Piracy on Africa’s Western Coast: tackling a previously forbidding terrain

A gradual rise in acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has set alarm bells ringing at the headquarters of shipping magnates across the world. As international efforts to tackle piracy off the Horn of the east coast begin to take affect, the increasingly-sophisticated maritime criminals have looked elsewhere.

Not only in the Gulf of Guinea, but along the West African coast, incidences of piracy are on the rise. At the same time, littoral states in the region have neither the resources nor the financial clout to nip the problem in the bud.

Tackling modern-day piracy requires a coordinated international effort
Tackling modern-day piracy requires a coordinated international effort

The Atlantic is far more forbidding ocean terrain than the Indian yet with improving vessels, logistical capacity and weaponry, pirates are feeling braver. Backed by multinational crime syndicates, piratical acts are not simply the result of desperate local fishermen.

Organised piracy on Africa’s west coast can be dated back to the 15th century, when the Barbary corsairs attacked European shipping and trade posts along the Moroccan shoreline. In 1434 Gil Eannes, on the orders of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, rounded the previously unpassable Cape Bojador (a headland on today’s Western Sahara), pushing European exploration further than before.

Prior to 1434, Cape Bojador had assumed mythological impenetrability amongst Europeans
Prior to 1434, Cape Bojador had assumed mythological impenetrability amongst Europeans

For the remainder of the century the Portuguese worked their way along the West African coast, harried by the corsairs for much of the way, whilst negotiating both the savage tidal currents and the awkward politics of encounter with indigenous African tribes.

In succeeding centuries, acts of piracy in West Africa were predominantly perpetrated by Europeans against Europeans. The era of privateering saw greater incentive to tackle enemy ships along the treacherous coast, though many favoured the gentler tidal patterns of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Today, West Africa offers a potential haven to pirates far more appealing than in the past:

1) It has a large, impoverished population which can be put to use by multinational criminal organisations,

2) It is poorly policed by naval forces,

3) It has large expanses of vacant coastline that can be used for staging posts,

4) It has plenty of hidden coves and bays from which to launch a stealthy attack.

If the international community fails to tackle this growing problem soon then another security crisis will ensue. Large exports of oil, minerals and food produce depart from West African ports. As soon as they start getting taken, people will definitely sit up and take note.