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Hollywood Beckons For Somali Pirate Negotiator
Andrew Mwangura, the controversial contact for troubled seafarers and pirates alike, to be played by Samuel L Jackson
Mombasa, May 15, 2009 – He's a number scribbled in a captain's cabin, a name inside a Somali pirate's head, a voice of reassurance to the family of a captured seaman. His government wants him behind bars while strangers rush to shake his hand. He is, according to one headline writer, The Pirate Whisperer, and his story could soon be known around the world.
"So you're going to Hollywood," shouted a security guard as Andrew Mwangura walked through his hometown of Mombasa, Kenya, this week.
Actually, Hollywood is coming to Mwangura, who runs the non-profit East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme and has become a pivotal figure in reporting and resolving hijacking cases off the coast of Somalia in recent years. The actor Samuel L Jackson has teamed up with filmmaker Andras Hamori to secure the life rights to Mwangura's story for a new action movie about Somali piracy.
In it, Jackson is set to play Mwangura, a softly spoken 47-year-old who lives in a two-bedroom house outside Mombasa with no running water or electricity. Short of money and worried about personal safety – he says he has received several death threats recently – he keeps his office in his pocket, four mobile phones that seldom stop ringing.
"The film will be a great honor for seamen everywhere," said Mwangura, who has never seen any of Jackson's films, but agrees they bear a passing resemblance. "I hope it will tell the truth about Somali piracy."
Mwangura is in a unique position to tell the story. A former seaman, he has spent 20 years helping colleagues who had been underpaid, exploited or caught up in other trouble at sea. The trouble often involved Somalia.
As far back as the early 1990s, when Somalia descended into chaos, Mwangura started receiving reports about foreign vessels kidnapped off the Somali coast. At first he assumed it was simply a case of piracy, and publicly condemned the attacks. Then one day a Somali hostage-taker called him after finding his emergency contact number on board a captured ship.
"He said to me: 'We are not the pirates – you seafarers and the foreign ship owners working illegally in our waters are the real pirates'."
The man sent Mwangura photographs and lists of names of ships that were plundering Somali fish stocks, sometimes within five nautical miles of shore, and damaging the local fishing boats and equipment. Other ships were dumping industrial and other hazardous waste.
"I realized that these Somalis were vigilantes, not pirates," said Mwangura. "What they were doing was wrong, but the illegal fishing and dumping was wrong too."
But as the anarchy on land dragged on, the vigilante nature of the Somali attacks began to shift to straight criminality, putting the lives of thousands of innocent crewman at risk.
"People got greedy," said Mwangura. "The Somali mafioso realized this hostage-taking was a way to make good money. They became more hi-tech, using radios and satellite phones."
Mwangura suddenly found his phones ringing night and day, with people seeking information or passing it on.
"The messages come from Somalia, from crewmen and their relatives, ship owners who have lost contact with a boat, or diplomatic missions. It is not always direct – the message can go from Somalia to India to London and then to me – but it always gets to me somehow."
Mwangura, in turn, quickly sends information to his contacts using text messages, to save on the cost of calls. Once he has the facts, he immediately gives it to journalists, which he says is his way of communicating with the families of the hostages.
"We don't exactly know how Andrew gets his information – that's a grey area for us – but in most cases it's very accurate," said Cyrus Modi, manager of the International Maritime Bureau, in London. "He does a very good job in protecting the interests of the seafarers."
Often that job involves talking to the pirates – or at least the clan elders who are the initial contact points for the seven main pirate gangs in Somalia – especially when negotiations between a ship owner and the pirates have stalled.
"I try to soften the pirates' hearts. I say 'I am on your side; please let us send some supplies to the crew and we can get this resolved quickly'. It's conflict resolution – getting people to put down their guns and talk."
In Mombasa, Mwangura's work on behalf of the seamen is clearly appreciated, with shopkeepers giving him discounts and customers ushering him to the front of queues. But the government is less fond of his efforts. In September last year the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship loaded with 33 Soviet-era battle tanks, was hijacked en route to Mombasa. Mwangura had seen earlier consignments of tanks coming through the port before – they were heading to south Sudan as part of a secret deal with the Kenyan government, he and foreign diplomatic officials believed.
When Mwangura announced that the seized consignment was for Sudan and not Kenya as the government claimed, he was arrested and charged with making alarming statements that threatened national security, and with possessing marijuana – a charge he strongly denies.
He spent nine days in jail before he was able to raise bail. Among his fellow prisoners were several Somali pirates who had been tried in Kenyan courts.
"They had heard of me and came to see what sort of man I was. They said: 'We thought you were against pirates but now you are with us – this is crazy!'"
With the proposed film Mwangura could now be set for a lucrative payday of his own after years of scraping by on his earnings as a part-time maritime consultant.
"I can tell you from personal experience that he is an incredible negotiator," said Hamori, who flew to Mombasa earlier this year to negotiate the story rights for his company, H20 Motion Pictures.
Source: Guardian (UK)