Indian sailors are being caught in a piracy boom off West Africa. One captain held hostage shares his story
Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT) March 20, 2021
(CNN)That morning, Capt. Ripusudan Prasad phoned his wife, Anita, as he did every day from the oil tanker he commanded, the MT Duke.
The ship was about eight hours from port in Lomé, Togo, from where Prasad planned to fly home to Kolkata, India.
But, at 7:45 a.m., he got a call that would dramatically change his course.
Prasad's chief engineer had seen a speedboat emerging from a supply vessel that had suddenly appeared beside their ship. By the time Prasad reached his ship's bridge, or control room, the smaller boat was racing alongside them -- and about half a dozen men on it were shouting for the MT Duke to slow down.
As Prasad and the engineer scrambled to the ship's citadel, a reinforced room meant to protect the crew in case of an attack, they could see pirates climbing on to their vessel.
As the pirates banged on the citadel door, Prasad took a headcount. One sailor was missing. He knew the pirates were likely to break down the door before help arrived, so he made a decision.
The crew surrendered.
The kidnapping of Prasad and his crew in December 2019 exposes the perils for sailors in the Gulf of Guinea, off West Africa, now one of the world's most-dangerous places for piracy. It borders Nigeria, Africa's largest oil-producing nation, and is a hub for tankers coming and going from the region with lucrative cargo.
West Africa is strategically important for India -- and vice versa. India is Nigeria's largest trading partner, buying the biggest share of the country's crude oil, which make up the bulk of its Nigerian imports. And Nigeria is India's largest trading partner in Africa.
All of that trade requires a lot of shipping by vessels often primarily staffed by Indians. But in December, India's Maritime Union (MUI) expressed "major concern" about the safety of Indian sailors in the Gulf of Guinea.
"Maritime piracy has become a political issue, unfortunately, as governments of certain countries are unable or not willing to extend their control over various groups of pirates who manage to procure arms and ammunition without much difficulty," said Amar Singh Thakur, MUI's general secretary. The problem had become even worse with a rise in piracy during the coronavirus pandemic, the union said.
India's national security adviser raised the issue of piracy with his Nigerian counterpart in New Delhi earlier this month, however, few details were given in the official readout about what would be done.
At a United Nations Security Council open briefing last month, India called for "an urgent need to increase surveillance to ensure maritime security in the area, through increased international collaboration."
Security for sailors on ships off West Africa is becoming increasingly important for India as it ramps up its Nigerian crude oil imports. But the question remains how to deal with the pirates -- and how to best protect Indian sailors.
Wading through swamps
Traditionally, Somali pirates have posed the biggest threat to cargo ships in waters off East Africa. However, the sea off West Africa now dominates international piracy reports.
Last year, pirates and armed robbers kidnapped at least 130 seafarers in 22 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea — accounting for 95% of all global maritime incidents, according to the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center.
Cyrus Mody, deputy director of the International Chamber of Commerce's commercial crime services at IMB, said piracy has always existed in the Gulf of Guinea, but for a long time shipping companies didn't report cases for fear of triggering higher insurance premiums or getting caught up in lengthy, complex investigations.