THE 10 Nigerians who returned home a week ago after 303 days in the den of deadly Somali pirates are angry. The Federal Government and their employers, they say abandoned them at the time the hostages needed help most. In this interview, Mr. Triggo Egbedi, the elder brother of the Captain, Mr. Graham Egbedi, asked the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe to shut up for claiming to have secured the release of the hostages. Captain Egbedi also paints a vivid picture of the crewâ€™s close shave with death and groupâ€™s new fears.
By EMMA UJAH, EMMANUEL AZIKEN, CHRIS OCHAYI & CHINYERE AMALU
TRIGO Egbedi: There has been a lot of talk about this kidnap thing, it has been 303 days of torture but at the end of it all we are all smiling because these gentlemen are back and alert. That I think is the most important thing in life.
Once a person is alive, anything other thing can come. So, we have welcomed them back, our sons and to the ladies their husbands, fathers of children and brothers of other men and women. They are back and we are so happy.
But I also want to add that beyond the euphoria of their safe return that there are other things that need to be addressed and one of them is the fact that we thought that being taken hostage by pirates was the worst thing on earth, nobody prays to experience that. But I tell you that when you consider what lies ahead of the lives of these people, being with the pirates, keeping them company for 10 months is like being in heaven because there is a deadlier one coming.
You want to ask me how? Because a man who is coming from hell, a man who has had his dignity and manhood stripped, a man whose life, whose family is at the brink of collapse, total collapse, when he looks ahead, he is afraid. He doesnâ€™t know where to go and that is the situation these young men find themselves.
They all left their homes, the comfort of their homes on the 10th day of June 2008, when they flew to a place called Dubai where a ship had been purchased. They went there to deliver that ship back here to Nigeria. They left here empty handed, with empty pockets, but full of expectations and that was why their wives, their children, relations, parents were all expectant. But today they are back, their pockets are wider, torn open and even more hopeless than it was when they left here and that is because their problem has not been addressed.
Their problem has not been addressed by one, their employer ESL Integrated Services Limited, Port Harcourt. They are their employer who sent them out on an assignment to go and deliver the ship and I tell you throughout the period of their ordeal, these people failed to do what was expected of them.
That was the first demon that they encountered. Two, the pirates. When someone talks about pirates, it is like we are reading a story book we are not experiencing it, so we donâ€™t know what the word pirates mean. They are the deadliest set of human beings you can find anywhere in the world.
The Somali variant is worse than deadly.Â For people to survive 303 days with those people is like returning from hell. That is true. Now, a third party has emerged and that is the Federal Government of Nigeria. At the time when all hopes seemed lost â€” I am a representative of the families of these people, the captain is my younger brother â€” I got in touch with the other families and we decided to present a united front, to speak with one voice.
We didnâ€™t know what to do, we didnâ€™t know where to go, but we were advised, government is there, that is your father, cry to him which we did in the form of a petition.
The Somalis in AmericaÂ Â resident in Minnesota, they are people who know who the pirates are, they know them by their names. They know their fathers, they know their uncles. These were the people who actually took it upon themselves and said let us talk with our own sons and it yielded a lot of results but we are not making any noise. Now the minister comes on board to make a lot of noise, shouting that he was responsible for their release. Please I want to appeal to him, he should shut up.
What role did your private initiative play in the release of the hostages?
I got in touch with them (associates in the US) sent them copies of the petitions and the profiles of all the people and so they in turn dug and found out that there was this Somali community living in Minnesota and what they did was that it would make more sense to carry out this initiative through their own people.
There was no point they themselves fly to Somalia because that was impossible, it would be far too dangerous. So, it was like you were talking to the father of the miscreants, so that by talking to them you are talking to those people.
So, they among themselves decided to bring out people to talk to people in Somalia. My people didnâ€™t travel to Somalia, I am not about to lie, but it was at a fee, it cost a lot of money. I am not about to say that a ransom was paid per se, but what I am trying to say is that the initiative involved spending money, a lot of money changed hands.
I donâ€™t want to quote figures because I want other members of the family to be present before we do that. I know sending money to a place like Somalia cannot be done secretly.
If you send money it would be recorded because in a civilized society like the U.S. where every kobo that you send to those places that are termed as terrorist grounds, even if you send a kobo there it must be in the records, so all the amounts that have been expended by members of my family in the attempt to get these people released are well documented there, but I am not going to give you the figure right now but that time will come.
We too are not making claims, why is the minister now coming around to mislead the world. We are now the laughing stock of people living in the US because they all know it. The US developed particular interest in the plight of the Nigerians over there, so they all know what happened. The number of people who met him, who spoke with him, high ranking military intelligence officers from all over the world.
Like the moment they came out of captivity they went to a place called Mukallah in Yemen, what happened was that as providence would have it, there was this NATO naval ship that provided effective cover for them.
There was this ship from the Royal Dutch Navy, a frigate, there was also another French ship that escorted them all the way from the troubled Somali territory right across to Yemen. Within that period a lot of people came, even the Americans heard about their escape and they came, a lot of questions were asked, they were interviewed by even bigger brains. A lot of questions were asked.
What role did the employer play?
Their employer up till today has not come to see them, they have spent six days here they have not even registered their presence, they have not even made phone calls to say â€˜thank you we have heard,â€™ they have not come. I even want to tell you that there are even some among them who came on a particular day and openly made a proclamation before the pirates that he does not care, that they could kill all the Nigerians (hostages) that he was tired of speaking with them! If you are interested we will give you names of people who made that declaration.
Are they Nigerians?
Yes, from the home office of their employers, told the pirates that they should do away with them that they are tired.
Who is that officer?
The Administration Manager, Terrence Difiaghoh. He was put on speaker phone while he was addressing the pirates so that all of us could hear him. (Interjection by one of the freed hostages.) He was on speakerphone and all of us heard him, the statement made by the Admin. Manager was â€œif you cannot take what we are going to offer you, kill them we donâ€™t have more than that. I donâ€™t want to talk again, so if you cannot take the $300,000 that we are offering you, kill them. Then the pirates and the lords (sponsors) said what? Your own people that you are working for said we should kill you? No, we are not going to kill you because you have not offended us. By that time we had all gone on our kneels begging them to spare our lives.
Hostages leave Abuja empty-handed.
Up till today, they have not come. Right now, they are about to leave and they are leaving empty-handed, government that kept them here kept them since Saturday, now they have been asked to go, that we are through with you.
They are going with nothing in their pockets, they are going to meet their families. You know after the initial daddy you are welcome, the next day madam go ask, we no go chop? So, na play you go play there? Is it an easy life? These are people whose lives are devastated, they donâ€™t know where they are going, a whole year wasted, their dignity stripped. There is a particular crew member, who lost his mother shortly after leaving for the trip but because he is the eldest son and because he is the only bread winner, up till today, the body has not been buried. These are the type of thing that is going on and the minister is trying to arrogate to himself that I have done this, I have done that.
What role did the Federal Government play in the release?
When they eventually got to Mukallah in Yemen, ofÂ course by that time the government had become aware of it and they came into the picture. I am not trying to totally condemn government that they didnâ€™t do anything, we are all vessels and God can call on anybody at anytime to play a particular role.
But was it government that freed them?
Government did not have any role in the freeing of the hostages, it was the result of the efforts of the families. Even on the eve of their release money again changed hands â€” to tell you that something was going on somewhere before the pirates decided that, okay come into your boat and go away. Money changed hands on the eve of their departure from Somalia. It is not that it came down from the air.
And this money was mobilised by you?
Of course it came from our end and all those things are documented and were transacted through the US. By the time they left that place, God still performs His miracles, they didnâ€™t even follow the scripts.
Captain Egbedi Interview
When you were firstÂ taken hostage, what was their first demand?
And you told them you didnâ€™tÂ have money?
The first thing they did was that, I had 5,000 US dollars with me then. The first thing they did was to collect that money. And (laughs) you know, I had some N7, 000 in my pocket too, they collected it. And I told them this naira you cannot change it, so, leave this money and they said no.
Because anything Nigeria, Nigeria is very, very popular outside and they feel that our money in terms of exchange rate is at par with the US dollars, so they felt that they hit millions.
So, they carried that one too. Because what I understand from them is that 33,000 shillings to one dollar. So they thought that even the Naira was big money, so they were very happy carrying it. And after that they started carrying every other things, some times at gun points, sometimes when you are sleeping, sometime when you are not around.
After taking what you had on you, they now said you should contact your employers or?
No, no I contacted my employer the next day after our capture on August 4 and on August 5, 2008, they opened up the lines to the employers and the employers were like today, tomorrow just like that. I contacted the Business Development Manager, one guy that is called Buchi.
He said he was going to handle the negotiations at the initial stage. And he was the first person who agreed the $1 million with them. So, later when the MD himself now came back from Malaysia and said he does not have that kind of money, they now said Africans generally are all liars. So, they donâ€™t believe what the people are saying.
But I do try to make them understand that this is one-man business and not multi-national company. If the man is saying that he did not have $1 million, it is true.
So, whatever the man can offer you, take it. So, they now gave an ultimatum that if the man does not pay at so, so time, they are going to execute everybody. So, when that was not done, when the payment was not made, when we were still begging them, at first, it was not easy.
Everyday we were kneeling down begging them, just to spare our lives; I mean these guys were, I donâ€™t know how to describe them. And when that promise was not fulfilled they decided to extend the deadline they gave.
When the MD came and said look, we donâ€™t have that kind money, how much did he say he would certainly part with?
And. Well, according to him, he said what he had was $200,000 and the people said they were not going to take that. The people now told him that since Buchi himself had said that he could make arrangement to pay $1 million, how come you are now singing a different song. So, if you are now saying that you donâ€™t have the $1 million to pay then it means that we are going to make the money $2 million.
So, they compounded the problem again. It took a lot of time before they started renegotiating again until the MD and them finally agreed at $600,000. It was almost after seven months or thereabout. And during that time the suffering was too much and we thought we were all going to die. But the miracle is that nobody died, but we are not the same up till now.
Sir, when the MD agreed at $600,000, why did he not pay it?
He made a lot of promises, he told them that to carry $600,000 from Nigeria, that Nigeria is quite a dangerous place, so what he intended to do was to charter a plane to fly this money straight to Jubudi and from there he wouldl make arrangement to fly the money and drop the money to them, then they will free the boat or, he was discussing with them that by the time he started flying they should take a boat to a particular position and give him the position and as soon as he got there, he would drop the money so that the pirates would go their way and the vessel also her way, which never, never happened up till this day.
And then, after a long period again, when the suffering became too much, they now said they only had $300, 000. They now came down from the earlier $600,000 to $300, 000 again. But before then two men came to visit us from the city they called Bosaso. And those two men said they were sent by the company. And when I asked this Admin. Manager, Torrence, he said yes that they sent them.
Are they Nigerians?
No, they are Somalis. So, that day he asked me, the phone was really on speaker. He said he wouldÂ speak to the entire crewmembers to know if everybody was alive. So, I called everybody, which was on the 5th of March 2009. So everybody was on the bridge together with the pirates and those two people that they sent in.
So, when the people started discussing with him, he said what they could afford was $300,000. But the man told them that you said you have $600,000, that they should come and see the ship to know if that is the ship itself, that they really want to hear my voice and that of the crew to know that those are their people. And they have heard everything, how comes he is now saying that it is $300,000 again.
So, the man now discussed with the other pirates and those sponsors and they said okay, even if that is the case, we will take the $300,000. So, they agreed that they were going to take $300,000.
And in the course of the discussion, I donâ€™t know what happened, this Torrence just flared up and just told the pirates that he is tired of discussing this issues with them. That he is even tired of working, he is no longer interested in this matter that pirates should kill everybody and let them know that the matter has ended. So that we know this matter is finished. He repeated it not once, not twice.
And you are hearing his voice?
He was on speaker, everybody was hearing. All of us were there. So everybody went down on their kneels and we were begging the Somali pirates. It was then the pirates even said, you see, your employer does not even care about your life. I think that was the turning point when God started his miracle.