COTONOU, Benin -- Piracy is a serious concern in the Gulf of Guinea along the southern coast of Western Africa and the United States is working with Beninese officials to increase their capacity to combat international piracy within their territorial waters there.
United States Africa Command, working hand in hand with the U.S. Embassy in Benin, is delivering a new patrol vessel, associated maintenance and launch facilities and specialized training to the Beninese Special River and Maritime Police Unit, or USPFM based on its official name in French - l'Unité Spéciale de Police Fluviale et Maritime.
The USPFM operates similarly to how those in the United States might think of the U.S. Coast Guard and plays a key role in maritime policing in Beninese waters in the Gulf of Guinea.
“The Gulf of Guinea has some of the highest incidents of maritime piracy in the world and prior to receiving the vessel and other aspects of the program, the maritime police had little capacity to patrol or interdict,” said Deputy Political-Military Affairs Officer Matthew Briggs from the U.S. Embassy in the Beninese economic capital of Cotonou. “These efforts substantially increase the maritime policing capacities for patrolling within territorial waters of Benin. This provides local and regional benefits since, much in the same way we look at the fight against terrorism in the north, the fight against piracy is similar in that you can’t just expect it to stop at the borders, especially because those don’t really exist on the ocean.”
In addition to a new, 33-foot patrol boat recently delivered, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District managed the construction of an improved boat launch facility capable of launch and recovery of the new, larger vessel and a new, modern boat house and maintenance shop.
The boat house and maintenance facility were delivered just prior to COVID and the USPFM have been using those facilities to support their regular operations and maintenance needs since then. The new launch was completed earlier this year, replacing what had been a simple gravel ramp that was not capable of handling operations of the new vessel.
The improved boat launch is larger, incorporates poured concrete to facilitate smoother operations and has erosion control features to ensure its resilience.
“These are really nice, modern facilities that we provided for launching and maintaining vessels,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District Project Engineer Chris De Pooter. “I think they will provide great benefits for the community as a whole. It’s a really good project and I’m proud we could be a part of it.”
De Pooter noted this project also had positive impacts locally beyond the direct benefits to USPFM’s capabilities.
“I feel like part of the intent of what we're doing there with our construction projects is also educating and providing resources to the people in the places we work, and I think we did a good job on that with this one,” De Pooter said. “The contractor hired local construction workers and simply the education of construction methods and safety with the Beninese workers on the project was more impactful than some people might realize.”
He noted that a lot of training in trades took place on site, with Beninese workers learning earthwork, horizontal and vertical concrete work, electric, plumbing, carpentry and more. The team also incorporated a cofferdam into construction, which is where a temporary dry space is created and reinforced during construction to allow for work to take place where there would normally be water.
The embassy said the support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in this project, and others also funded by U.S. AFRICOM, plays a big role in their efforts in Benin.
“We really recognize the ability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be able to come in and support infrastructure projects, like with the maritime facilities program,” Briggs said. “Also, many of the schools and healthcare facilities we’ve partnered on have been in more rural communities or areas experiencing economic challenges where violent extremist organizations may operate that we see in the north. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ programs like this help move forward our larger goals.”
In addition to the facilities for the USPFM, Briggs is referring to some of the Humanitarian Assistance, or “HA,” projects the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District partners with AFRICOM and the embassy on in Benin.
Recently, clinics were turned over in more remote areas in northern Benin that play a key role in improving birthing outcomes and better documenting births. School and classroom renovation projects have been completed in the past as well, with several more in the planning stages.
De Pooter noted that while the facilities for the USPFM were different than the usual projects the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supports in Benin, he finds all of the work there very rewarding.
“It’s different than our typical HA's, which I like, because to me, I feel like you can see a more direct benefit with traditional HA projects like schools and healthcare facilities,” De Pooter said. “But these facilities for the new patrol boat and their maritime policing operations are going to provide great benefits as well and I’m glad we could be a part of this effort with our AFRICOM and U.S. embassy partners.”