Seeking greater military involvement in Africa, the German navy is participating in the "Obangame Express" military exercise in the Gulf of Guinea. Training local soldiers in search vessels plays a big role.
More than 30 warships from 20 countries are engaged in major maneuvers along the West African cost. In addition to 11 West African nations, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands as well as Denmark, Turkey, Brazil and the United States have dispatched ships, making the training maneuver one of Africa's largest.
Of the non-African participants, Germany has dispatched the most vessels: one frigate, one corvette and two supply vessels with more than 400 military personnel. The ships and their crews are located outside the Nigerian port of Lagos where they are waiting for the sea phase of the military maneuver to begin on Saturday.
Keen US interest
"Obangame Express is designed to build maritime security, capacity and capability in the nations within this region - at a regional, cooperative level," said US Navy Capitan Nancy Lacore, who has had a role in organizing this year's maneuvers.
The United States is keenly interested in seeing West African maritime forces handle difficult situations without oversea support. That's the reason why the US High Command for Africa (US-AFIRCOM) launched the "Obangame Express" series of military exercises four years ago. One of these maneuvers takes place every year along the West African coast but never has the participation been as high as it is this year.
It's also no coincidence that the Gulf of Guinea is the site of the exercise and that Nigeria, one of Africa's largest oil exporters, is heavily involved. The country, which is hosting this year's maneuver, is providing many military facilities and warships.
Proud of good relations
West Africa and particularly Nigeria are confronted with numerous problems, according to Nigerian Rea Admiral Samuel Alade. "First of all, we have oil theft, which has an international dimension," he said. "We also have an issue of piracy and people who fish illegally in our waters. These are challenges in the Gulf of Guinea that we feel we have to tackle very quickly."
The admiral was especially proud of the good relations between the Nigerian and German navies. Germany, he said, has not only delivered ships but also trained soldiers. That Germany has dispatched four ships to the military maneuver, he added, is further proof of the good relations between the countries and militaries.
Although its warships are anchored off the coast of Lagos while waiting for their orders, some crew members are already actively engaged on land. For more than 10 days, a special unit has been training Nigerian soldiers about 20 kilometers outside the city. Three so-called boarding soldiers trained to search ships have been dispatched from the Eckernförde naval base in northern Germany to Lagos.
Integrated months ago into preparations for the maneuver, the unit is now training together with soldiers from Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo as well as Spain and the US to learn how to search ships and provide medical care to wounded comrades.
While part of the group practices applying bandages in an air-conditioned classroom, the boarding soldiers stand sweating between wooden walls in an overheated room designed to simulate the interior of a ship. The armed teams feel their way through the imaginary ship, searching one room after the other, and provide backup support. They need to be able to identify cardboard targets as friend or foe within a fraction of a second.
A German officer whose name can't be disclosed observes the scene. After 10 days of joint training, his initial doubts have largely disappeared. Not only are the Nigerian boarding soldiers well trained, but Nigerian members of the Special Boat Service (SBS) are also well equipped. "Their boats, for instance, are powered by 250-PS motors," he said.
In these rubber dinghies, the SBS team members chase suspicious vessels in pursuit of oil thieves or pirates. "This isn't fun when it's real,” one member of the SBS team said. The unit with about 200 soldiers is among the Nigerian army's special forces. In the six years of its existence, the soldiers have boarded and searched numerous boats.
Grateful for support
Other maritime units still lack this experience, on the other hand, and are grateful for the practical support provided by German and the US teams.
"Everything is fine; we came without anything but were equipped so that we can now search ships," said one soldiers from Ghana.
A colleague from Nigeria added: "We have come together here to share experiences - I really appreciate it."