Archive for the 'seapower' Tag

Photo taken by author

Blue isles along the coast of Lagos, Nigeria

On a muggy and overcast day this past March, I set out to the Gulf of Guinea with members from the U.S. State Department in Lagos, Nigeria. It was just past sunset. Our pilot, an athletically built Nigerian with dark skin and a shaved head, greeted us on the pier and welcomed the delegation aboard his Boston Whaler. All of us were overdressed in suits and sweat was noticeably percolating through our shirts.

That time of day is particularly charming in Lagos. The water and the sky interweave in a deep cerulean palette, transforming the landscape into a wondrous countryside.

The smell of stagnant petrol consumed us as we sailed past bulk freighters and crude carriers loading cargo. Containers slammed onto chassis on the adjacent piers and oil sheens along with garbage and debris saturated the waterway. Throughout the channel, campaign billboards promoting President Goodluck Jonathan’s reelection were omnipresent

VOTE JONTHAN FOR EQUITY, INTEGRITY AND GOOD GOVERNANCE.

I ASSURE YOU OF FRESH AIR IN NIGERIA – VOTE FOR ME.

And the most dubious promotion of all: #BRINGBACKGOODLUCK2015, which was a campaign slogan based off #BRINGBACKOURGIRLS. This one did not resonate well in northeast Nigeria.

Off our port bow, donned in orange life jackets, were locals taxiing home together in motorized canoes. They stared at us uneasily as our boat sprinted past their starboard beam. A few yelled in detest when a member in our delegation snapped off a photo with his iPhone.

On the other side of the river, directly across from the commercial shipping terminals were residents of Lagos’ notorious floating slums. Many of the lagoon’s inhabitants are immigrants, who earn less than $2 a day and use the river to dump trash, excrement, and everything else they cannot keep on their makeshift homes. Our guide told us that the people along the sprawling bamboo community subsist largely as fishermen and workers in the nearby sawmills, cutting up timber that floats regularly into the city. They, too, looked perplexed when a boat full of whites drove by at 30 knots.

Image by © GEORGE ESIRI/Reuters/Corbis

Floating slums in Lagos

It took fifteen minutes to reach Takawa Bay at the southern entrance of Lagos harbor. We gazed southeast and saw scores of anchored ships dotted along the horizon like a cityscape at dusk. Our boat idled for a few moments, swaying to and fro in the trough of the seas and all of us were silent. A sea breeze kicked up and the cool air felt good. It was as if at that moment we could sense all of Nigeria’s potential in the idle ships a few miles distant, waiting offshore to deliver cargo and with it, a better future for the people ashore.

Our pilot turned sharply to starboard, sped up and headed back toward Lagos. My shock in Nigeria was total.

Over the past two decades, Lagos and several other ports along the Gulf of Guinea have evolved into a major hub for global energy supplies for North America, Europe, and Asia. With several natural harbors throughout the region – from Cape Verde to Angola – and a coastal terrain rich in hydrocarbons, the countries along this fertile coastline have flourished.

This uninterrupted growth had not come about by accident. Many West-African governments have enhanced their infrastructure, liberalized trade policies, and reduced barriers to emerging transcontinental businesses. As a result the Gulf of Guinea increasingly relies on the seas for their economic prosperity. After all, it’s their only lifeline to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

This transit hub and facilitator to the world, however, is threatened. Despite West Africa’s continuing economic boom, three years ago the Gulf of Guinea surpassed East Africa and became the region with the highest number of piracy attacks in the world. Nigeria is said to be losing a staggering $2 billion to maritime insecurity each year. Maritime experts agree that the nation loses $800 million yearly to unchecked poachers who come to take away fish from Nigeria’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), in addition to about $16 million to oil theft and $9 million to general piracy.

Given the limited number of ships providing security off the West African coast, narcotics traffickers are using West African ports to smuggle and then distribute drugs in Europe. Oil theft and illegal bunkering also continue to rise uncontrollably. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Nigeria loses between 40,000 and 100,000 barrels a day due to theft.

These attacks also tend to be violent. Unlike Somalia, where pirates attack ships transiting through the region, West African pirates typically prey on ships berthed or anchored waiting to berth. These attacks typically occur within twelve nautical miles. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and the Oceans Beyond Piracy Group have shown that more seafarers were killed in the first nine months of 2014 than the whole of 2013, when over 1,200 were affected.

This is a conservative estimate. IMB reported last year that about two-thirds of all West-African piracy attacks go unreported.

Piracy in West Africa are different from those associated with East Africa in a variety of ways. First, unlike Somali pirates who attach ships in transit, pirates operating in and around the Gulf of Guinea prey on ships berthed or anchored within territorial waters. As noted by the Oceans Beyond Piracy Group, this changes the character of operations tremendously. Pirates have access to infrastructure and robust intelligence ashore, which provide them with the content and structure of ships operating in the area. It is thought they have access to information shared with the maritime sectors in the region.

Ghana Navy Moves to Counter Piracy and Drugs Smuggling in Gulf of Guinea

Ghana Navy Moves to Counter Piracy and Drugs Smuggling in Gulf of Guinea

Robbery, kidnap and ransom, and oil theft are the three main piracy models being monitored in West Africa. Pirates hijack vessels and often force ship captains to navigate the vessel to an unknown location where the cargo is lightered to another vessel or a storage facility shore side. Eventually, the oil finds its way to the black market or in some cases, back into the mainstream supply to be sold domestically or in the global marketplace.

If threats of piracy are left unchecked, the economies of West Africa will suffer. The waters off Nigeria, Togo and Benin are deemed a “war risk area,” thereby pushing up insurance costs and deterring maritime traders from even entering ports.

Most scholars and military planners would agree the root of the problem in Nigeria stems from state corruption, lackluster job creation, and a hollow security force. With only a couple dozen ships and a poorly trained military facing Boko Haram on their eastern flank, it seems unlikely that Nigeria and the surrounding nations will be able to control this problem alone. Regional actors are taking promising steps, but their coordination efforts are not developed enough to thwart terrorist networks.

Nigeria received two 1700 ton P-18N offshore-patrol vessels in 2014, which are based on the Chinese Type 056 corvette. Built in China and fitted out in a Nigerian shipyard, the 312-foot warships complement the Okpabana and the Thunder, former US Guard WHEC class cutters transferred in 2014 and 2011, respectively.

The revised Cooperative Strategy in the 21st Century (CS-21R) aptly points out that the sea services must continue working alongside partner security forces to combat terrorism, illicit trafficking, and illegal exploitation of natural resources through initiatives such as the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership and the Africa Partnership Station. We should not delay in executing this blueprint – the moment is ripe for changes to West African maritime security. On May 29th, Muhammadu Buhari will succeed Goodluck Jonathan as the President of Nigeria. The election of Buhari has created a potential breakthrough for American diplomacy and with it, a chance for us to work hand-in-hand with the largest nation and economy on the continent. Through public-private partnerships, along with interagency work by USAID, America has the opportunity to establish a better long-term relationship with Nigeria’s incoming executive government.

Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) or destroyers are not needed to assist our partners in Africa. Afloat Forward Staging Bases, coupled with Joint-High Speed Vessels, Patrol Craft and Littoral Combat Ships can fulfill this mission with ease and bring the necessary equipment to the inshore zones that need the most attention. Utilizing UAVs like ScanEagle and Firescout will help discover patterns of piracy and provide security for oil platforms and anchored vessels throughout the region.

Navy SEALs and Special warfare combatant-craft crewmen (SWCC) should liaise with the Special Boat Service (SBS), a special operations unit of the Nigerian Navy. Their mission is focused on littoral and riverine operations, including reconnaissance and surveillance; covert beach reconnaissance in advance of an amphibious assault; recovery or protection of ships and oil installations subject to hostile state or non-state action; maritime counter-terrorism; and offensive action. In order to strengthen partnerships and protect international interests in the region, this must be done year-round.

If we don’t step in, then expect China to dominate the region with short-term investments that will fail to lift African nations out of poverty and conflict. The imbalance in trade is staggering. According to John Burnett of U.S. News and World Report, China made $75 billion in investments from 2000 to 2011 compared to our $14 billion. Given the number of natural resources throughout the region, it would be foolish for American business to sit out as the needs of economies throughout West Africa grow. But security is paramount for potential investment from the West.

Ensuring secure littoral sea lines of communication within Nigeria’s territorial seas require trust and over time we can help alter West Africa’s perception of the West. Like Americans, Nigerians are proud and stubborn. They want to solve problems on their own. Unfortunately, more than anything, West Africa needs a naval presence to help shore up their ongoing problems with piracy. Our Navy can and should do more, especially with an incoming president bent on ending corruption and improving Nigeria’s security.

This will be a war of attrition, but it’s a fight worth undertaking. After all, success in Nigeria means potential success for Africa, which translates to economic benefits throughout the continent.



It seems inevitable when the fiscal environment wanes toward austerity that there are calls for reducing forward presence in those regions of the world that concern us most. Some have argued that our forward presence is too expensive in relation to the immediate threat. They would advocate pulling back our deployed maritime forces and allowing our allies to take on a greater share of their own defense. These critics further imply that the Navy is deployed everywhere, all the time, without a clear mission other than simply being out and about.

Does the Navy have a counterargument to this view, and if so how do we characterize it? The U.S. Navy has long maintained that our strategic value to the Nation is predicated on our ability to operate forward. We have long used the phrase forward presence to emphasize this posture and convey both a robust operational tempo and a readiness for any crisis. We characterize it within our Maritime Strategy as a “core capability.”1

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