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.

Spain Seeks to Hide Problems with Gibraltar Disruption: threatens rift with UK

The UK has lodged a formal complaint to Spain, accusing border authorities of disrupting entry into the British protectorate of Gibraltar. Stories of young children and pensioners being forced to wait up to six hours in boiling cars before being permitted across the border after increased vehicle searches has reinvigorated a long-standing dispute over territorial sovereignty.

It is convenient that Spanish authorities should decide to employ this harassment now, based on the feeble pretense that a new offshore artificial reef could encourage smuggling. In the wake of a disastrous train crash in the northwest of the country, and amidst dire economic turmoil and frequent evidence of government corruption, it is unsurprising that the Spaniards should reignite the Gibraltar debate in a bid to hide their woes.

Given the unpopularity of Mariano Rajoy’s government, and its conservative political stance, it is more surprising that pandering to nationalist sentiment over Gibraltar has not been employed more recently.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and between 1779 and 1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar
British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar

Spain has been persistent in its claims that Gibraltar belongs to the mainland and, at its worst, closed the border to vehicles between 1969 and 1985. Yet these claims are infused with hypocrisy for one simple reason. Namely, that Spain has similar possessions along the North African coast.

The exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are to Morocco what Gibraltar is to Spain. Geographically part of the African continent, the territories have been under European control for centuries.


Ceuta was, indeed, the location of one of the most chivalric battles in history, when forces of King John I of Portugal captured the city in 1415, following which his three sons (including Henry the Navigator) were knighted for their heroic deeds.The Union of the Crowns (of Spain and Portugal) in 1580 saw Ceuta pass to Spanish control and it has remained that way since.

Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta
Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta

Melilla, on the other hand, was captured by Castilian forces in 1497 as the Reconquista spilled over Spain’s borders. Despite frequent skirmishes and sieges involving a plethora of Moroccan tribesman and dynasts in the succeeding centuries, Melilla has remained part of Spain.

And, like Ceuta, it is a part of Spain, having been populated by Spaniards who have necessarily imbued the territory with their traditional culture. The same can be said for Gibraltar which, as its population will tell you, is just as much a part of Britain as London.

Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost
Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost

These territories may be outdated remnants of bygone imperialism, of which both Spain and Britain remain rightfully proud, yet their cultural and social make-up has come to defy their geography.

The needless bullying tactics employed by Spain’s crossing guards will serve no purpose in changing what has become territorial reality and will certainly provide no respite to the more serious challenges facing the Iberian country today.