GULF OF GUINEA - In the dark of night, dozens of oil wells are spitting orange flames. They are the only things to be seen on this jet-black sea. This area south of Nigeria is one of the largest offshore oil fields in the world.

There are no lights on the deck of the Latouche-Treville either. The French frigate is silently patrolling the ocean. On this June night, in the deep waters off Port Harcourt, the battleship is patrolling a 200 square kilometers area. The area is rigged with traps: abandoned derricks, secondary platforms, primary platforms and pipelines binding them together like a spider web, over thousands of kilometers. On the navy maps, the wells of French oil company Total look like big coins.

The Latouche-Treville is engaged in “informal conversations” with the French companies in this area but the frigate wants to be able to patrol without having to report to anyone. It doesn’t answer the calls of foreigners asking for identification. “It’s the law of the jungle, here,” says the officer of the watch. The oilrigs are violating international laws by drawing a 20-kilometer (instead of the authorized 500-meter) security perimeter around their platforms, which is guarded by private military companies. “The guards are very nervous. Insecurity is very high,” says the officer.

In these warm waters where Africa’s wealth transits, ghosts are prowling: mercenaries in armored speedboats, navigating with their lights off; pirate boats with their identification devices turned off; illegal fishermen; oil, weapons, drugs and human traffickers. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), off the coast of West Africa, 966 seafarers were attacked by pirates in 2012 – over 200 of them were taken hostage. There have been 70 attacks since early 2013 in the Gulf.

On June 13, oil tanker MT Adour was attacked off the coast of Togo and taken to Nigerian waters. The assailants – a dozen men with Kalashnikovs – were not able to siphon the oil tanks, which were empty. They settled for the fuel the boat was using, but also took the captain hostage, along with his second in command. He was released as soon as the boat reached land, but his colleague was only freed on June 18, in Nigeria, while the Latouche-Treville was escorting the tanker.

The Gulf of Guinea is one of France’s defense priorities. The country has a constant operational presence in the Gulf of Guinea – the “Corymbe” mission. For the first time since early April, an anti-submarine frigate is at the forefront of this surveillance mission. When it was launched in 1990, Corymbe was only meant to provide punctual assistance to ground forces. But since 1996, the region has become increasingly dangerous and the French navy has been patrolling it full time, with the help of an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft based in Dakar, Senegal.

Although the French ministry of defense wouldn’t present it this way: the frigate is in fact the fourth French base in Africa, along with Dakar, Libreville in Gabon and Djibouti. There are major French interests in the region to protect: there are as many as 1,500 companies and 90,000 French nationals in the western sub-Saharan area. Most of them are in the coastal cities of the Gulf of Guinea, says Mathieu Le Hunsec, author of a book on the French navy presence in Africa. This is where a quarter of France’s oil supply comes from.

The region’s ports also support bases for military operations in the Sahel. The port of Cotonou in Benin is where the uranium extracted by French nuclear giant Areva in Niger leaves from. The port of Douala, Cameroon, is where all the logistics of France’s military presence in the Central African Republic leave from. The port of Dakar in Senegal, is the support base for the French military operations in Mali.

Pirates, mafias, and rebel militias

Intelligence, military cooperation with neighboring countries... – the mission covers a very large maritime perimeter from Senegal to Congo. “Our goal is to keep the violence down to a level where it can be  – more or less – kept under control. We don’t want to the situation to deteriorate without us being aware of it,” sums up Latouche-Treville Commander Xavier de Vericourt. In case of a crisis, it is the Corymbe frigate that will evacuate French nationals from the region. The Latouche-Treville also carries the equipment for a naval commando squad – the special forces of the French navy – that can be dropped off at sea if need be. Elections are a good indicator of the regional stability for the Corymbe staff. They are currently looking very closely at the situation in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Piracy, which is spreading all the way up to the Ivory Coast, is becoming more and more violent. The pirates have changed their methods: they have gone from being economic predators to taking hostages. A recent example is the June 4 attack against the Bourbon Arethuse, an offshore tug supply vessel. “The pirates were looking for expats,” says Commander Vericourt. There were two 20-meter long speedboats with a dozen of very organized armed men in “uniforms” on board – the assailants opened fire to take control of the ship. Luckily, the expats had had enough time to barricade themselves in a safe room.

The Nigerian sailors who didn’t have time to barricade themselves were left unharmed. With nothing to plunder, the pirates left, and found two other ships to attack: the C-Viking and the Miss-Kayla. The frigate located the two pirate speedboats 5 kilometers away, drifting with their lights off.

A “voluntary naval control” has been established in the Gulf of Guinea, led by the French navy in Brest, France. The Corymbe frigate advises the other French ships or the boats “of interest” if they signal their presence. The militarization of the area seems unavoidable. “If there are no controls or no presence in the area, people will take over the region,” says Commander Vericourt.

Since 2006, the U.S. naval forces has been involved in supporting local militaries, coast guards and mariners under its African Partnership Station initiative to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. The U.S. has provided patrol boats to every country in the region. France is undertaking similar actions in Equatorial Guinea where it has opened a naval academy. With the help of other partner countries such as Israel, China and Russia, the coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea are trying to build their own navy.

It’s only recently that these countries became aware of the necessity to do so. In February 2009, Equatorial Guinea’s presidential palace in its capital city Malabo, located off the coast of Cameroon on Bioko Island, was attacked from the sea. Other such attacks have targeted banks in Cameroon or supermarkets in Port-Gentil, Gabon as well. They were orchestrated by pirates, mafias and rebel militias.

Senegal, Liberia, Cape Verde, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Ghana… The Latouche-Treville has seen around 15 ports in the first four months of its mission.