The sound of silence

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Who knew that kidnapping is a very real threat in the waters off West and East Africa? Well, it turns out everyone, so why the secrecy surrounding the criminal enterprises that organise and bankroll the pirate gangs?

During a concerted effort over the past couple of weeks, this reporter has attempted to learn more about the kidnapping trade, its kingpins and the temptation that lucrative ransoms provide in keeping the wheel turning.

What we came up against was a veritable wall of silence from organisations that for one reason or another felt themselves unwilling or unable to cooperate.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime declined to comment on the problem of kidnapping and ransom payments in West and East Africa.

Interpol also decided to bite their tongue. When approached to provide some details on the type of gangs operating in and around the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), a spokesperson said that such information was ‘restricted to law enforcement use only’.

A good handful of additional organisations and individuals were also approached for information and the opportunity to comment, but the phones remained silent, the inboxes empty.

Stripping away all the fancy words and what you are left with is the fact that criminal gangs, call them pirates if you like, capture civilian workers with the intention of only releasing them following a payment.

The waters around Africa in particular have become commonplace for hijack, kidnap and ransom.

A few examples include the release of five crew members of the Cyprus-flagged MV Szafir, who were abducted off their vessel near the Nigerian Coast on 27 November.

In February four Thai fishermen were finally released nearly five years after their kidnapping by Somali pirates. Media reports at the time said a ransom of $150,000 was paid. The release brought to a conclusion the particularly tragic case in which six of the original 24 crew died during the ordeal.

A further example was provided in October when four seamen taken from a Russian cargo ship off the Niger Delta were released, again after negotiations and a paid ransom between the kidnappers and the shipping company.

The EUNAVFOR counter-piracy deployment to western Indian Ocean state that 26 hostages are still being held in Somalia, awaiting ransom payments or further negotiations.

Local security services, like those pictured above, are of course doing their very best to combat the problem. Assistance is being rendered in training and equipment from a number of nations, most notably the US.

Figures from the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) 2014 piracy report stated that 144 hostages were taken in 2014 by criminal gangs and pirates operating in West Africa. A further six seafarers were specifically listed as being kidnapped during this period, although the report stated that the true figure ‘is thought to be considerably higher’.

A hat should be tipped to the ICC IMB, who did respond on the issue of kidnapping in the GoG.

Cyrus Mody, assistant director, said: ‘The Gulf of Guinea is notorious [for kidnapping]. Unfortunately not all of the incidents are reported to us from this region and hence we do not have a clear picture.’

With a total coastline stretching over 26,000 miles, 90% of its imports and exports travelling by sea, a marine industry providing food for over 200 million people in the continent, perhaps the inherent risk to seafarers and insecurity is worthy of something more than silence.

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