THE MAGAZINE

Perils Amid Profits in the Niger Delta

By Matthew Harwood

Secretive, shadowy, and sophisticated, Nigeria’s Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has led a campaign of kidnappings of expatriate oil workers for ransom since its inception in January 2006.

Its aim is to terrorize foreign petroleum corporations into leaving the country and pressure Nigeria’s government to acquiesce to their demands for self-determination and resource control of the delta’s vast oil and gas reserves.

MEND is an umbrella group of decentralized tribal Ijaw militias, youth groups, and criminal gangs “with rather different emphases on the extent on which they are focused on their political goals as opposed to commercial or criminal activity,” says Chris Albin-Lackey, Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher.

The recent rash of kidnappings and MEND’s maturing tactics led both the United States and the United Kingdom to urge its citizens to leave the oil-producing region of the Niger Delta. (For more on MEND’s tactics, see “Crude Oil and Corruption,” in the June 2007 issue.)

The conflict’s roots stem from over four decades of corrupt government rule whereby successive military regimes expropriated the Niger Delta’s oil wealth in collusion with Western oil companies without investing it back into the Niger Delta’s oil-producing states.

During the early 1960s, oil revenue distributed back to the oil producing states hovered around 50 percent, but nosedived to 1.5 percent in 1984, and hopped to 13 percent under the 1999 constitution, said Frederic Ngoga-Gateretse, Africa regional manager for iJet, an intelligence and security consultancy.

While the region provides 75 percent of the government’s revenue from minerals, it lacks critical infrastructure and social goods such as clean water and good schools. The local population also decries the resulting environmental damage from the foreign oil companies’ extraction and manufacturing processes such as gas flaring.

Even three successive elections and a peaceful transfer of power—the first in the country’s history—couldn’t bring legitimate representation, prosperity, or stability to the region.

The recent elections, says Human Rights Watch, were “so undermined by open displays of rigging, intimidation, and violence by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its armed thugs that the elections’ real significance may be to illustrate just how far Nigeria is from accountable, democratic government.”

The past two PDP presidencies failed to alleviate poverty, and corruption taints all levels of government. Nigeria’s vast petroleum reserves—3.22 percent of world output—does little to dig its denizens out of impoverishment, 70 percent of whom live on less than $1 per day.

Ostensibly, the MEND fights to ensure the windfall the government earns from selling Niger Delta oil and gas is redistributed to its Ijaw tribesman. But to do this, they engage in unsavory tactics.

In February 2006—or “dark February”—the MEND kidnapped nine Shell expatriate subcontractors during attacks on oil installations, which resulted in Shell shutting down operations in the western Delta temporarily. According to iJet, there has been 138 kidnappings of foreigners in 2007, a 92 percent increase from 2006.

Nowhere is safe. Foreign workers have been kidnapped on the river and the sea, roads, residential compounds, restaurants and bars, and on construction sites.

Brazenly, expatriate workers have been also nabbed from off-coast oil platforms, rigs, and installations, with militants using speedboats for versatility. “Contrary to popular believe, being on a rig or a ship off the coast is not necessarily more secure,” says Ngoga-Gateretse.

Besides fear, MEND use kidnappings as a fundraising tool. The average ransom for a Western hostage is $250,000, which accounts for why a white, Westerner’s new nickname is “ATM.” Most of that money goes to buy arms, says Albin-Lackey.

Kidnapping is made easy by the delta’s geography of mangrove swamps, creeks, and waterways, which provide perfect cover for the indigenous rebels to hide, surprise, and flee after attacks.

There is one upside with regard to kidnap in the region: the victim is likely to survive. The rebels crave money and positive international publicity. Killing their hostages would sabotage both.

The situation is evolving, however. MEND is distancing itself from the tactic, but criminal gangs and copycats still continue the practice. In early July, MEND expressed revulsion at the kidnapping of a three year-old British girl for ransom in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil-refining capital. The group’s undisclosed ultimatum to the kidnappers helped force the child’s release.

For companies wishing to stay in the Niger Delta region, security precautions are paramount. Ngoga-Gateretse recommended three things companies should do.

First, companies should share information with each other at a tactical and at a top level. A database should be created to log all incidents that occur, especially attacks directed at their company. “Such a database can be used to determine trends, which in turn can be used to strengthen the mitigation measures,” he says.

Another wise decision is to have a professional security provider develop a “network of boots on the ground”—relationships with everyone from low-level police to the state governor to local indigenous employees to other security service providers in the region.

“[Y]ou should combine all those together and you will have a network of boots on the ground,” said Johan Selle, director of operations for iJet, “and as you start building your puzzle you’ll be able to figure out what the bigger picture is and what you need to be aware of.”

Finally, companies wishing to remain in the Niger Delta should operate at a high-risk profile into the future, as the situation is unlikely to get better in the short-term.

Companies setting up shop in the Niger Delta should also be aware that only Nigeria’s security forces and police are legally armed. Companies and individuals looking for protection can acquire armed security services through negotiations with the Inspector General.

Ngoga-Gateretse says that despite the situation, companies will stay in the Niger Delta, because the “profit margins for operating in the Delta continue to outweigh the risks.”

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