West African pirates taking hostages for ransom as oil prices tank
Chirag Bari’s merchant ship MT Marida Marguerite was nearing the Gulf of Aden when the vessel was boarded by Somali pirates.
“I approached the bridge; I heard noises coming from inside the bridge,” he said.
“Then I saw the pirates.
“I could see a person with an AK47 in his hand, pointing the gun on to me.”
The chemical cargo ship was meant to be travelling from Mr Bari’s native India to Belgium.
Instead, he and his fellow crew members were towed into waters off the Somali coast and held hostage.
It was 2010 when Somali piracy was at its peak, with clandestine robbers boarding international merchant ships and demanding millions of dollars in ransom.
“They tied us up with nylon ropes … they put electrical cable bands on our genitals and they were enjoying it as we were screaming in pain,” Mr Bari said.
“It made them happier to listen to our cries.”
At the time Somalia was a failed state, without a functioning government and navy, allowing pirates to take easy refuge in the coastal waters.
Piracy off the Somali coast has now been quelled — largely due to a newly formed Somali national government and a massive internationally co-ordinated patrol campaign.
That made a significant dent in the number of annual global piracy cases, but while passage along East Africa’s coastline may be less dangerous, there’s been a spike in pirate kidnappings off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is ‘a very different beast’
Mr Bari, who now works with The International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network, is working to help the latest victims of piracy.
He’s helped develop a training program, providing sea fearers with best response practices, should they be boarded by pirates.
However, piracy in this part of Africa is a very different beast from that conducted off the coast of Somalia.
While hostage situations carried out by Somali pirates were often long and drawn out, with a degree of patience and strategy, Mr Bari said pirates off the West Coast were trigger happy and more inclined to fire if provoked.
They prefer smash and grab tactics; boarding vessels with high powered armoury, grabbing several crew members, then retreating into the swampy networks in the Niger Delta and making their ransom demands.
Figures from the International Maritime Bureau show the number of actual and attempted piracy attacks off the coast of Nigeria in 2016 and 2017 was more than double that of the previous two years.
Last year, 65 of the 75 recorded piracy kidnappings worldwide were off the coast of Nigeria.
Kidnappings spike linked to downturn in oil prices
Chris Trelawny, special adviser of the International Maritime Organisation, said piracy in the region had long been a problem, but the spike in kidnappings was a recent trend due to a downturn in oil prices.
The pirates used to target oil tankers for their cargo, but shifting global markets has forced pirates to re-focus their operations.
“More recently when the oil price tanked, you’ve seen a switch to more kidnap for ransoms,” he said.
Mr Trelawny said it was vital the trend was addressed.
While there have been groups with political agendas, Mr Trelawny said most pirates were criminals motivated by money.
With more than 10 nations sharing the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, Mr Trelawny said establishing a co-ordinated anti-piracy framework had often proven to be difficult.
Unlike Somalia, which was without a central government until 2012, international navies and private security forces don’t have free reign to patrol the Gulf of Guinea waters.
There is no UN international framework for third party navies to operate in these waters.
“Many of those countries don’t want armed security teams in their waters,” Mr Trelawny said.
While he said Nigeria had made significant efforts to police their waters, resources are strained.
“How many kidnappings are happening ashore? They have Boko Haram running around in the north of the country,” he said.
“They have a lot of other issues.”
Gulf of Guinea piracy far worse than official statistics
He also points to issues of corruption, as well as the lack of a legal framework in many countries to effectively prosecute piracy crimes.
The International Maritime Bureau runs a 24-hour global hotline service for shipmasters to report piracy.
The Bureau’s assistant director, Cyrus Mody, said piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was far worse than the official statistics indicate.
According to Mr Mody, that is due to several reasons. There’s a belief that justice is rarely carried out, local investigations involve costly shipping delays, there’s fears of retribution and increased insurance rates.
“It needs a massive movement politically and financially to even scratch the surface and then start moving towards improvement,” Mr Mody said.
International support needed to combat piracy
Rather than take charge, as happened in the waters off Somalia, Mr Mody said international organisations and other nations needed to play a supporting role with the countries in the Gulf of Guinea.
“If technology is needed, if patrol boats are needed — training is needed to understand how to use the technology efficiently and properly.
“That supporting role will always take a far greater amount of time, as it has to be accepted by the community and then you slowly start to move forward.”
In the meantime, pirates’ tactics of ambushing and holding hostages in the Niger Delta continue.
“It’s worse if you’re taken away from your ship, taken away from your environment, which you are familiar with, taken away from your colleagues and held in a jungle in a house in a very hostile environment until the ransom is paid.
“We have to understand that a seafarer is not trained for these sorts of things.”
Bari and his crew spent nearly eight months as hostages
Mr Bari’s seafaring days are now over.
After an exhaustive negotiation process, which started at $US15 million ($18.9 million), the shipping company finally agreed to pay a ransom of about $5.5 million ($6.9 million).
A contract helicopter dropped the cash in a plastic bag into the water.
The pirates collected the bag, counted it and soon after left the ship.
Fuel and supplies were then dropped off, before the ship sailed away towards the first safe port in Oman.
All up, he and his crew spent seven months and 20 days as hostages on board the ship — cut off from the rest of the world.
Once back on land, Mr Bari was told his mother had died while he was captive.
Recovering from physical and mental trauma
Mr Bari returned to India and managed to rebuild his life, taking months to recover from the physical and mental trauma.
The International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network provides support for families and returned captives, affected by loss of income and social displacement.
He hopes his horrific experience, if nothing else, can at least provide some insights and resilience for future hostage victims.
“We offer a course where they get to mentally prepare and how to cope in captivity,” he said.
“I’m not here to stop piracy. We cannot stop piracy from its roots.
“So we are only trying to educate seafarers.
“You should co-operate. You should not offer resistance to them.
“The pirates might have hijacked you, they have kidnapped your physical body, but mentally they cannot capture you.”