Andrew Mwangura: How I helped to link shipowners with Somali pirates
By Philip Mwakio
| September 25th 2021
At the height of piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia in 2009, Andrew Mwangura was a trusted source, and a link between shipowners and brokers of the dreaded pirate crews that operated near the Gulf of Aden.
In Kenya, however, Mwangura was seen as a nuisance by state functionaries keen to conceal the cargo seized by pirates, who operated in the seven-region of the lawless state.
“I was the link between shipowners and heads of the seven pirate groups that controlled the Coast of Somali. Some of them were businessmen in Mombasa and Nairobi,” he said.
Mwangura shot to the public limelight in June 27, 2005, after pirates captured MV Semlow while en route to the Port of Bosaso in Somalia, with 1,000 tonnes of relief food meant for hunger-stricken Somalis.
The vessel had sailed from the port of Mombasa with food commissioned by the World Food Program (WFP) when it was captured, sparking international outcry.
“It was the first attack in which I was actively involved in negotiations. The attack also led to the UN enacting two resolutions that classified Somali waters as High Risk Areas (HRA),” said Mwangura in an interview.
On November 5 of the same year, pirates again waylaid a Bahamas flagged cruise ship, Seaborn Spirit, with 151 crew from the United States of America and Australia.
“The Captain maneuvered to avoid the attackers, but imagine what could have happened if the ship had been seized,” he said, adding that that the attack led to the collapse of cruise ship business to the port of Mombasa.
In those days, he always had a list of all ships sailing through the Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Aden, Somali Basin and the South Western Indian Ocean and a list of the crew and cargo manifest as well as stowage plan of all vessels in captive, abandoned or involved in marine casualties. He also knew influential elders or businessmen from the clans close to the seven well-organised and highly armed groups of pirates.
“Once a ship was captured, my work was to link between the ship owner toa respected clan elder or businessman with close links to one of the groups. Just that,” he said.
Mwangura says one of his saddest days was January 12, 1991 when three Philippine crew members aboard the MV Naviluck were shot dead by pirates.
‘’One of them was killed as is son watched. His only reminder of his late dad was a lock of hair which he shaved off his head. When they were released and arrived in Mombasa, we handed over the hair to the Philippines envoy,’’ Mwangura said.
In 2008, Mwangura ran into loggerheads with the Kenyan Government after he made public details of a Ukrainian Freighter, MV Faina, laden with arms, which was hijacked before it could offload the arsenal at the Port of Mombasa.
Its cargo manifest, which Mwangura had managed to obtain, had some 30 Soviet-made assault tanks, rocket launchers, anti aircraft batteries and some 14,000 munitions. The pirates demanded Sh1.5 billion ransom for the release of the ship’s crew and cargo.
The cargo was headed for South Sudan, which at the time had an active United Nations arms embargo due to internal conflicts.
According to Mwangura, MV Faina had been forced at gun point to change direction and was being held at Hobyo area, about 500 kilometres North of the capital Mogadishu.
Mwangura recounts how the then Kibaki Government ordered for his arrest for sharing false information about the cargo aboard the vessel. He had widely shared his exploits and information on MV Faina and other many incidences involving seafarers taken hostage.
Mwangura would not know peace as state agents surrounded Standard Group Mombasa Bureau Offices in 2009 as he prepared to make an update on the ill-fated vessel.
His lawyer, Francis Kadima, said Mwangura received the information from the Ukranian and Russian chapters of the Seafarers Assistance Programme (SAP).
“The police were at the sources of his information and seeking to verify the authenticity of the allegations,” Kadima said at the time.
It was later established that the arms cargo was destined for Juba, South Sudan. The tanks were railed onto metre gauge wagons and ferried to Nairobi, from where they were transported to Juba.
Though he currently keeps a low profile shuttling between his home village of Maktau in Taita Taveta county and Mombasa, Mwangura remains a vocal advocate for seafarers rights, revealing the fate of hijacked vessels, the state of the hostages and ransoms, if any is paid.
His swift decision making and problem solving skills earned him the prestigious ‘Combat on Commercial Crime’ award in 2006 from the International Chamber of Shipping.
He said that he began his seafaring journey exploits after several years of work at the Southern Oil Supply Company, Interberton BV, Muir Shipping, Sea Port Operations, Somali Report and Lyoyds List Intelligence, among others.
Mwangura has offered his skills and knowledge through part-time lecturing and consultancy work on maritime safety and security to several institutions including the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, JFK School of Government, Harvard University, European Security and Defence College, Dalhousie University in Canada, Bergen University in Norway and the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Nantes.
Mwangura, who once served as General Secretary of the Seafarers Union of Kenya (SUK) and country coordinator at the Seafarers Assistance Programme (SAP) also oversaw the ITF Global Mariner campaign at the Port of Mombasa as key part in the fight against ‘flags of convenience’ system in Africa.
‘’I was part of the team that helped craft the SUK constitution, the Kenya Constitution in 2010, the Merchant Shipping Act, Fisheries Act, Deep Sea Fisheries and the Labour laws of Kenya,’’ he said.
Currently working on his memoir, Mwangura is now chairperson of the Mombasa Civil Society Organisations, a platform which brings together several like-minded organisations dedicated to the mutual support of the Coastal fishing community and the Mombasa Port Community.
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