Women leaders are at the center of the maritime operations centers (MOCs) and training execution during Obangame Express 23 (OE23), the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western and Central Africa, Jan. 30, 2023.
Nigeria, the host of OE23, maintains the largest navy in the Gulf of Guinea, and in the middle of its bustling, Lagos-area MOC is SLt. Peace Waatsi Bitrus. She’s the 2IC, also known as the second-in-charge or the assistant officer-in-charge. She is responsible for leading the team that oversees the regional monitoring and reporting of suspicious vessels at sea — particularly, her team is looking for indications of piracy, illegal fishing, trafficking and oil bunkering.
During OE23, her team manages MOC communications with vessels who are conducting maritime scenarios against these types of transnational threats.
Bitrus, from a small village in Taraba, was the first person in her family to join the military. She did it on a whim after seeing an advertisement online, but ended up enjoying it. And now, four years later, she’s starting to find her footing as a leader.
“Generally as an officer, you’re put in the position to lead, wherever you are,” said Bitrus. “You can’t lead when you don’t know what to do, so first you have to equip yourself to know about the job. You need to know exactly what you’re supposed to do, so that you can lead others effectively.”
She’s not only a leader at work though. Her military service has inspired other women in her family to join the navy as well. She says before she joined the military she was fragile, but after completing training, her family noticed that she had a different perspective on the world.
“Because I joined, it’s opened the minds of others to feel like there’s a possibility that they can do this too. It made my female cousins feel like ‘wow, if she can do it then that means I could too,’” said Bitrus. “I have a cousin right now in training. I helped her register and encouraged her, and she obliged. Now she is going through training and will be done next month.”
Similar to Bitrus is U.S. Navy Senior Chief Boatswain Mate Fredricka Phillips, who also had no familial connection when she spontaneously enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserves 19 years ago.
“My mother was like you’re going to college, getting a job, or doing the military,” said Phillips. “I went to college first and became a teacher, and then I thought, ‘let me try this Navy thing that she [her mother] kept talking about,’” said Phillips.
Phillips, who is a special education teacher in Detroit, Mich., said she found teaching rewarding, but wanted to try something different. Nearly two decades later, the military ended up working out well for her, and over the years, she’s taken assignments in African countries like Djibouti and Uganda.
Now, she’s in Nigeria supporting OE23’s exercise control group. Phillips is a part of the team that manages the daily execution of training scenarios for the exercise’s participating nations spread across five maritime zones along Africa’s western coast.
“Normally, I have a behind-the-scenes position throughout the exercise, but this time I had the opportunity to manage fueling at two bases, track personnel, and write nightly reports about the daily training scenarios,” said Phillips. “In the exercise control group, I’ve built many relationships and the liaison officers from partner nations are building them too.”
Bitrus and Phillips both don’t know how long they’ll stay in the military —Bitrus says she hopes to serve for at least a few more years and Philips will soon be eligible for retirement. Either way, they’re both happy and having fun in their careers right now.
Women, Peace and Security initiatives are an integral component of efforts to enhance African partner capability by enabling U.S. security cooperation to better leverage the contributions of both men and women.
OE23, one of three NAVAF-facilitated regional exercises, provides collaborative opportunities for African and U.S. forces, and international partners to address shared transnational maritime concerns. NAVAF’s ongoing maritime security cooperation with African partners focuses on overcoming the challenges of maritime safety and security in the region.
The exercise takes place across five zones in the southern Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Guinea – stretching from the West African island of Cabo Verde to the Central African shores of Angola, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
The U.S. shares a common interest with African partner nations in ensuring security, safety, and freedom of navigation on the waters surrounding the continent, because these waters are critical for Africa’s prosperity and access to global markets.