The Gulf of Guinea

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I undertook research in the Sahelian ”landlocked” region of West Africa. In connection with my studies and later consultant assignments I also got to know some of the towns and cities along the Atlantic coast known as the Gulf of Guinea. The most dramatic adventure of my West African career happened on the coast in 1996, when I was hospitalised and operated for suspected appendicitis at a small clinic in the Togolese capital, Lomé. I can remember walking painfully through the gardens of the Hotel du Bénin overlooking the sea, wondering what was wrong with my insides and plucking up courage to go to a doctor… As a result, instead of heading westwards from Togo through Ghana on a tour of the coastal castles, I was flown back to Copenhagen for further checks at Rigshospital before recuperating in a cottage close to the Kattegat.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou, sprawling on often-flooded lowlands between the Gulf coast and several large lagoons. Many people live in wooden houses built on stilts above the water. There are pirogues (canoes) all over. Not far to the east is the town of Porto Novo, which was a major Portuguese trading post. There’s an ethnographic museum in the town with many sculpted figures and masks illustrating the powerful influence of voodoo in this region of West Africa. I visited during an assignment in Benin at the beginning of 1998 and was intrigued by the strength of animist beliefs in the mysterious spirits from beyond, which have a grip on the modern populace too.

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Then ensued a very long absence from the Gulf coast, which I didn’t visit at all from 1998 to 2010. For over ten years I was involved in assignments in Southern Africa, Central America and South-East Asia, where I also admired many coastal landscapes around the world’s great oceans as well as glimpses of the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, the Java Sea, etc. In particular, living in Managua for three years provided many opportunities to be beside the seaside, both on the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts which we found time to explore between 2002 and 2005.

The Gulf of Guinea reappeared on my radar when I participated in a review of a forest conservation and management scheme associated with the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation.[1] There are still some relatively pristine rain forests in the region. Having failed to cross the border from Togo in 1996, my first visit to Ghana was at the end of 2010 and included an excursion to the tropical forests in the Western region with a stopover at the beautiful Busua beach resort. However, although we had time to walk around the edge of the Kakum national park, my guides didn’t introduce me to the castles, which have made the Ghanaian coast particularly infamous.

Cape Coast and Elmina are amongst the sheltered landing sites along the Gulf of Guinea through which tens of thousands if not millions of slaves passed between the 1520s and the mid 19th Century. The castles were built by the European slave traders and housed the governors of the British, Danish, Dutch, French and Portuguese enclaves. Slaves were shackled in dungeons beneath the towers and battlements until they were ready for what was known as the “middle passage” across the ocean. The ships that left from these harbours were loaded with miserable, half starved and terrorised men, women and children, many of whom didn’t survive the journey to the New World. The grim stories of the castles and the mistreatment of human cargoes are on display in a little museum at Cape Coast; well worth a visit, despite the horror. Even 150 years after the last shipments the sense of evil is in the air.

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In the early 21st Century the coastal towns are bustling with fishermen and their boats. I visited the region in March 2019 with a team of researchers at the Coastal Management Centre set up by environmentalists at Cape Coast University.[2] It is estimated that around ten per cent of Ghana’s population is involved in fishing in one form or another, catching, loading and transporting, selling and processing. A significant share of protein and nutrients is derived from the consumption of fish. But the harvest of the seas has reached the limits and attempts are being made to stop overfishing. At the same time pollution is an increasingly serious blight, both from offshore oil and gas installations and due to runoff from rivers that have become toxic with waste from illegal small-scale mining of gold and other minerals. It is time for a clean up, as we could see from inspection of the water quality around the harbours.

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Further to the east along the coast lies the port of Tema. The city grew up on the edge of Accra when the giant Akosombo Dam on the Volta River was opened in the early 1960s; the construction of an aluminium plant and hydro-electric turbine generators required major investment in harbour facilities. As the Ghanaian economy has grown, so has the port.

Danish interests associated with global container shipping are evident in Tema; the huge Maersk company is heavily involved in the region. The roads around the port are choked with heavy goods vehicles bringing cocoa for export and trucking all manner of mostly Chinese goods throughout Ghana and northwards to the landlocked countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is also considerable expansion going on. Projections of increased incomes in West Africa have underpinned decisions to invest in new berths and terminals in Tema.

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But there are dark clouds around the harbour too. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is another manifestation of the lawlessness plaguing West Africa. Boko Haram terrorists in north-eastern Nigeria and the neighbouring countries have encouraged further militarisation as government forces and their allies attempt to regain control. Beefing up the navies in the Gulf is also on the agenda as pirate attacks and kidnappings are on the increase. Heavily armed criminal enterprises are responsible for creating widespread insecurity at sea.[3] Thus, trading and seafaring in the region are once again associated with violence.

[1] Ghana has been in the forefront of global efforts to design and introduce programmes and policies aiming to reduce GHG emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A thorough critical assessment of the REDD+ processes in Ghana and Nigeria by Adeniyi Asiyanbi et al (2017) can be found in the journal called Forests (volume 8-78).

[2] The research is described at: http://www.hotspot-ghana.net

[3] See: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/imb-gulf-of-guinea-led-the-world-for-piracy-in-2018

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