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This week’s analysis is an extract from a report by Terra Firma Risk Management and is reproduced with their kind permission. Please click through here to read the rest of the report.
What happens during a kidnap?
Kidnap abductions are always dangerous, and those in the Gulf of Guinea are no exception. The kidnappers often fire their weapons at and around the bridge in order to intimidate the crew, and a number of crew members have been killed or badly injured during such abductions.
There are signs that some Niger Delta gangs may be increasingly well drilled and organised. After a recent abduction, crew noted that the attackers were so well drilled that their leaders did not have to shout orders. The kidnappers use very fast speedboats (on a recent case, with two 200 horsepower engines) and board the vessel before the crew has time to react. In a number of recent cases, kidnappers have selected hostages from among the crew, preferring non-African to African hostages. Kidnappers appear to believe that the whiter the skin, the higher the ransom they will gain, so they will generally take the lightest-skinned hostages available. Nigerian and other African seafarers are often kidnapped, for instance off the many oil supply services vessels in the area, but the ransoms paid for them are generally much lower. Kidnappers will take quite large numbers of hostages, with six Turkish seafarers recently taken in one event. In another recent incident, four hostages were forced off their vessel into the kidnappers’ speedboat, only to find that there were four hostages from two other vessels were already on board. The kidnappers will also take the opportunity to steal cash, mobiles, satellite phones and computers from the vessel, but most abductions now take no more than 20-30 minutes.
The kidnappers leave as quickly as possible. The journey to where they hold their victims can take three or four hours or more. As the speedboat reaches the coast and enters one of the rivers, the pirates make the hostages wear coats with hoods in order to conceal their identity not only from the authorities but, possibly more importantly, from other gangs who might try to steal the hostages from them.
The conditions in which seafarers are held by West African kidnappers are poor. Torture or deliberate, prolonged physical maltreatment is rare, although most kidnap victims will suffer the occasional slap or jab with a rifle butt. The major threat comes from the highly unhygienic conditions.
The camps in which hostages are held vary, but most are in very swampy areas some way from any settlements except very small jungle hamlets. The jungle is extremely thick, and the land is low, very muddy and often awash with tidal water. Mosquitoes and other insects are a constant presence, and snakes are commonly seen. Often, hostages are ‘housed’ in wooden sheds with corrugated roofs, but with gaps between roof and wall. Hostages sleep on mattresses, sometimes with two people to a single mattress. Food is often in short supply, and consists mostly of rice and noodles, sometimes with eggs. Water is occasionally brought in bottles from shops. The poor hygiene can lead quickly to ill health, with many kidnap victims suffering episodes of diarrhoea and vomiting while in captivity.
Bites from insects are constant and often lead to infections and illness both during captivity and afterwards. One doctor based in the Niger Delta, who conducts medical checks on released hostages, estimated that 60-70% of hostages develop malaria during or after captivity. Fortunately, seafarers taken captive do normally survive. There has been one documented death during the abduction of crew from vessels in the Gulf of Guinea but, as far as is known, there have been no fatalities arising from the period of captivity of hostages.
Ironically, the unhygienic conditions may act as a brake on the duration of kidnaps. The kidnappers are very aware of the impact of these conditions on their hostages and they likely understand that it is not in their interests to have seriously ill hostages on their hands – it does not suit their business model.
Another factor that may impact on kidnap duration in the Delta is the weather. There are two times of particularly heavy rainfall – the first and longest begins around March, continues until the end of July, and peaks in June. There is a dry period in August followed by the second and shorter rainy season that starts in early September and continues to mid-October, normally peaking at the end of September. There is then a long dry season until early March. Pirate leaders have said to hostages that they wanted to end the kidnap and release them before the heavy rainfall occurs. The kidnappers generally share the conditions in which the hostages are held, and it seems that they are sometimes not keen to hold hostages during sustained rainy periods if they can avoid it. Kidnaps do occur during these periods, but there may be a slight reduction.
Kidnap durations in the region vary, the majority lasting three to four weeks, the longest being around six weeks, and the shortest, two weeks.
Escape has not yet, as far as is known, been an option taken by kidnapped seafarers held in the Niger Delta. The nature of the countryside makes escape an extremely difficult, if not impossible, option. Armed rescue by Nigerian armed forces has occurred in the Delta area on occasion in the past, but it is an approach that puts the hostages in very grave danger. The odds of hostages surviving an armed rescue in such an environment are not good.
Most ex-hostages say that their kidnappers appear less worried by the threat of intervention from the armed forces than from attempts by other criminal gangs to ‘steal’ the hostages in order to conduct their own negotiation. Kidnap gangs in Nigeria are usually very well armed with automatic rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Some gangs are well drilled, with regular practices for the actions they would take if an enemy were to attack them by day or night. Hostages are sometimes made to move to new positions at night in order to confuse potential enemies.
Kidnap durations in the region vary, the majority lasting three to four weeks, the longest being around six weeks, and the shortest, two weeks. There are indications that some kidnap gangs are improving their infrastructure to be able to hold more captives for longer. On a recent case, hostages saw that the gang, which was holding them and two other crews in small huts, was building a house which, when constructed, would probably contain 15-20 rooms. Terra Firma has noted an increased confidence and ‘market awareness’ in some pirate negotiators. Given the lack of law and order in the rural Delta, and the unstable political situation placing heavy demands upon government security forces, it seems unlikely that the kidnappers have much to fear from the Nigerian authorities. The conditions are set for the kidnappers to scale up their business model.
Negotiations, release and recovery
In most parts of the world, it is true to say that the two most dangerous times during a kidnap are the initial abduction, when attackers are scared and hyped up and anticipating possible resistance, and the end, when kidnappers are tired and nervous and expectant. This is, to a large extent, true in West Africa, although the threat to health, the varied discipline of guards and their access to alcohol and drugs, make captivity in this region a particularly unpredictable affair.
Hostages are usually released into the care of specialist teams who meet the hostages and kidnappers in the creeks of the Delta. This is dangerous and demanding work, and the teams escort the hostages (sometimes with the kidnappers also providing protection) to a place of safety. As soon as the hostages are in a safe place, they are given a medical check-up and all that they need in terms of good food, washing facilities and new clothes. They are moved to Lagos as soon as they are ready and fit to travel, where they are further looked after before being flown home. Once the hostages reach their home countries, they can be given any aftercare they might need.
Overall, while one should not underplay the discomfort and dangers of being kidnapped from a vessel in the Gulf of Guinea, and the profound effect it has on the lives of hostages and their families. It is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of crew taken hostage in the area do survive the ordeal, and many return to work at sea.
Please click through here to read the rest of the report.