Nigeria and several Western allies have begun annual joint naval drills in the Gulf of Guinea to combat piracy and other criminal activities, officials said Wednesday.
The area is a major maritime trade route stretching from Senegal to Angola, but a recent surge in piracy attacks has prompted shippers to call for a more robust foreign naval presence.
Armed kidnappings of seafarers hit record levels in 2020, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with the region accounting for 130 out of 135 attacks worldwide.
Pirates kidnapped 15 crew members earlier this month from a Dutch-owned chemical tanker after boarding the vessel off the coast of Benin.
Nigerian navy spokesman Suleman Dahun told AFP the annual multinational exercise code named “Obaganme Express” kicked off in Lagos on Saturday.
The five-day exercise “is aimed at improving tactical interdiction expertise in the fight against piracy and other maritime illegalities within the Gulf of Guinea (GoG).”
Officials said Nigeria was deploying six ships, two tugboats, two helicopters as well as a Nigerian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft alongside US and French warships.
The exercise was taking place in the respective navies’ areas to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Nigeria’s senior navy officer Jason Gbassa said the “exercise comes against the backdrop of piracy cases, illegal fishing, illegal exploration of mineral resources, proliferation of small arms and light weapons and other local and international threats within the gulf.”
US Consul General Claire Pierangelo said insecurity in the gulf was of common interest to all nations engaged in the region.
“Although maritime threats in the GoG have continued to evolve and are increasingly difficult to address, a secure maritime environment is integral to other dimensions of security; it is the backbone of healthy commerce, as it promotes economic development,” she said.
Denmark said earlier this month it will dispatch a naval frigate with dozens of marines onboard to the Gulf of Guinea to help deter pirate attacks on commercial vessels.
Denmark, a major shipping nation, has been advocating for a stronger international naval presence in the region following the increase in pirate attacks there.