May 28, 2009

Seadog Millionaires?

It looks like piracy pays, after all, even if you are at the wrong end of the stick. Kenyan Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, a well known figure to both hostage negotiators and pirates, has reportedly signed a deal with actor Samuel L Jackson and moviemaker Andras Hamori to sell his story to Hollywood. In another similar development far away in the USA, the Publishers Weekly reports that Capt. Richard Phillips, the Master of the Maersk Alabama who was rescued from a lifeboat by Navy SEALS after three pirates were shot dead, is auctioning off the book rights to his story.

The bidding for Phillips’ memoirs has already reached a half million dollars. Observers say this could cross the million dollar mark, since the hero of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, airline pilot Sullenberger, recently sold his story for upwards of three million, thus setting a precedent. Two big media houses are reportedly bidding against each other for the Maersk Alabama Master’s story. In the way these things go in the United States, Phillips became a hero and a media darling after his dramatic rescue, spiking public interest in piracy off Somalia. His agents CAA are understandably thrilled at the bidding war, although they have refused to comment.

Andrew Mwangura is sometimes a controversial figure. He lives in a small house outside Mombasa, Kenya, with no running water or electricity. His story is fascinating and made for the movies: an ex seafarer now in his 40’s, he started keeping track of hijacked ships since the early nineties and soon gained a reputation for getting accurate information through contacts in Somalia. He operates with four mobile phones, receiving calls and messages from owners, diplomats and others across the world and sending text messages to Somalia to get information that is passes back through journalists. He has been amazingly accurate, as the International Maritime Bureau confirms.

The Kenyan government briefly arrested Andrew after he alleged that the armaments aboard the hijacked ship Faina were bound for Sudan and not Kenya as reported and in violation of international law. Andrew continues to report hijackings and help in negotiation, running his decade old nonprofit organisation, trying to make a living as a consultant and writer, worrying about money and some recent death threats he says he has received. Andrew is called when negotiations for ransoms stall; his rapport with the pirates have been built over time. Hollywood has now come to him to buy his story; Samuel Jackson will play him in a movie to be shot later this year.

Excellent negotiator that he is, one can only hope that Andrew Mwangura has negotiated well with Jackson and Hamori; his days of scratching out a living may well be over. Of course, Capt. Phillip will probably not be seen sailing around Somalia, or anywhere else for that matter, anytime soon.