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Moneylife » Life » Public Interest » The ‘RAK Afrikana’ inside story: Here’s how the crew was released

The ‘RAK Afrikana’ inside story: Here’s how the crew was released

Veeresh Malik | 11/03/2011 03:34 PM | 

The inside story behind why Somali pirates released the 23 crewmembers on board, after nearly one year of captivity 

First of all, for all those in the media and outside going shrill about wanting the Indian Navy to go into 'hot pursuit' on pirates hijacking ships, a small question-would you send the Indian Army to chase and capture bandits hijacking Indians on an Isle of Man registered bus in Albania or Montenegro, for example? No. We would not.

The days of sending gunboats up the Yangtze Kiang River or the Hooghly to motivate the natives are also now over, and if we try it near the Horn of Africa, then an established system of maritime realities and truths will soon put paid to things. And some poor Indian Navy officer will be strung up, likely at the Hague, for war crimes.
And besides, it is simply not feasible-too many small boats operating out of a large number of 'mother ships' and trawlers, over an ocean area larger than a few continents put together, an entity, concept and aspect which people ashore will simply not be able to relate to.

Besides, this is largely business as usual, though on a rapidly growing curve-so unless we are trying to establish our colonial rights there, it would be better to send in our bankers and evangelists, rather than our sailors, which is also the established wisdom of ages. Already, everything the "pirates" need is easily available, and if Amex, MasterCard and Visa are present, and doing very well, thank you, then can the rest of the organised retail and wholesale trade be too far behind? It is only the transaction cost and underwriting expenses that go up, which is also good for the bottom-line of the FIIs (foreign institutional investors), so everybody plays happy campers.
Next, barring some dhows and other local sailing craft which in any case are regulars on that route, so they know the game-no Indian flagship has, so far, been successfully hijacked.

Certainly, many have been attacked, more than a few have had near escapes-but they've all got through. There is what appears to be a reasonably efficient escort system by the Indian Navy for Indian flagships, facts on which one cannot and will not speak or write about, which is working as of now especially in the piracy impacted areas-but this is also a cause of concern as the piracy-impacted area is simply growing larger and larger.

From near coastal Horn of Africa to Socotra a few years ago, it extends now to the mouth of the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of the Indian Subcontinent as well as Africa till Madagascar, and reaches almost 70 degrees east and now well below the Equator.

See that on a map, and see how it is spreading.

 You can use this link to see annual growth rate of piracy, too, and make pretty graphs if so desired like in an annual report.

Incidentally, there are a large number of piracy attacks in the South China Sea area too, which often go unreported because they are far more violent, often leaving no survivors, and ensuring that the ships, their crew, and the cargoes disappear. No body, no crime. The African hijacks, by comparison, are more humane-but they go and on, without closure.

Likewise, many more seafarers die every year due to run-ins on unseaworthy ships which have gone to the bottom and therefore that, their being unseaworthy, cannot be proved.

Barring the famed Derbyshire case, where friends and family of those who went down, actually spent large sums of money to find out what really happened.

Third, and most importantly, this business is no longer 'controlled' from Somalian ports or towns. The money trail, which is now well-established apparently, goes right back to the "developed" countries, often through the "oil-rich" countries.

There are "rules" and "systems" for everything now-it seems that the pirates also have an "instruction book" on how to deal with the hostages as well as their family members when they call up. The whole process is run like a stock exchange, and at last reports, there were 72 entities in the business in Puntland, whose shares were literally traded depending on success or failure at sea. It is, what do we say, a bull market on over there.
Some accounts on how the ransom money is distributed, often dropped by chopper or light plane into the ocean next to the hijacked ship, are amazing. About the best collection of reports on the pirate organisations and their commercial methods can be found here:
More worrying is the political state of affairs in Saudi Arabia, especially the ports in the Red Sea, which are accessed only through this piracy-impacted area.

(Other than through the Suez Canal, of course, but that is not currently an issue).

It is a simple fact of life that the piracy business cannot survive without strong backing, and for long it has been suspected that the commercial routes are through Saudi Arabia, which is a part of the world which itself has had a long tradition of piracy, before the Bedouins got their act together and made it a Nation. The writ of the Arab pirates was said to extend to Gibraltar at one end and well into Malacca on the other.
So, to get on with this report, what are the numbers like?
Take the case of the RAK Afrikana, recently in the news, where crew onboard have been released after 11 months in captivity. Incidentally, of the 26 people onboard, 25 are reported to now be onboard another recently ransom-released ship called the York currently heading under escort for Mombasa. About the RAK Afrikana itself, what is known is that she is taking water from a large hold in the hold, and is likely to sink soon, if not already sunk.
The RAK Afrikana is a 30-year-old cargo ship, small as ships go at about 8,000 tonnes DWT, flying what is called an "open register" flag, or Flag of Convenience (FOC).

But this vessel is basically an ageing rust bucket surviving on the deficiencies in this system of "anything that goes flags". In this case, St Vincent & Grenadines, which just happens to also be blessed with a Governor General and a Queen, both from England, thank you very much.  

But not British enough to send the British Navy, sure. She was based in Ras Al Khaimah, part of the UAE, where she functioned as a cadet-training ship, preparing young people for a career at sea under the New Zealand marine system, with a link also to BIT, India.

The operators are of Indian origin, as are some of the crew, though it was long thought that the financial backing was from Italy and China, blessed by the local RAK (UAE)  Government, who were justifiably very proud of these efforts to re-launch ancient maritime traditions. And finally, various other Governments and shipping companies also wanted to take this concept further, which is why she went on a voyage to Mauritius, after picking up some cargo on the way to make the voyage commercially viable too-and give the cadets some real experience.
And then she got hijacked. North of Seychelles.
The initial stages of negotiation were handled by an Indian who went by the code-name 'SADMAR', who was also the single point contact for the hijackers/pirates and their representatives. There was also a gentleman of European origin, let us call him 'JOE', who was an "advisor" functioning vaguely on behalf of the insurance companies and beneficial owners-both of whom were not fully declared.

At a meeting with the family members in a south-west Delhi 5-star hotel in the summer of 2010, it was made clear to the family members that if they wanted their kith and kin back safely, then they would have to keep the peace-interim financial sustenance was offered and accepted.
At that juncture, the pirates were demanding $3 million-$5 million, and 'SADMAR' had the authority to offer $700,000.

Then, very sadly, probably because the negotiations were literally killing him, 'SADMAR' died, and negotiations came to a grinding halt, while fresh channels were set up-trust being an important part. At all points of time, however, safety and good treatment of the crew onboard was paramount, as also looking after their families back home, so this episode did not make the shrill headlines.

For that, full marks to the owners, the Kotwals. Interim, 'JOE' tried hard to build confidences with the pirates as well as the crew onboard, but everybody wanted 'SADMAR', which was not possible as by now he had been cremated in Kochi.
Long story cut short, a few days ago, the ransom was paid out, and the pirates abandoned the ship, which was literally on its last legs anyways. The sum is rumoured to be around $1.2 million. A total of 25 of the seafarers onboard were first transferred to an Italian warship, and then again to another merchant ship recently freed, and now headed for Mombasa. The Captain of the ship, who played a stellar and strong role throughout, as well as his
Noida-based wife, are amongst the many heroes of this episode.

Which may or may not ever be really told again.
At the end of the day, however, it was all about how the fiscal aspects of the whole "transaction" were handled. From ensuring that family members were provided sustenance, to spending money on keeping communications going, and getting solid good professional advice from 'JOE'-the owners and pirates played the rules by the book.

Going to the media while negotiations are on, is not playing by the rules-and only endangers the lives of those on board.

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KS 5 years ago

Dear Mr. Malik,

First of all, congratulations to you on your eye opening article on Somali piracy as also covering the inside story on release of RAK Afrikana. The politicians like Ms. Sushma Swaraj should learn a lesson and should not play with emotions and sensitivities of people by making only lip serviced hue & cry in and outside parliament without really meaning anything but just to gain self political mileage out of a situation in which innocent and distressed people, like families of 6 Indian sailors of MV Suez, are involved. All of us know by now that the families of MV Suez got nothing but the assurances from the political leaders while their hopes were falsely raised by the outburst of Ms. Swaraj in the parliament. She has openly made fool of the public which will be evident below from yet another incident connected with RAK Afrikana.

Sometime in January 2011 (it may be in December 2010 as well), one of the parents of a crew member on board RAK Afrikana met Ms. Swaraj when she was on a sympathy visit to Kerala after Sabarimala temple stampede incident. The parent gave him a written representation requesting her to use her good office in getting the crew of RAK Afrikana released as more than 8 / 9 months had passed since it was hijacked 280 miles southwest of Seychelles on 11th April 2010 and at that time there was no sign of hope of its release. Ms. Swaraj kept the representation with her and assured that she will take up the issue as soon as she reaches New Delhi. Days passed by without any visible action from her end when some of the parents started calling her office and every time her secretary would reply that she is aware of the matter but at present she is very busy or she has gone to Lal Chowk, Srinagar or some other place, etc. etc. and her office would revert back as soon as she is free to take this matter. To the best of the knowledge of family members, no action was taken from her end. Suddenly few TV channels took up the cause of 6 Indian sailors of MV Suez in late February and when it was all flashing in the media, then only madam suddenly woke up and realized its importance and started encashing it for her political gains by raising the matter in the parliament. It may be noted here that though a family connected with RAK Afrikana contacted her much before MV Suez matter came up in the media, she never uttered a single word about RAK Afrikana or its Indian crew in the parliament. Thanks to the efforts of DG shipping, Consulate General office of India in Dubai, Indian Navy and MEA that the crew of RAK Afrikana was rescued with the help of foreign navies at the crucial time when RAK Afrikana started sinking within hours of Somali pirates leaving the ship after receiving their booty. Ms. Swaraj may take all the credit and boost her political image but the fact of the matter, as far as RAK Afrikana and role of Ms. Swaraj is concerned, is placed here before the readers to judge for themselves.

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Malq 5 years ago in reply to KS

Dear ks . . . Thank you for writing in. This piracy is like any other illegal business and if politicians smell a politicians smell a profit then they will milk it for all it is worth. For the rest since you are from Kerala you probably know more too. The solution lies in attacking the root of the issue which is the money trail and also in using the language of armed confrontation by the navy as well as armed. Guards on board especially in territorial waters and risky international waters. It is also incumbent on the flag state of the ship to take steps an unSafe or unsecured ship is unseaWorthy. Best wishes and if the parents or the seafarer coUld write in that would be nice too.

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shadi katyal

shadi katyal 5 years ago in reply to KS

Dear KS,
We thank you for details about how dirty politics is played and how people are exploited of their raw emotions.It is evident that Ms. Swaraj only wish to give empty promises. Why do our leaders or Netas play such dirty games.
It is general feelings that she didn't know anything about this case till the petition was given and later didnot feel it important as she was busy with Lal chowk or maybe she has no idea how the deals are made to get those ships back.
We saw her today busy with some Congress MP from Chandni chowk Delhi being accused and when he asked for proof she just sat quite.
The good news today is that Indian Navy has caught/burnt a mother ship and has 61 Somali pirates in its custody. few such raids and it may become difficult for such pirates to operate openly.

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Samar Pradhan

Samar Pradhan 5 years ago

Ah..another one of those articles form a writer who has absolutely no knowledge of the real situations faced by the seafarers. I wonder if he would write the same article if a passenger plane was attacked and ransom of paid out. Mr. Veeresh Malik, please refrain from passing judgements on a field which completely alien to you. It would do you good if you display your "indepth knowledge" of finance and keep fooling the masses, as most financiers do.

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shadi katyal

shadi katyal 5 years ago in reply to Samar Pradhan

Mr. Pradhan, would be kind enough to educated us the knowledge you claim to have before you negate someone who has courage to write and done best.Why do not write and clear the mistakes which the writer might have made.
Why discourage the efforts and since you claim to know better, let us hear from you Thanks

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Malq 5 years ago in reply to Samar Pradhan

Mr. Pradhan thank you for writing in. As as ex seafarer myself, what aspects were you objecting to. Please, DVDs.

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Zarir Jambusarwalla

Zarir Jambusarwalla 5 years ago

Mr Malik,
As a seafarer who has transited the area many times as well as survived an attack, allow me to point out the obvious.

Please refer to the case of the US, the French, the Koreans and the Russians who initiated military action against their captured ships successfully.
There is DEFINITELY a clear ground for stringent military action against the pirates. To say that it is equivalent of "send the Indian Army to chase and capture bandits hijacking Indians on an Isle of Man registered bus in Albania or Montenegro" is incorrect. There is no co relation between the two, its a case of comparing oranges and apples.
Piracy is a scourge, the solution unfortunately is military as well as political. Without one, the other will fail.

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Malq 5 years ago in reply to Zarir Jambusarwalla

Valid points raised. However, more than a scourge, piracy is now one more crime, almost legitimised. Yes, the Indian government needs to start providing security inboard Indian flag ships soon. The latest capture of the vega5 and other mother ships is also a step in the right direction. Thank you for writing in.

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malq 5 years ago

Here's a photo of what appears to be the RAK AFRIKANA. Seems to be in bad shape, with a lot of marine growth and lack of maintenance visible on the shipside, and appears to be riding anchor. The lifeboats are still up, which is surprising, since they often get pilfered earliest as per reports.

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malq 5 years ago

More info on global maritime piracy here:-

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