Africa's New Pirate Problem
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio
Ahoueya insists that the Benin navy is improving and that the risk of interrupted shipments of oil in the gulf – and a spike in worldwide oil prices – has decreased. The force supplemented its paltry fleet with two $460,000 U.S. Coast Guard Defender-class speedboats, a gift from the U.S. government. The Nigerian navy launched round-the-clock joint patrols with its Benin counterpart, contributing seven naval vessels to the program. Following Nigeria's example, Benin set up five "anchorage zones," where ships can transfer fuel and cargo under naval protection. And it is awaiting delivery of two high-speed, long-range vessels and two surveillance aircraft, both from France. Last November, Ahoueya and his men achieved their first arrests at sea: A joint patrol captured a gang of eight pirates as they were traveling in a speedboat that had participated in an attack the previous spring.

Ahoueya arranges for me to accompany commandos on an evening patrol in the Gulf of Guinea. Hours later, I'm clutching the gunwale of a 24-foot Defender-class speedboat as it races out of Cotonou Harbor. Ensign First Class Gaston Affaton scans the rough seas from the cramped aft deck, while two junior ensigns, armed with rusty Kalashnikovs, hunker down in the cockpit. Affaton points to the twin 225-horsepower outboard engines that propel the craft. "A couple of years ago, we were defenseless," he tells me, as we bounce at 45 knots past oil-storage tanks and docked cargo ships. "Now we are able to defend ourselves."

The U.S. is concerned that rising piracy in the Gulf of Guinea could not only wreak havoc in the global oil market but also cripple regional economies and destabilize Benin and other fragile democracies. In a region that has experienced civil war, anarchy, and horrific suffering in recent years – think Liberia and Sierra Leone – the U.S. and other wealthy nations have a vested interest in preventing another meltdown that might cry out for a multilateral intervention. Nigeria, too – whose oil accounts for 90 percent of its export revenue and 40 percent of its gross domestic product – desperately wants to reassure the shipping industry that the Gulf of Guinea is safe. Yet getting a handle on piracy will take far more than pledges of cooperation and a smattering of fancy equipment bestowed by France and the U.S. The larger issues driving the crisis – poverty and corruption – remain endemic across the gulf, and until those are dealt with in a forthright way, the prognosis for a long-term solution isn't good.

Darkness has fallen on the Gulf of Guinea, and the lights of Cotonou Harbor twinkle through the murk. The tour is nearly over. Heading back to shore, the Defender comes upon a rust-bucket trawler fishing too close to the port, in violation of Benin law. Spotting the Defender, the crew quickly pulls up its nets. The men deny that they were fishing, insisting that the nets were "stuck" in the water.

Then something unexpected happens. Affaton turns to me and says, "Go inside the cabin, and don't come out." Through the windows, I watch the commandos shake down the fishermen, first demanding cash and then settling for the day's catch. The crew dumps a sizable pile of fish on the bow of the boat, and the Defender speeds back to port. Affaton and his crew appear pleased, laughing among themselves. In the dangerous and unruly waters off the coast of Benin, you're never truly safe from pirates.