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!'"