Africa's New Pirate Problem
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio
The root of Benin's piracy problem is not in Benin but rather several hundred miles to the east, in Nigeria's Niger Delta. Since the 1990s, rebel groups have raised untold millions of dollars through antigovernment actions against that oil-rich country – kidnapping and ransoming expatriate oil workers and "bunkering," or siphoning fuel, from the pipelines that crisscross the region. In 2009, the Nigerian government reached a cease-fire with the most important of the resistance groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, in which it agreed to make cash payouts to insurgents who put down their arms. The delta went quiet for a while. Soon, though, many MEND operatives broke the accord because the money from the government never arrived and the potential profit in crime was too large. "Somalia was an object lesson," says Sam Olukoya, a BBC correspondent in Nigeria. "They could take criminality to a very high level."

A brutal year for piracy in Nigeria was 2010, with at least 25 vessels attacked or hijacked off the coast. The hijackings threatened to disrupt oceangoing commerce in the world's 12th-largest oil producer, which provides the U.S. with about eight percent of its oil imports. The Nigerian navy responded by improving its intelligence-gathering network and strengthening its fleet with nine additional patrol boats and two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The U.S. government, alarmed by the threat of a spike in oil prices, increased its efforts to train the Nigerian navy and dispatched naval speedboats to key junctions in the delta's creeks, monitoring suspicious boat traffic. A year later, pirate attacks off Nigeria had dropped to just 15.

Unfortunately, the pirates hadn't disappeared – they'd just transferred operations to Benin. Fernand Maxime Ahoyo, then chief of staff of the Benin navy, had predicted this would happen. "I warned that if we didn't do something quickly to improve security, there would be chaos," he says. "But nobody took care in what I was saying."