Seven years after, victim yet to get entitlements, compensation
By Tessy Igomu
He wears a rambunctious look. But Mr. Usman Ochoche Agida is not exactly a happy fellow. With a forlorn look and his flowing garb hanging loosely on his emaciated frame, he walked into the premises of The Sun Newspaper to recount his sordid ordeal at the hands of blood-thirsty Somali pirates seven years ago.
The Benue State indigene was among the 10-crew member aboard a vessel, MV Yenogoa, that was abducted in the Gulf of Aden, in the Indian Ocean, by Somalia pirates between 2008 and 2009. For a journey that was expected to last for two weeks, Agida and his other seafarers ended up spending 10 months with the pirates. According to him, he would have met an untimely death at the hands of the pirates but for providence.
Agida disclosed that despite not being shown any modicum of compassion, he tried to stay hopeful throughout the traumatising encounter with the pirates. More painful for this father of six children is that he is yet to get his entitlements and compensation given to them by the federal government.
It all started for Agida in 2008 when he was contracted by ESL Integrated Services Ltd., a shipping company. He was to join a crew that would bring in the owners’ newly acquired ship, MV Yenagoa Ocean, from Dubai.
Before the sailors embarked on the journey, the owner of the vessel agreed to pay them 100 dollars daily as allowance, he disclosed.
According to him, the sailors’ ordeal started when members of the crew were refused entry at the Dubai International Airport. They were informed that what they had on them were fake visas.
“We were shocked because the visa was given to us by the Logistics Manager of ESL Integrated Services Ltd. The Dubai authorities detained us for 24 hours before we were released by an Egyptian lawyer hired by the owner of the vessel. To avoid deportation, he took us to the Oman Republic, for us to return to Dubai as tourists instead of businessmen.”
After staying in the hotel for a week, they were taken aboard MV Yenagoa Ocean on June 17, 2008, and finally set sail for Nigeria on July 21 without enough fuel.
According to him, the ship’s surveyor instructed that they set sail with about 350, 000 tonnes of fuel. But they were forced to leave the port on the owners’ instruction with just 173, 000 tonnes. This action nearly cost them their lives as the vessel ran out of fuel in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
He noted that the captain, Graham Egbegi, then contacted the Oman Ports Authority for help but was told that the ship was 500 Nautical Miles from that port and so couldn’t be helped. They were, however, given a number to send an SOS to in Bosaso, Somalia. But when contacted, the owner of the ship allegedly opposed the idea.
On August 4, 2008, while sailing for Somalia, they were captured by Somali pirates. Their hijackers demanded a ransom of two million dollars, saying the Nigerian government was “very rich”. They threatened to execute the sailors if their demands were not met.
Agida recalled that following their capture, the Nigerian Internal Affairs office, the Nigerian Ambassador to Kenya and Seychelles, Chijioke Wigwe as well as the ship’s owner, Mr. George Onokpite, were all contacted.
Within the days that followed, he said they suffered indescribable starvation and all forms of deprivations at the hands of the pirates.
His words: “It was quite traumatic to wake up every day to face arms like bazookas, rocket launchers and other high calibre weapons being pointed at us. Every morning, we had this terrible feeling that it could be our last,” he recalled.
The beleaguered sailor noted that for 90 days, they were locked in their dark cabin and not allowed on deck, and were also stripped of every piece of clothing.
“We had to cut our bed sheets into fragments to sew underwear. We almost starved to death. Sometimes, we didn’t eat for three days. Bathing was also a luxury. The pirates threatened several times to execute us, saying the ransom was not forthcoming. In fact, for six months, the ship owner did not communicate with the pirates.
He recalled that it was the sister to the owner of the vessel who lives in the United States that eventually came to their rescue. He disclosed that after presenting their sad ordeal to the Nigerian and Somalia communities in the US, the sum of 43, 000 dollars was paid to the pirates and they were released on June 5, 2009.
According to him, after they were released by the pirates, the federal government delegation that came to Mukalla in Yemen Republic to arrange for their return to Nigeria assured them they would be compensated when they got home.
He recalled that immediately they got to Nigeria, they were received by the then Defence Minister, Dr. Shetitima Mustafa, and former Foreign Affairs Minister, the late Ojo Maduekwe.
The sailor said they were informed that a committee headed by Prof. Jibril Aminu had been set up to look into their plight, adding that on June 6, 2009, one Mr. Okwuolu Wolu of the Presidential Task Force reportedly came to their rooms, gave each of them N10, 000 and asked them to go home.
Agida said he was shocked when a friend called later to congratulate him about the N1m compensation reportedly given to him by the federal government and which was published by some dailies.
He stressed that more painful was the fact that years after, the ship owner had also allegedly refused to give him his entitlements, which as at then was to 40, 600 dollars. The inability to access his entitlements, he said, had cost him several job offers as all his working paper have expired.
Agida, his wife and their children still reside in the ramshackle apartment with worn out curtains that the reporter visited in the Odogunyan area of Ikorodu, Lagos in 2010.
Unlike then, when the only luxury in the apartment was an old television set as well as a radio covered with dust, they now have a ‘flat screen’ television hanging on the wall.
For Agida, putting food on the table remains a great challenge. “On some days, my family’s survival depends on the benevolence of sympathizers and church members,” he lamented.
Agida maintained that before his ordeal in the hands of pirates, life was good for him and his family. He disclosed that he had a legitimate means of livelihood before he entered into a contractual agreement with the owner of ESL Integrated Services Limited, owner of the vessel, MV Yenogoa.
He alleged that his condition and that of the other crew members was made worse by the failure of the vessel owner to pay them their salaries, allowances and arrears, totalling about one billion naira after their release.
“I was doing very well as an Able Seaman (deck worker) with West Coast Shipping Line Limited. My family was very comfortable and family members flocked my house daily. Now, I hardly get visitors again. Although I have something going for me now, which has made my family not to starve, I know my life could be better if all my papers are renewed and if the compensation got to us,” he said.
The distraught man said his family has been thoroughly pummelled by the harsh realities of life and wish the whole nightmare would stop.
Right now, he wants President Muhammadu Buhari to wade into the matter and ensure that he and his colleagues are paid all their entitlements as well as the compensation allegedly paid them by the federal government, which never got to them.
“That ordeal took years off my life and almost cost me my family. Till this moment, I am yet to get over the psychological torture I was subjected to. This is the height of injustice. President Buhari should come to our aid,” he said.