James Holmes

The Gulf of Guinea: Jack Sparrow’s New Haunt?

Pirates have moved from the Gulf of Aden, to the Gulf of Guinea. This should make them easy prey.

Recent years have witnessed a spate of pirate attacks off West Africa. Indeed, the International Maritime Bureau recently released statistics indicating that the Gulf of Guinea has replaced the Gulf of Aden as the world's chief locus of seaborne brigandage. Will Captain Jack Sparrow's shift of theaters prompt European, American, and Asian sea powers to undertake multinational patrols similar to those off Somalia? I doubt it.

For one thing, the Gulf of Guinea can't compare to the Gulf of Aden as a nautical thoroughfare. To see why not, glance at the map. The Gulf of Aden lies along the shortest sea route connecting Europe with trading partners in the Indian Ocean, the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and the Western Pacific. Unsurprisingly, the volume of trade flowing along the Eurasian rimlands, home to many of the world's most thriving economies, dwarfs that bound to and from West African seaports.

If the flag follows trade, fleets are less apt to take station in the Gulf of Guinea than the western Indian Ocean. Fewer seafaring countries have a major stake in safe passage to and from West Africa. Ergo, fewer governments will expend serious resources in an open-ended counterpiracy effort. That's political reality.

On the brighter side, the Gulf of Guinea offers less hospitable hunting grounds for brigands. That means the problem probably won't reach the proportions of Indian Ocean piracy circa 2009. The visuals help explain why.

Together the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and Red Sea resemble a convergent-divergent nozzle. Geography, that is, compresses the sea lines of communication approaching the strait. More constricted waters crowd ships into narrow channels, making it easier for pirates to make the intercept. By contrast, the West African shoreline resembles an elbow. The shape of the coastline allows myriad avenues of approach from the broad Atlantic to regional seaports.

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You only know a ship's origin, its destination (maybe), and any narrow passages it must traverse along its voyage. Since maritime geography doesn't funnel shipping into well-defined sea lanes for the Black Pearl's convenience, the way it does in the Indian Ocean, corsairs must either trust that luck will bring merchantmen their way, or lurk outside West African harbors to prey on vessels entering or leaving port. This is much like the challenge a blockading power faces. To mount a close blockade of enemy coasts, a hostile fleet must prowl just offshore to waylay the fleet it's bottling up in port. The difference is that, unlike the warships comprising a blockading squadron, pirate craft are no match even for the minor navies and coast guards that populate West Africa.

To do their work, in short, raiders must expose themselves to death or capture at government hands. That simplifies the problem for coastal states that want to protect their maritime approaches. For outsiders with a stake in freedom of the seas, equipping and training West African states to help themselves may be enough. If not, then will be the time to let slip the dogs of … er, counterpiracy.