Africa's New Pirate Problem
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio
Last year, while the world focused on the problem of piracy in the waters off Somalia, a similar phenomenon was taking place, almost unnoticed, here in the Gulf of Guinea, one of the world's primary oil-shipping corridors. Over the course of 2011, 30 oceangoing ships – oil tankers, mostly, bearing fuel to be sold in global markets – were hijacked in international waters off Benin. At least 15 more were raided and robbed in the vicinity of the country's 12-mile territorial limits. Between May and September, the peak of the piracy wave, "ships were being attacked every night," says Anders Ostergaard, chief executive officer of Monjasa A/S, a major supplier of fuel to ships traveling in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as the company that had leased the Ocean Mariner. Last summer, Lloyd's Market Association, a consortium of maritime insurers, placed Benin in the same high-risk category as Somalia.

In Cotonou, Benin's economic capital, I pay a visit to Major Regis Ahoueya, commanding officer of the Cotonou Naval Base. Ahoueya is hunched over a computer screen, watching a dozen black blips inch across a field of blue and green. Blue means territorial waters, green international, and each blip represents a vessel off the coast. The program, known as Automatic Identification System (AIS), allows Ahoueya to track the movements of every vessel in Benin's waters in real time. Ahoueya says that before AIS, donated by Nigeria last summer, the navy was "flying blind."

Ahoueya speaks idiomatic English, the result of a year's training with U.S. Marines in Quantico, Virginia. "I came back from the States and wanted an assignment that was a little more physical," he tells me. "And I found it." Cotonou was becoming an international shipping hub. Lagos, in Nigeria, had grown corrupt and unmanageable, and ships coming through the Gulf of Guinea preferred Cotonou for picking up and delivering crude oil and other commodities. "Cotonou became the new mecca," says Ostergaard. "We went there all the time, and everybody was happy."

That was, until the piracy wave began and Benin's naval fleet, which consisted of outmoded Chinese patrol boats and two Boston Whalers, was unable to protect itself against armed marauders. In 2011, Ahoueya participated in five seaborne rescue attempts – all of them unsuccessful – including two in one day. "For six months, I couldn't sleep," he says. "They're calling you, 1 am, 'I'm attacked!' – 2 am, 'I'm attacked!'"