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Maritime Safety and Security Seminar one piece of AFRICOM effort

“We believe that security of the seas is essential for global security. There is a relationship between security of the sea, the ability of countries to govern their waters, a country’s prosperity, stability and peace. The oceans of the world are a common bond between the economies and countries of the world. Seventy percent of the world is water, 80% of the world lives on or near the coastline and 90% of the world’s commerce is transported on the ocean. Individual nations cannot combat maritime problems and crimes alone …”

— U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa

This week’s Maritime Safety and Security Seminar in Benin is just one example of how U.S. Africa Command, its components, agencies and partner nations work to combat piracy and other maritime security challenges off Africa’s 18,000 miles of coastline. That meeting kicked off yesterday and continues today, with top leaders from the Economic Community of West African States and the Economic Community of Central African States. The meeting is a continuation of one held last year where the two organizations and their country representatives talked about ways to work together to improve maritime safety and security, especially in the Gulf of Guinea.

Countering piracy and illicit trafficking is one of AFRICOM’s top priorities, according to Gen. Carter F. Ham. In his recently released 2012 Posture Statement outlining AFRICOM’s goals and priorities, Gen. Ham highlighted the importance of maritime security.

“The free flow of commerce through the global commons is essential to U.S. economic and security interests,” he said. “Piracy and other maritime crimes negatively impact the security and freedom of access for all nations to critical waterways and continue to threaten U.S. security in the waters off the East and West coast of Africa.”

The command’s two primary anti-piracy and maritime security programs are Africa Partnership Station (APS)  and Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP), both lead by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, based in Naples, Italy.

An amphibious assault vehicle with 3rd Platoon, Delta Compay, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, moves out to the USS Whidbey Island, March 20 at Onslow Beach aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Thirty-six Marines with the platoon conducted reintegration exercises from March 19 – 22 in preparation for their deployment with the Africa Partnership Station 2012 this year. Read a story about their preparation. (Photo by Sgt. Bryan A. Peterson)

APS, in its fifth year, involves Navy ships that visit our African partners to conduct training and exchange information. The Navy likens it to a “floating university.” This year’s APS kicked off in January and includes the USS Simpson, the USS Fort McHenry and the HSV Swift, along with some 19 African countries plus partners from Europe and North and South America. Recent APS engagements include combat lifesaver training in Cameroon, and a 27-day ship visit aboard the USS Simpson for sailors from Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo and Togo.

The goals of APS are to deter piracy, discourage illicit trafficking of drugs and persons and impede drug smuggling.

AMLEP, on the other hand, includes actual law enforcement operations with partner nations. U.S. forces team up with regional navies and coast guards to patrol and enforce their own territorial waters in order to combat piracy, illicit trafficking and other maritime crimes.

Click the links below to learn more about these and other maritime security initiatives:

2012 AFRICOM Posture Statement

AFRICOM fact sheet on APS

AFRICOM fact sheet on AMLEP

APS Facebook page 


A trip to the fish market, Benin-style

(Note: Staff Sgt. Olufemi Owolabi, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs, is blogging from Benin where he’s covering the Maritime Safety and Security Seminar hosted and facilitated by U.S. AFRICOM and the Africa Center. The seminar brings together nations of West and Central Africa to discuss maritime safety issues, including ways to combat piracy and illicit trafficking. Femi got to visit the fish market during a break on Monday. We’ll feature his coverage from the meeting tomorrow here on our blog.)

An overview of the fish market in Cotonou, Benin. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Olufemi Owolabi/U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs.)

I was in Benin about 200 miles away from where I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, but I couldn’t go there because I needed a visa.

Instead, a trip to the Benin port of Cotonou made me feel like I was back home again.

The name “Cotonou” means “the mouth of the river of death” in the Fon language. At the beginning of the 19th century, Cotonou (then spelled Kotonou) was merely a small fishing village. According to the U.S. State Department,  the economy is still based on the sea, with a modest fleet that provides fish and shrimp for local subsistence and export to Europe.

More than 2 million people live in the Cotonou region, with about 770,000 in the city itself. The official language of Benin is French. Other main languages spoken in Cotonou include Fon, Aja and Yoruba language.

Yoruba happens to be my native language, which made me very comfortable taking a trip to a local fish market.  I was also able to talk to a tour guide, a motorcycle taxi driver who speaks broken English very well.

Broken English is another version of English language spoken among some African indigenes, especially in the west, and it’s a contraction of the English language.  It literally means you can break the various parts of the English language into smaller chunks without losing its meaning.

We communicated in broken English, and he decided to take me to the market on his motorbike, which is not a typical motorcycle used in the United States. Here, motorbike (called “zim,” which is short for “take me quickly”) is also a mode of commercial transportation.

We decided to go specifically to a fish market, as seafood is a common delicacy for the inhabitants of Cotonou.  We went to where the fish were being sold to retailers and wholesalers immediately as the fishermen came right off the boat.  It was filled with thousands of people, just like I remembered: a typical market in this part of the world.

When we entered the gate of the market, the stench of dead fish filled the air. It became even more unbearable as we went further into the market.  My tour guide, Anise, tried unsuccessfully to haggle the price of a basket of fish with at least five sellers who refused to beat their prices down to meet Anise’s demand.

Taxi driver and tour guide Anise haggles with a fish seller at the Cotonou market. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Olufemi Owolabi/AFRICOM Public Affairs)

Finally, Anise and a vendor agreed on a price. Despite the entire basket being sold for what was probably less than a dollar, what amazed me was the enthusiasm radiating from these sellers simply to win a customer.  Every time Anise priced the fish and they felt the price was too low, they would leave the scene and, in a few minutes, they would reappear. They were always back to convince Anise to pay a little bit more so that they could close the sale.  Anise was adamant every time.  When he finally closed the deal with the last vendor, Anise, surprisingly, told the seller he had no money.

Anise explained to the fish seller that he would have to ask me (“his friend”) if he could borrow some money. He was referring to me as his friend.  He turned to me and asked: “My guy, you get money for pocket?” he asked me in broken English.

I replied, “How much do you want to borrow?” He said he needed 1,000 CFRA (about $2).  I dipped my hand into my pocket. I fumbled a little bit as if I was searching my pocket because I wanted to make sure I didn’t reveal the 10,000 CFRA (about $20) I had with me.  I found the money and gave it to him.  He paid the vendor, who said he had no change and had to go back into the crowd to see if other sellers might help him break the money.  Other sellers, oftentimes, feel reluctant to lend money to one another because they might need it too whenever customers pay with larger bills.

Anise followed the seller everywhere he went looking for change.  As Anise followed the fish seller, I watched the thronged market and wondered how people survived everyday doing this business.  Two elderly women almost engaged in a fistfight over a customer, simply because the customer talked to one of them first, and they both agreed on the same price. Since their baskets of fish were a foot away from each other and there was no witness, the altercation was settled by the customer, who benevolently bought from both sellers to prevent “hell from breaking loose.”

On our way back to the hotel, Anise explained to me the reasons he chose his current job and to work in the area surrounding our hotel.  For one thing, it attracts richer customers.  Dignitaries in Benin and foreign customers, like the French and Americans, mostly frequent it.  The area helps boost the income and overall standard of living for taxi and commercial bike riders.

It then became clearer to me that though, most times, our visits to the continent are official-business oriented, our visits also indirectly impact the local citizens.  Anise was able to feed his family, who lives about an hour from the hotel, and a local fish salesman was also able to earn his wage. By the way, the 1000 CFRA that I gave Anise at the market was our already-agreed-upon cost of transportation to the market, and other places we went that day. I gave him another 1000 CFRA when we arrived at the hotel, and we both exchanged phone numbers.  Anise left with a smile and said I could call him anytime I needed a ride.

Africa Snapshot: Benin

Interested in learning more about Africa? Watch for updates in our ongoing series that delivers a quick intro about an African country.

Map of Benin

Africa map highlighting Benin (Source: CIA Factbook)

Today we bring you a snapshot of Benin, where the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are meeting this week to discuss efforts to improve maritime safety and security in the region.

Where is Benin? Benin is a small country in West Africa – about the size of Pennsylvania. Its coastline is on the Bight of Benin, part of the Gulf of Guinea.

Royal roots: Dahomey, a prominent West African kingdom, once ruled the land that is now southern Benin. The kingdom of Dahomey rose in the 15th century and ruled for centuries. The French took over the territory in the late 19th century. When the colony became independent in the 1960, the area adopted the name Dahomey again as the Republic of Dahomey. The name was later changed to the Republic of Benin.

Leading the way to democracy: In 1991, Benin underwent the first successful transition in Africa from a dictatorship to a democracy. Then-Prime Minister Nicephore Soglo was elected the first president. (Today he’s the mayor of Cotonou, Benin’s largest city.)

Rising youth population: Of the 9 million people in Benin, about 45% are 14 years old or younger.

Religion: Benin is one of the few African countries where the majority of people practice indigenous religions. Voodoo is practiced along the coastal area.

Malaria woes: This mosquito-borne disease is the No. 1 killer in Benin. Read about the government’s combined efforts with UNICEF to help enlist citizens in preventative measures (UK’s Guardian).

U.S. partnerships: Benin works with the U.S. on various exercises and trainings, such as African Partnership Flight(APF). APF is a two-week, military-to-military regional engagement event. Service members from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal and the United States participated in classroom instruction and hands-on aircraft training recently in Accra, Ghana.

Benin flag

Benin flag (source: CIA Factbook)

Piracy: Attacks by pirates are on the rise in West Africa.  “According to the IMB Annual Report, a total of eight hijackings, ten vessel boardings, and two other piracy attacks were reported near Benin in 2011, compared with no incidents in 2010.” (From One Earth Future Foundation) Since the recent piracy began, ship arrivals at the Port of Cotonou have dropped by 70 percent, according to Benin’s defense minister, Issifou Kogui N’Douro, in an Associated Press article: “UN says piracy off Africa’s west coast is increasing.”

Sources: CIA Factbook, “The Encyclopedia of Africa,” “Africa 2011,” Associated Press, The Guardian, “The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy.

Keep reading the blog for more from Benin and the Maritime Safety and Security Seminar happening there this week.

AFRICOM Supports Tunis Assistance Center for Muscular Dystrophy

Lieutenant Colonel Carmichael, U.S. AFRICOM J5 Humanitarian Assistance program manager wrote:

Lieutenant Colonel Carmichael, U.S. Africa Command J5 Humanitarian Assistance Program Manager, and members from the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), members from the German contracting office Gauff Ingenieure GmbH Co and members of Best Engineering, a Tunisian firmed hired by Gauff Ingenieure GmbH Co to conduct projects in Tunisia visited the Tunis Assistance Center for Muscular Dystrophy, January 18, 2012. This project is one of seven new projects selected by the U.S. Embassy and funded through AFRICOM J5 Humanitarian Assistance Program in support of post revolution Tunisia. The estimated cost of the 7 programs is approximately $3 million. The center provides medical, social, and educational assistance for patients afflicted with muscular dystrophy and also provides counseling and awareness for family members. The new site will consist of a new two-story building with a flat roof, handicapped toilets, water supply, sanitary works, heating and will offer a one stop shop facility where patients can see a myriad of specialists at one location. The government of Tunisia has partnered with the Association des Myopathes de Tunisie (AMT), to run this project. AMT provides assistance, education, and jobs for muscular dystrophy patients, as well as provides national attention towards the needs of the patients while championing disability rights. All members of the association are volunteers. After the meeting, the team traveled to the home of the director, who is herself afflicted by the disease, and further discussed the project.

See Group photo of the team 


Supporting Maritime Security in Ghana

Phillip J. Heyl, Chief, Air & Maritime Branch wrote:

I just returned from a very successful planning meeting (January 23-27, 2012) with the Petroleum Security Coordination Center (PSCC) in Ghana — the agency responsible for developing a strategic security plan for their oil and gas industry. We have been asked to support their effort by conducting a table top exercise to test Ghana’s Maritime Strategic Plan, address security concerns related to the off shore oil industry, and assist the Government of Ghana in developing a whole of government approach to maritime security challenges.

The AFRICOM/NAVAF (U.S. Naval Forces Africa) group presented the proposed “Ghana Oil Security Table Top Exercise Design Concept” that leverages the experiences gained and lessons learned by the U.S. government and oil industry during the Deep Water Horizon incident. At a series of discussions between the U.S. delegation and the Ghanaian government, the design concept was approved by the PSCC. The success of this endeavor will further the Government of Ghana’s ability to respond to potential environmental and security threats and will foster an improved economic and overall security posture in Ghana and the region.

View pImagehoto: Phil Heyl of U.S. Africa Command discusses the upcoming Ghana Oil Security Table Top Exercise with Commodore Asante and Captain J O Kontoh of the Ghanaian Navy in Accra, Ghana on January 24, 2012.  For more blogs, visit〈=0

Gabonese Military HIV/AIDS Program

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Nicole Dalrymple, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs Office wrote:

The nation of Gabon in Sub-Saharan Africa straddles the equator and is one of the least densely populated countries in Africa. The nation, which is about the size of Colorado, has an estimated population of 1.54 million people, which is smaller than some U.S. cities.

The week after Thanksgiving I had a chance to visit Gabon while supporting a senior leader visit by Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, U.S. Africa Command’s deputy to the commander for civil-military activities. The visit’s main focus was maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea and regional cooperation, but we got an opportunity to visit the Gabonese military’s HIV/AIDS program at Camp Baraka in Libreville.

The HIV prevalence rate in Gabon is estimated at 5.9 percent, with approximately 49,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. In the Gabonese Armed Forces, roughly 5,000 members, the HIV/AIDS prevalence is estimated at 4.3 percent.

We were told by staff at the U.S. Embassy that HIV/AIDS prevalence in Gabon is notably higher among young people and military personnel, which makes programs like Gabon’s Anti-AIDS Military Program (PMLS), established in 2002, very important. PMLS provides training, medical care and support, and outreach and educational activities targeted at vulnerable kids, orphans, widows and the military.

The U.S. Government has been supporting Gabon’s Anti-AIDS Military Program since 2003 through the DoD HIV/AIDS Prevention Program (DHAPP). Support has included funding for the acquisition of laboratory equipment, reagents and supplies related to the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS. In fiscal year 2011, DHAPP provided $300,000 in funding support to Gabon.

Our visit to Camp Baraka included a ceremony where Ambassador Eric Benjaminson, the U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, joined by Ambassador Holmes, presented a $5,600 donation in equipment for the center. The donation included a refrigerator for medical supplies, printers and a computer.

During his remarks, Ambassador Benjaminson said that the office equipment was meant to assist the Gabonese military’s HIV/AIDS program as it works to create “new, progressive messages to promote HIV/AIDS awareness” and support activities “that will change any stigma or discrimination related to HIV/AIDS among military troops or civilians.”

The program also included a tour of the center and two special presentations. Members of the Gabonese military sang an original song that incorporates anti-HIV/AIDS messages that highlight the importance of knowing your HIV/AIDS status, getting tested, practicing abstinence, being faithful and using condoms. The song was followed by the Camp’s HIV/AIDS drama troupe performing a skit that put HIV/AIDS on trial.

The effects of HIV/AIDS extend beyond health, family and social impacts. The epidemic also threatens a nation’s security by reducing military readiness, limiting deployments, and hindering a military’s ability to support regional response and peacekeeping activities.

Reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS is a priority for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) because of the disease’s destabilizing effects on a nation and the readiness of its military.

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Africa Endeavor 2011 Kicks Off

Sergeant Daniel T. West, Africa Endeavor Public Affairs team wrote

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Africa Endeavor 2011 kicked off June 12, 2011 much like many other training exercises do. There were a few bumps in the road, a few hurdles and a number of technical details to straighten out.

With 34 African nations, five western nations and five international organizations participating, that was to be expected.

Since the opening day featured a schedule packed brim-full with classroom topics for participants, the loss of power just as class was set to start provided the largest obstacle of the day. With a great effort by the Gambian hosts of the exercise, though, it proved much less daunting than it could have been, providing only a small delay for the start of classes.

Today’s menu of classes ranged from information security to network setup and antenna theory. While some provoked more questions than others, all provided valuable information for the delegates attending.

Captain Marchel Ledder, of the Netherlands, proved pleased with the reaction he provoked in his class on information security, even though the questions didn’t come right away.

He didn’t get much reaction when he finished his class, and the dreaded final slide asking for questions popped up, he said. When he continued teaching, involving the students, he began what he described as a nice discussion, talking about what points they’d gotten across.

The discussion continued with questions ranging from the complex to the basic. All the questions were valid, he said, and reflected a broad variance in the levels of experience with technology in his audience. He added that they were genuinely interested in the subject matter.

While his audience included representatives of several countries, he couldn’t recall which ones.

“It was a bit of everyone,” he said. “It’s hard to focus on the country because I see people. I focus on their faces, not their uniforms.”

They all came with one purpose, to learn — from each other as well as the instructors.

One group from Mali came as observers in advance of another operation scheduled for 2012 there. Their true lessons didn’t necessarily take place in the classroom, but rather across the entire exercise. They observed to see what will go wrong and what will go right, to see the tools they need to make their operation a success.

It’s been very good, said Lieutenant Colonel Abdolay Sidibe.

It’s also good that many of the countries participating in Africa Endeavor will also be participating in Flintlock 12, next year’s exercise, he added, walking toward their tent.

Even after lunch, a time dreaded by many a student, participants remained alert and watchful, ready to learn whatever they could to improve their communications both within their own militaries and with their partners across Africa.

No start is perfect, and this one had its flaws.

Still, it started well, and only promises to improve with age.

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