The Gulf of Guinea, off the West African coastline, is probably the world’s most dangerous sea route. No one knows this better than second officer Boris Oyebanji who, over the course of two weeks, was hijacked and kidnapped by pirates — and then accused of being a pirate himself. This is his story.
By TOMI OLADIPO
November 8 2019
MAY 4 2019
Gideon Osanebi, captain of the MV Charis, has been sailing the high seas for 32 years — longer than his second officer, Boris Oyebanji, has been alive. On this particular journey, 26-year-old Oyebanji was handling navigation as their tugboat sailed from Onne Port in southern Nigeria to the Port of Luba in Equatorial Guinea. Once there, the tugboat was supposed to escort an oil barge back to Nigeria.
Although this route, cutting through the Gulf of Guinea, is regarded as the most dangerous in the world — in the first nine months of this year, the region accounts for 86% of the 49 crew taken hostage and 82% of the 70 crew kidnapped globally, according to the International Maritime Bureau — the 10-person crew was not expecting any trouble. Nonetheless, as has become standard practice, a naval escort vessel came with them all the way to the maritime boundary between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Once they crossed that border, they would be on their own.
MAY 5 2019: Part I
The Charis crossed into Equatorial Guinea’s territorial waters at about 1.30am. Oyebanji was asleep.
Two hours later, he was woken up by a man in his room who hit him with a gun and yelled in his face: “Where is the captain? Where is the safe? Where is the money?”
As Oyebanji’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the man was wearing a mask and was dressed in black.
He ordered Oyebanji onto the bridge but there was no sign of the captain or the chief officer — or whoever was supposed to be on watch. Oyebanji assumed they had hidden in the toilet. There were other armed men on the bridge, also dressed in black. Pirates. They were looking for money.
Every vessel is required to be equipped with a global maritime distress and safety system, to be activated in emergency situations to call for help, but this was not an option for Oyebanji. “I was really scared,” he said. “I had read a lot about pirate attacks and how they hijack and kill people. So, for every order they gave, I had to comply to save my life. I didn’t consider making any distress call or activate any signal.”
The seas were rough and it was raining. The pirates ordered that the tugboat change course and head towards São Tomé and Príncipe. Then, giving up on their search for cash, they announced they would leave the way they had arrived — on their speedboat.
For Oyebanji, however, the ordeal was just beginning.
May 5 2019: Part II
The pirates had a second target in mind — the MV Blue Marlin, a Maltese-flagged heavy load carrier that was a little over three nautical miles away. There was one major flaw with this plan — none of them knew how to sail a ship of that size. So they told Oyebanji that he would be going with them. At gunpoint, one of the pirates said to him: “If you try anything stupid, I will kill you and throw your remains in the sea.”
Oyebanji resolved not to try anything stupid, but he did come up with a plan of his own. Just before getting on the speedboat, he begged to go back to the bridge and get a life jacket. His request was granted. He ran back to the bridge and while the pirates were preparing the speedboat for launch, he whispered to Osanebi what the pirates were planning. The captain and the crew had been discovered in the toilet. The captain promised to raise the alarm as soon as the pirates were gone.
Oyebanji boarded the speedboat, which set course for the Blue Marlin. Along the way, the pirates — he counted seven in total — performed rituals he had never seen before, and which appeared to exert an almost mystical effect over them.
“They started making incantations,” he recalled. “They were chanting in a language I didn’t understand. There was this idol, like a statue, on their boat and they poured drinks on it, still chanting.”
Nigerian security officials, who later picked up the pirates’ communication, identified the language as Ijaw, which is spoken in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria. The pirates are suspected of being part of a piracy syndicate from that area.
When the speedboat reached the Blue Marlin, the pirates boarded it using a ladder they had brought with them. Once on board, they opened fire, but the ship’s 20-strong crew had already sought refuge in the ship’s citadel — a safe room. The pirates made a small hole in the citadel and fired through it, but no one was injured.
Frustrated, the pirates ordered Oyebanji to make an announcement on the ship’s public address system. With a shaky voice, he began: “Crew members, come out of your hiding place or you will be killed if you are found.”
The leader of the pirates pushed him aside and took over the loudspeaker. “Come out or we will kill you and we will burn down the ship and sink it,” he barked. There was no response. He repeated the command over and over, asking the crew to give up all the money and valuables they had. Still nothing.
Then he ordered Oyebanji to turn the ship around and sail for the port city of Calabar near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. Oyebanji could not comply. The indiscriminate shooting had destroyed the navigation equipment, so it was impossible to tell where the Blue Marlin was or in which direction it was travelling.
The pirates decided to wait it out, hoping that time would force the crew out of the citadel.
Time was not on their side, however. Three hours later, they heard the unmistakable sound of approaching helicopters. The distress call from the Charis had alerted the navies of Equatorial Guinea and Spain. The latter were conducting surveillance and maritime security operations in the area as part of a Nato mission.
The pirates panicked. They fired at the helicopters and the helicopters fired back. (The choppers were unable to land and returned to base.) The pirates got into their speedboat and fled. Oyebanji did not go with them. During the shootout, he slipped away and hid in an electrical room at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
Later, he would learn about what the pirates did next. They returned to the Charis, because that was about as far as they could go. Their speedboat was riddled with bullets and was taking on water. They ordered Osanebi to set sail for Calabar and mended their speedboat. But they never made it to the Nigerian port city. After being intercepted by an Equatorial Guinean naval ship, the pirates boarded their speedboat, detached it from the Charis and fled.
MAY 6 2019
Back on the Blue Marlin, Oyebanji hid until morning. In the light, he spotted a communications system in the electrical room and tried to use it to communicate with other parts of the ship. The rest of the crew remained in hiding. As a statement from Spain’s ministry of defence later explained: “The crew never knew with certainty if the criminals had fled because they never left the safe compartment.”
Soon Oyebanji heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. Putting on an orange jumpsuit he had found lying around, he ran to the ship’s deck, jumping and waving so he could be seen.
“I believe they saw me, because the altitude of the helicopter wasn’t that high,” he says.
The helicopter circled the ship and then left. He returned to the bridge to look for any equipment that could determine the ship’s co-ordinates. Instead he found the radio. On Channel 16 VHF, the frequency used specifically for maritime distress calls, he broadcast: “All stations! All stations! All stations! This is Boris Oyebanji, second officer on board the MV Charis. I was abducted by sea pirates on my vessel yesterday and I was brought on the MV Blue Marlin.”
He gave the ship’s co-ordinates and requested urgent assistance. He repeated this call five times. A Spanish warship eventually responded. They asked how he got on the Blue Marlin, whether the pirates were still on board, and if he had seen any of the crew members. He answered, and the reply was for him to stand by.
Soon the rescue party arrived. The Spanish warship Serviola led the operation, which included forces from Equatorial Guinea’s navy. As Serviola approached, it fired three warning shots, but this time there was no resistance on board.
Troops from the Serviola then boarded the Blue Marlin. In April they had successfully freed a Nigerian-flagged vessel that was attacked by pirates in the same waters. This time they found no pirates and the crew came out of the citadel unharmed. The Spanish forces left that afternoon, while the five troops from Equatorial Guinea’s navy remained on board until the Blue Marlin could be towed safely to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, for repairs.
Oyebanji’s vessel came to pick him up. The rest of his crew thought he had been killed until they heard his distress call that morning.
He took off the orange suit and disembarked from the Blue Marlin.
His ordeal was still not over.
MAY 7 2019
The Charis sailed under escort to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. They arrived at 2am. The naval commander ordered the ship to anchor away from the quayside and remain there until sunlight. Osanebi made a call to the owners of the Charis, C&I Leasing, to update them. Later that morning, he received an order from the navy commander to heave up the anchor, start the engine and proceed to the jetty.
There the crew found a large delegation that included government officials, security officers and the press. The navy officers summoned the two captains to explain what happened. Equatorial Guinea is a Spanish-speaking country — the only one in Africa — and this created a language barrier between the people on the ground and the Nigerian crew of the Charis, who spoke English. There was a series of questions, but the Nigerians were confused.
Then a navy officer struck Oyebanji on the back of his head and ordered that the crew be arrested.
An air commander who had been on one of the helicopters approached the stunned Oyebanji and said he had seen him when he was waving from the deck of the Blue Marlin. “Where is the orange suit?” he demanded. Oyebanji told him he had left the jumpsuit on the ship when he was rescued and that he only put it on so that he could be seen. The answer was not enough and neither party appeared to properly understand what the other was saying.
Their names were recorded and they were paraded in front of the waiting media before they were led to a van. The crew of 10 were accused of attempting to hijack the Blue Marlin.
State radio broadcast a statement from Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, commending the work of his country’s armed forces in saving the crew and arresting the pirates. “Thanks to the rapid intervention of our armed forces, we were able to save the crew on board and arrest the 10 pirates, whose presumed nationality is Nigerian.”
The news spread in both the local media and outlets across Europe, because of the involvement of the Spanish Navy.
The reality of their situation hit home. Oyebanji had grown up wanting to be a soldier and then a pilot, until he made several visits to his uncle — a seafarer. He was now six years into his career at sea and at this point he was in an unimaginable situation.
“I was thinking, ‘Why would they want to lock us up for no reason? We were also victims here’.” His family also came to mind. “I was thinking about my parents especially. Being their only son, I cannot afford to die in prison or out at sea.”
The crew was locked up in one holding cell, apart from an engineer who was taken back to operate their tugboat. The crew, who were now prisoners, said they did not receive any food or water for four days.
Something was in their favour: one of the crew had a cell phone that had not been detected by the security forces. With this, the crew made calls home to let their loved ones know what had happened. This sparked a flurry of calls and tweets to foreign ministry officials and even comments on the Instagram account of Obiang, who had been posting photos of his safari in Zimbabwe.
But the timing was not quite right for a diplomatic intervention. The defence minister, Antonio Mba Nguema, who was also the president’s brother, had died in South Africa and was being mourned, disrupting government activity.
And so the days passed. Oyebanji spent his 27th birthday, May 18, in detention.
Progress, when it happened, was slow. Equatorial Guinea’s inspector general of police took over the investigation and questioned the men through an interpreter. A shipping agent, who was to liaise with the crew on their arrival in Malabo, provided the police with documents to prove that they were indeed sailors and not pirates. C&I Leasing also sent personnel, as did the Nigerian embassy.
MAY 21 2019
Eventually a government committee questioned Osanebi and Oyebanji about their ordeal.
The two men felt that the interpreter in this conversation mangled their words and was passing on the wrong message.This confusion led to a fresh interrogation by the minister for national defence, Nicolas Obama Nchama.
He sent the men back to their cell.
MAY 22 2019
The interrogation continued the next day. Osanebi and Oyebanji remember being in the minister’s office when he received a call — which they discovered was from the president — after which he ordered them to leave immediately.
They were sent back to the cell where they were visited by the defence attache from the Nigerian embassy, who said they were free to go. Equatorial Guinea was finally convinced that they were not the pirates.
The defence attache promised they would receive security escorts all the way home. The crew decided against sailing that day because they did not have enough fuel or food. A Nigerian Navy warship, the NNS Burutu, was waiting for them at the boundary between the two countries’ territorial waters. When the crew did not turn up, it returned to Nigeria.
MAY 24 2019
At 9am, the Charis set off for home, escorted by a warship from Equatorial Guinea. At the boundary they did not find the Burutu. The Charis’s radio frequency transmitted only 50 nautical miles.
They were once again alone, in the waters where they had been attacked by pirates. Rather than return to Malabo, Osanebi decided to risk the journey home without an escort, because they had had enough of the misery they had suffered in Equatorial Guinea.
Osanebi had been through rough seas before in his long career, but he had not experienced anything like this.
MAY 25 2019
The Charis arrived in its home port of Onne at 8.05pm.
The crew are grateful to be back home safe, but they are worried that the accusations of piracy will taint their prospects. “The news was all over Europe,” said Oyebanji, who worries about obtaining visas in the future. “If I want to travel, it will be a problem.”
He adds that more needs to be done to secure Nigeria’s waterways. “I won’t go that way again if there is no security. I won’t go.”