The hunt for smugglers off the Nigerian coast | Africa | DW | 21.04.2014
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The hunt for smugglers off the Nigerian coast

Smugglers and pirates endanger the shipping route at the Nigerian coast. Nigerian soldiers enter a German frigate as part of a naval exercise dubbed Obangame Express in order to practice tackling that threat.

The cargo ship MV Stannis left the Libyan port of Benghazi weeks ago. It passed the Strait of Gibraltar and then travelled south. Now the freighter, which has seen better days, is heading to the port of Lagos in Nigeria.

Captain Dirk Smith stands on the bridge, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. Then the radio crackles: the Nigerian frigate Thunder asks for the vessel data and about the cargo. Captain Smith answers that his load is general cargo, machines and equipment parts, but he knows that this is a lie. The MV Stannis is smuggling weapons.

The ship's real name is Hamburg, not MV Stannis, and it is not an old cargo ship but a modern frigate. Furthermore, Dirk Smith's actual name is Dirk Steffen, and he serves as a captain in the German navy. The Hamburg vessel and Captain Steffen are only pretending to be arms smugglers as part of the Obangame Express naval exercise. In it, 20 countries practice operations against smugglers and pirates at the West African coast. The main objective is to work through communications, the command chain and boarding procedures relating to the entry of foreign ships.

Occupying the ship

A man stands on a bridge and holds a phone handset men on a ship (Foto: Drechsel/Kriesch/DW)

The German soliders act as arms mugglers during the navy exercise Obangame Express

A speedboat, manned with ten soldiers, is lowered into the water from the Thunder. The speedboat ploughs through the waves and goes around the MV Stannis. Then it nears the vessel from behind and heads for the pilot ladder. Two soldiers stay on the speedboat. Meanwhile, eight soldiers, armed with assault riffles, climb the unsteady rope ladder.

On board the suspicious freighter, the soldiers, dressed in black, secure the passages and the stairs and keep the crew members at bay. Carefully, they push forward to the bridge, where they meet Captain Dirk Smith. The imaginary arms smuggler stands in their way and demands that they leave "his" vessel.

"Turn around," the soldier shouts repeatedly. When Captain Smith fails to comply, the soldiers push him to the ground and put him in handcuffs.

Questionable freight

A soldier with a machine gun stands in front of a door men on a ship (Foto: Drechsel/Kriesch/DW)

Nigerian soldiers have been trained for the boarding operation by German soldiers

Two decks below, a pair of Nigerian soldiers secure another two actors and ask for their papers. Captain Smith and his guards arrive and disappear through bulkhead into the ship. Shortly after that, a soldier returns to the deck with another crew member of the MV Stannis.

The Nigerian boarding team searches the cargo in the hold, discovering cardboard boxes bearing pictures of weapons. Once the soldiers emerge from the hold, Captain Smith is told he must steer the ship into the port of Lagos. The boarding team stays on board, and the exercise is finished.

"That was a professional performance," said Commander Steffen, adding that it was apparent the team had undergone intensive training.

Soldiers and a man with a blue-white checkered shirt hold miltary badges men on a ship (Foto: Drechsel/Kriesch/DW)

Military badges are exchanged after the excercise is completed

But the officer still sees potential for improvement, saying, "They came on board without water and medical equipment."

Such maneuvers can last several hours or even the entire day. "Then the team reaches the limits of its capacities. Also, if someone were to be injured, they wouldn't have the option of caring for the injuries with their own equipment."

The simulated mission in 30-degree-Celsius heat helps convey the importance of addressing oversights like these, rather than waiting to uncover them during a real operation against smugglers in the Gulf of Guinea.

New tactics

The Nigerian soldiers said they appreciated the Obangame Express simulation. "Three of the German soldiers were with us in the camp and trained us for the past two weeks. They showed us tactics that were not yet part of our operations," said one of the boarding soldiers, who has served in the Nigerian army for 12 years. "This is going to help us, and we thank them for that."

Before the Nigerian soldiers leave the Hamburg vessel, military insignias are exchanged, and group photos are taken. Then the boarding team returns to the speedboat to ferry to the Thunder. The hunt for real smugglers in the Gulf of Guinea resumes.

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