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Pirates of the Indian Ocean

Forget Blackbeard and tales of swashbuckling on the high seas; a new breed of swift and violent pirates are strangling the life out of African economies.



In a rundown street in the center of Mombasa, Kenya, a short walk from the port, I sat down in a Chinese restaurant for a meeting with an infamous man of whom I had heard many talk about. Waiting for him to arrive, watching the door, I saw him enter the restaurant, his eyes flitting across the empty room. He beckoned to a table more secluded and out of the view of most patrons.

As I sat down, extending my hand to greet him, he looked me up and down with suspicion. “Who are you?” he asked, seeming very wary of me despite the fact that we had been in email contact for about a month before my arrival in Kenya. I pulled my papers and business cards from my bag, by way of introduction, only for them to be taken from me. He made off, papers in hand, to conduct an inspection and make copies.

“It’s a very sensitive business this, Miss Otto,” he elucidated upon his return, staring at me intently, still clearly unsure of my intentions.

Piracy, the topic that I was there to research, is a complex affair, and now also an industry that costs the global economy between $7 billion and $12 billion a year.

Andrew Mwangura, the man I met that day, is a famed piracy negotiator at the heart of this industry, which has spawned an underground economy generating hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profit every year.

Mwangura has been dealing with piracy for nearly two decades, spending most of his time running the East African Seafarers’ Association. The rest of the time he negotiates ransom deals between pirates and shipping companies for vessels and kidnapped crew.

Mwangura has found a degree of notoriety in this line of work. Indeed, modern-day piracy, particularly the Somali version, has captured the attention of the world through reports that could be straight out of a big-budget movie about growing organized crime plaguing African waters. These are tales of desperate, young, armed men in fishing boats; capturing vessels, kidnapping crews and holding them for months claiming multi-million dollar ransoms.

The 21st century face of piracy is a world away from the adventurous romance of Blackbeard 300 years ago. It is a slick and nasty trade.

Since the turn of the century, piracy has been on the increase and shifting from Southeast Asia to Africa’s north-eastern coast. Maritime piracy is now a well organized and sophisticated industry where young Somali men, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, carry out attacks on specific targets and collect roughly $240 million in ransom money each year.

According to the latest figures released by the International Maritime Bureau, on January 19, Somali pirates held 151 hostages to ransom; worth roughly up to $90 million. A study released by Oceans Beyond Piracy in 2010 illustrates that the cost of ransom payments only makes up a small portion of the total cost that the global economy incurs.

While these costs are being carried worldwide, countries in the Horn of Africa region are suffering even more, especially Kenya. The Kenya Shippers Council estimates piracy costs the Kenyan economy $400 million every year.

Piracy surcharges, which are now applied as an additional tax to shipping tariffs, have increased the costs of both imports and exports in Kenya. These surcharges are now commonplace, as a result of the rising cost of insurance, owing to the risks they take in pirate-infested waters. Inchcape Shipping Services says piracy surcharges have added around $100 million to the cost of container imports, and roughly $260 million to the costs of dry bulk and liquid cargoes.

Tourism, a cornerstone of the Kenyan economy, has also been suffering. Cruise ship calls, for example, which brought in around $300,000 a year, have declined from 35 in 2008 to none because of the pirate threat.

Despite so much money being at stake, the fight against piracy has been ineffectual. Why? There are a number of reasons: the lack of the political will to galvanize money and people into action. One of the biggest problems has been that piracy, having arisen from the failure of the state in Somalia, has been fought on one front alone—the ocean. In reality, piracy must be tackled in a two-pronged approach—also in the land from which it emanates.

Somalia suffers from acute instability. It is under these conditions that piracy carries relatively low risk and high reward. It is this element that counter-piracy ventures seem to ignore.

“Piracy must stop naturally,” Mwangura would say. “You can’t fight poverty with guns.”

How can Africa fight piracy? Some gung-ho types have argued that international law can be interpreted to allow forces to ‘blow’ pirates out of the water—perhaps using private armies onboard. Other more peaceful methods include: following the flows of pirate funds; attempting to bring stability to Somalia; improving the quality of life in Somalia for those who otherwise may be seduced by piracy; prosecuting pirates and strengthening the laws against them.

As Captain Jack Sparrow, the fictional buccaneer in Hollywood’s Pirates of the Caribbean, said: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.”

According to the latest figures released by the International Maritime Bureau (updated on February 29, 2012), Somali pirates are currently holding a total of 12 vessels and 177 hostages to ransom; worth roughly $120 million, assuming that top ransom settlements are attained.

Up until now, the Somali piracy debacle has been overwhelmingly characterized by what the pirates can do and what international forces cannot.

Pirates Punish With The Pain Of Captivity

Twelve gunmen wielding AK-47s stormed a South African yacht en route to Richards Bay, on the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, on October 26, 2010. They took hostage Bruno Pelizzari and his girlfriend, Debbie Calitz. The pirates turned the vessel around and set sail for Baraawe in Somalia.

In the 16 months since then, armed groups have bought and sold the couple like a commodity. First Pelizzari and Calitz were sold to Al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist group associated with al-Qaeda. The group then sold the couple to Somali traders.

In the quest for freedom, a complication has arisen—the South African government does not pay ransom demands. Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu dispatched the Navy frigate, SS Mendi, to patrol the Mozambican Channel in a bid to curb piracy.

The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest African disaster relief organization on the continent, has been in Somalia to negotiate their release. It has managed to bargain down the ransom price from $10 million to under $1 million. The ransom was increased to $1.5 million when negotiators met with the captors on February 27, who alleged that a third party had matched the amount.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation, hopes the hostages will be home in Durban before the end of April.

“We know where they are. The time is now… We are telling them take it, leave it, or keep them forever,” he says.

Vera Hecht, Bruno Pelizzari’s sister, raised money for the ransom through an online and SMS campaign. She said car guards and petrol attendants reached for their cellphones to SMS when they saw a campaign poster on her car. Small businesses have also come up with thousands of rands, along with South African-based Somali communities.


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