TRANSCRIPT: Telephonic Press Briefing on Obangame Express 2019.

Africa Regional Media Hub

Press Briefing on Obangame Express 2019 with U.S. Navy Captain Eric Conzen, Commodore of U.S. Military Sealift Command Europe and Africa and Exercise Director for Obangame Express 2019, and Nigerian Commodore Di Olisemenogor via Teleconference,
Lagos, Nigeria

March 13, 2019

MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Africa and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today’s call will focus on exercise Obangame Express 2019. We have two speakers for today’s call and they are U.S. Navy Captain Eric Conzen, who is the Commodore of U.S. Military Sealift Command Europe and Africa and the Exercise Director for Obangame Express 2019. We are also pleased to be joined by Nigerian Commodore Olisemenogor and he will also speak as well.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Captain Conzen and the Commodore, and then we will turn to your questions. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Captain Conzen.

CAPT. CONZEN: Thank you very much. First of all I would like to thank you all for joining us today. I’m excited to be here, talking about Obangame Express 2019, an exercise that brings together 33 countries from the Gulf of Guinea nations, Europe, North and South America, as well as several regional and international organizations.

The majority of the region’s economic activities rely on the safe and lawful use of West African coastal waters, which is why exercise Obangame Express is such an important exercise. The skillful participation reinforces the fact that maritime security is a collective effort. It is my third year traveling down to the Gulf of Guinea from Naples, and every year I’m amazed at the collective effort of all participants to continue to successfully increase the scope and complexity of the exercise. The current exercise spans five operational areas and covers more than 2.3 million square kilometers. Exercise Obangame Express will focus specifically on counter-piracy, energy security, counter-illicit fishing, and counter-illicit trafficking. This year the exercise will also feature training in search-and-rescue operations and advanced medical training. The exercise will include a wide variety for all participating forces, including at-sea ship boardings and queries, air operations, communications drills, and regional information sharing.

To enhance cooperation, detection capabilities, and capability to respond, all objectives of the exercise, Gulf of Guinea nations seek to ensure narcotics traffickers are deterred, fisheries trades are protected, and trade waters remain free of piracy, allowing for global trade to continue unhampered and thus enhancing overall economic stability.

Before we start taking questions I’d like to note that this exercise, in various forms over the years, has proven successful at increasing partner nations’ capabilities. In the past, we’ve had multiple examples of real-world applications when African nations have redirected military ships conducting training during the exercise to handle real-world events. We consistently see the training objectives reinforced as countries intercepted the suspect ships, collected evidence, and turned everything over to the authorities at shore.

I know I speak for the entire exercise team when I say we’re looking forward to once again working with our African partners to deter criminal activity at sea.

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: I am Commodore [INAUDIBLE] Olisemenogor, the fleet commander with [INAUDIBLE] naval command. I am here representing the Flag Officer Comand Rear Admiral Obed Ngalabak.

First of all, I want to thank you for bringing us to this table to have this discussion, for better public awareness on the issues concerning Obangame Express. I would say that if not for anything, Nigeria has benefitted a lot from this exercise since its inception, because over the years we’ve had a lot of criminal issues in our waters, ranging from piracy to smuggling and poaching and other maritime criminal activities.

[INAUDIBLE] back here in Nigeria, conducting several operations to ensure that these activities are curtailed. But suddenly we are noting that most of these criminal activities are transnational in nature, and it is not possible for Nigeria to go it alone. So the bringing and coming of Obangame Express, organized by the U.S. NAVAF, is a blessing to us because it has really helped the Gulf of Guinea countries, Nigeria, [INAUDIBLE], to be able to work as a team now, to reduce and sometimes completely eradicate these criminal activities.

So it’s a good thing for us; we appreciate the job the organizers of this exercise have done for us, and we will continue to partner with the U.S. NAVAF to ensure that the spirit behind Obangame Express, which is togetherness, continues to rise from one level to the other level, better level. So on the whole, I thank you and am open to any questions. If there’s anything I need to say more, I am here with you. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much to you both for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

So with that, we’ll go to our first question, which comes to us from U.S. Embassy Abuja. They have a listening party going on there, and when we go ahead with your question if we could just have the journalist say his name and outlet. Thank you.

Over to you at the Embassy, Abuja.

QUESTION: What are the specific areas of cooperation between Nigeria and the U.S.? Then, question number two: since the inception of the cooperation, how many Nigerian naval personnel have been trained so far?

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: Okay, I think I should take that. Yeah, the level of cooperation between Nigerian Navy and the U.S. NAVAF has been very, very encouraging. An area of training they have really assisted in training our personnel in various areas ranging from processes and procedures that is in line with international best practices to arresting of vessels, evidence collection, and they have also assisted in training us in the areas that are alien to our special forces. As I speak to you nowthere are a lot of activities going on to bring our boys up to date on approaches to vessels search and boarding, so that at the end of the day we don’t end up trying to do something that is beneficial to [INAUDIBLE]. So the partnership has really benefitted the forces in human capacity development and other areas.

As for the number of persons that have been trained so far, I can’t give that number specifically, but I can tell you that a large number of our officers or [INAUDIBLE] have benefitted immensely by this process and Nigeria as a whole, I can tell you that the level of training we have acquired has really helped us in reducing some maritime criminal activity, which is to the benefit of the entire mission. Thank you.

CAPT. CONZEN: And this is Captain Conzen. I will add that, so the coordination between the U.S. Navy and the Nigerian Navy, Nigeria is the host this year as we’re coming to you from Nigeria, from Lagos, and they offer up their base to host the exercise control group, the group that I’m in charge of, and we’re able to run the entire exercise from north to south, using the infrastructure provided to us by the Nigerian Navy, for which we are very appreciative.

As to the number of personnel, I will say that it is early on in the exercise. We are in the beginning phase, what we call the “command post exercise,” that is more training- and classroom-oriented, and the opening ceremony is actually tomorrow, and then we will move into a field training exercise, which is when the ships get underway and we begin training at sea, and that starts tomorrow. That’s all.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. For our next question we will turn to our Consulate General in Lagos, and again, we have some journalists listening there, so if you could identify yourself and your outlet when you ask the question. Over to our Consulate General in Lagos.

QUESTION: Yes, my name is Richard [INAUDIBLE] from [INAUDIBLE] Radio 95.7 FM Lagos. I would like to ask the Nigerian Commodore how many of the Nigerian [INAUDIBLE] are participating in this exercise, and how many of your men are also taking part in this?

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: Right now the ships that will actively participate [INAUDIBLE] will go to sea and take part actively in the exercise are eight in number. However, we have some other smaller ships placed on standby on short notice so that if they are needed, they can take part in the exercise, so cumulatively, I can comfortably tell you about 15 ships standing by for the exercise.

QUESTION: How about THE personnel?

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: The number of personnel, I can say we have [INAUDIBLE] over 500, because each ship has its own complement. Some have up to 200 personnel, some have 100, some have fifty-something, but I didn’t really take time to calculate the number of personnel on all the ships before coming here, but cumulatively over 500.

QUESTION: Okay, my name is [INAUDIBLE] from [INAUDIBLE] Lagos. You said that the [INAUDIBLE] Nigeria alone cannot handle the [INAUDIBLE] issue, and that this collaboration [INAUDIBLE]. About that training, what [INAUDIBLE] and how can [INAUDIBLE] benefit from this collaborative endeavor? [INAUDIBLE]

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: That’s why the training, this collaboration with the U.S., has really helped us to establish a good information-sharing platform with our sister African nations. Today, if there’s any criminal activity going on in maybe Gabonese water or maybe Togolese water, it is very easy for us to get information and [INAUDIBLE] vessel of interest is running away from their own waters and so it’s easy for us to get this information and [INAUDIBLE] the vessel and arrest it.

Recently we [INAUDIBLE] vessels from Nigerian water into Beninois water based on this agreement, and the vessels were arrested. So now that the criminals know there is no hiding place, I think it’s a bonus to all of us.

About the information-sharing, we look at the area concerning the human capacity building and also mutual trust. Before now, these [INAUDIBLE] the francophone, the English, the Portuguese, and other nations, we don’t really find [INAUDIBLE] interacting with ourselves. But with this Obangame Express, we now understand ourselves better. So that mutual trust has really been established, that once we [INAUDIBLE] here in Nigeria, the other countries normally fall in place and will get it done as a team. So it’s a very good thing for all the forces.

The other area I can say we have really benefitted is the area of [INAUDIBLE] synergy in operations. So if we can’t get to that particular area [INAUDIBLE] to that country to handle that matter, and that is done to our own benefit. So I think it’s a good thing, that is in addition to human capacity development, that information-sharing, and the synergy, mutual trust. I think that is also good.

CAPT. CONZEN: If I may, I would say that…

QUESTION: [INAUDIBLE] this collaboration has helped you apprehend for some time now.

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: Yes, there are a lot of, if you say particularly during Obangame Express itself, during an exercise like this, then it will not only be appreciated, but after the exercise, the benefit of this exercise has led Nigeria [INAUDIBLE] that I remember, but was running away from Nigerian water into Beninois water and it was [INAUDIBLE] and arrested, and there’s a whole lot of [INAUDIBLE]. Within the last three months in Western Naval command areas, I think we have arrested over fifty-something vessels based on this collaboration with other nations.

MODERATOR: Alright, for our next question we will go back to our listening party at U.S. Embassy Abuja. Please state your name and outlet when you ask your question. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. My name is [INAUDIBLE] and I write for the Business Day Newspaper, Abuja Bureau. My question is what is the Nigerian contribution to the global maritime society, and what has it cost Nigeria in terms of the investment made in this exercise?

Then the second question is this: the list of [INAUDIBLE] in the activities of pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are [Unclear] coordinated efforts you have made so far. I would ask, is the coordination really making impact in the way you are exercising it, or do you need to reform your process?

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: Yes, let me start from the last one. The [INAUDIBLE] criminal activities involving [INAUDIBLE]. The criminals are always looking for ways to [INAUDIBLE], so as we are strategizing to stop their activities, they are clearly walking on their own path. But the good thing is those are the areas where we are looking at doing exercises like this, in those new areas, those are areas that they think they are trying to get the upper hand. So on the whole, there’s a whole lot of jobs done that [INAUDIBLE] because if not for what we are doing now, criminal activities [INAUDIBLE] will have really, really, really increased. It is difficult for them now to really operate the way they wanted; you know, they can’t operate in our waters. So I think we are following them up, we are upping our game on [INAUDIBLE] this kind of forum that Obangame Express has provided. I think there’s room for improvement, there’s room for improvement, actually.

Then to go back onto which of Nigeria’s Navy [INAUDIBLE] maritime security, I think mostly we have [INAUDIBLE] from the time of [INAUDIBLE] operations in Liberia, up to the case of Lebanon, up to the present, we have really contributed a lot. The safety of our seaways alone is enough to promote good international trade. The Nigerian Navy has ensured that our maritime environment is as safe as possible for international trade to go on. And I think I can boast that within our waters, the ships are safer now, especially with the Naval Command I can see the concentration of shipping activities in Lagos area. If the place was not safe, you will not see these kinds of activities going on. So we have contributed to keeping the sea line safe [INAUDIBLE] the international community in their trades and ours, too. So I think we have really promoted the international economic prosperity for the nation—for the world.

MODERATOR: Captain Conzen, did you have anything to add?

CAPT. CONZEN: What I would add is, so the exercise is the ninth iteration of the exercise, and every year we take the lessons learned, not only of how we run the exercise but the things that pass in the years that go on, and incorporate them into the exercise. There’s a range of illegal activities in the Gulf of Guinea, which underscores the need for cooperation, and really cooperation and communication is the goal of theis exercise. This all just proves that no single nation can accomplish the mission on its own; it’s the information-sharing, as we’re doing in the exercise, that is vital to deterring the criminals who seek to disrupt the global trade flows.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We have a quick question submitted in advance from a journalist in Senegal, who actually asked if the Senegalese can join the U.S. Army. Is that a possibility?

CAPT. CONZEN: I will have to get back to you; I’m not sure.

MODERATOR: Alright, thank you very much. And with that, I think that is all the questions that we have time for. Speakers, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?

COMMODORE OLISEMENOGOR: Yes, on behalf of the Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral [INAUDIBLE], I want to extend our appreciation to the organizers of this event, first of all for choosing Nigeria as the host nation for this year’s exercise, and I want to also appreciate other countries that are not sponsoring but they are participating in training of our personnel, countries like Netherlands and some other countries; Denmark and some other friendly nations. They have really done well, and we encourage them to continue to partner with us.

We are also developing our capacity to ensure that by this time next year, we are going to present better, we are going to come up better than what we have done so far. So I think it is a great thing having all the countries in Nigeria, and I wish all of them a very comfortable stay and [INAUDIBLE] in all their activities you are going to carry out during the exercise, and whatever area that is, that Nigeria will be [INAUDIBLE] assuring the community that we are there, and we will do our best to ensure that things work as planned. Thank you.

CAPT. CONZEN: As I mentioned in my discussion at the beginning, this is the third year I’ve done it out of the nine years that the exercise has been going on, and it’s my last. And over the last three years, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth each time in the complexity of the exercise, and it is a testament to the hard work of the host nations, and I wanted to thank Nigeria for hosting this year, and all the countries that put this together. The U.S. Naval Forces Africa is sort of the veneer on the top of a hardworking team that each year puts this together, and every year they add something that they’ve learned over the previous year or something they couldn’t get to before, that we can add in, as underlined by the search-and-rescue that we’ve added this year and the medical training, so I look forward to many more years ahead of working together with the partners to make the waters off the Gulf of Guinea safer and to free up trade.

MODERATOR: I want to thank both our speakers for joining us and thank all of you for participating today. Again, a reminder that today’s call is on the record. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at afmediahub@state.gov. A digital recording of today’s call will be available for 24 hours. I will turn it back over to AT&T to provide instructions for accessing the recording. Thank you very much.