intensify cooperation. And the results over the last three years have been encouraging. The Interregional Coordination Centre (ICC) was set up in Yaoundé in September 2014 to implement Yaoundé process actions at the strategic level. This has involved not only collaboration between armed forces — chiefly navies and coast guards — but also collaboration with public agencies in each country.
Two regional maritime security centres — CRESMAC in Pointe-Noire, Congo, for Central Africa and CRESMAO in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, for West Africa — were set up to carry out operational actions. Each is supported by several Maritime Coordination Centres (three for CRESMAO and two for CRESMAC) and at a lower level, the national operational centres. Through these entities and their local networks, the Gulf of Guinea countries are developing maritime monitoring and tracking tools, exchanging information and carrying out joint maritime security actions. As a result, it is now much easier to locate, track and intercept suspect vessels as they can no longer slip, as they did in the past, from one country’s waters or EEZ to another’s.
Modernising the region’s naval forces
In addition to coordination tools and the exchange of intelligence, MSS actions have benefitted from increased investment in naval forces. Many of the region’s navies are modernising their patrol vessels to monitor and protect their vast EEZs. New entities are also emerging. In 2016, Benin, for instance, adopted a national MSS strategy and set up the organisations to implement it.
Operation Corymbe: BPC Dixmude, an Aviso-type patrol corvette and navy commandos (© French Navy)
The Yaoundé process is supported by the European Union, with France a direct signatory. Indeed, Admiral Christophe Prazuck, the Chief of Naval Operations, and Vice-Admiral Emmanuel de Oliveira, Maritime Prefect and Commander for the Atlantic Zone, attended the Dakar symposium after Brest hosted the first seminar in June 2015. “This symposium is an opportunity for all the chiefs of naval staff of the Yaoundé process countries to meet, exchange ideas and define regional MSS actions. It is a tangible expression of the cooperation, since 2013, led by the African states, with support and advice provided by the French Navy,” says Rear Admiral Arnaud Provost-Fleury, Operations Assistant to Vice-Admiral de Oliveira.
West African challenges and the French presence (© French Navy)
France, which concluded in parallel a quadripartite agreement with Spain, Portugal and Denmark in May 2015 to boost European support for African naval forces, has been historically committed to the Gulf of Guinea. Indeed, the regional was once again identified as strategic in the country’s latest White Paper on Defence and National Security. Since 1990, the region has benefitted from a permanent French Navy presence thanks to operation Corymbe. Currently comprising force projection vessel BPC Dixmude and offshore patrol vessel Commandant Bouan, this mission supports the French armed forces ashore in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. BPC Dixmude was in Dakar as part of the symposium. Operation Corymbe also combats illicit trafficking and piracy and offers a significant evacuation capability in the event of unrest in a region that is home to some 400,000 European nationals, including 80,000 French. Operation Corymbe has a long history of cooperation with countries throughout the region.
African Nemo exercises, early September 2017: BPC Dixmude, Commandant Bouan and two Ivorian Navy patrol vessels (© French Navy)
African Nemo exercises
The African Nemo exercises have grown over the years in parallel with the Yaoundé process. “We have been conducting regular exercises with the African navies and African Nemo has become a catalyst for cooperation in support of the Yaoundé process as it facilitates the exchange of information among local operational centres and with the regional level, while the different navies work together on coordinated actions at sea.” The presence of French Navy vessels in the Gulf of Guinea offers excellent opportunities, particularly as they transit between EEZs, to carry out a wide range of training exercises including the inspection of cargo vessels, interception of traffickers, policing of illegal fishing, maritime counter-terrorism, responding to pirate attacks and assistance to vessels in distress. These exercises are used to validate monitoring procedures and coordinated responses involving different countries. “We are working on shared situation awareness, the tracking of suspect vessels through several EEZs and response coordination. We also organise training events on board our ships, focusing on work at sea and collaboration with African navies using elaborate realistic scenarios. These joint exercises improve the efficiency of our operations. This year, joint patrols were carried out by several navies. One such patrol involved the navies of the Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria with the French Navy’s Commander Bouan.” Collaboration is thus expanding and the approach increasingly innovative.
Nigerian Navy sailors aboard BPC Dixmude during African Nemo exercises in September 2017 (© French Navy)
African navies “increasingly efficient”
While France plays a large supporting role, it is at the behest of and coordinated by the African countries. “It is important to understand that the French Navy is a privileged historical partner of the African navies which are, moreover, increasingly efficient. The progress achieved in recent years is undeniable. The region’s navies are modernising, increasing their patrol capabilities and carrying out real missions to combat illegal fishing which is estimated at 40% of the regional catch. While the Yaoundé process has focused attention on maritime security and safety, the Gulf of Guinea countries have clearly made considerable progress. Maritime security and economic prosperity are closely linked. And while we are working together towards our MSS goals, we must maintain the effort “.
It should also be noted that this partnership owes much to the French diplomatic services in the region, not least to their cooperation, advice and support, including the efforts focusing on schools engaged in MSS training, such as ENVR in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, and ISMI in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
Original by Vincent Groizeleau, translated and adapted by Steve Dyson
(© French Navy)