Nigeria: May 14, 2003


A spokesman for Shell's Nigerian subsidiary said workers had found signs of "excavations" and "disturbed vegetation" surrounding a broken pipeline at Ubianuge village, near the oil port of Warri. The spillage was first reported on 9th and had been brought under control by 11th, although an unknown amount of crude oil had contaminated surrounding farm fields and into a creek. 

This is just the latest in a string of incidents, where vandals and criminal gangs siphon off the crude into buckets, barrels, and tug boats. Shell estimates the practice (known in Nigeria as "bunkering") cost nearly 100,000 barrels of crude a day. Combined with the other companies, the oil industry in Nigeria loses nearly 10 percent of the 2 million barrels daily to theft. Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer and the fifth-biggest supplier of oil to the United States. 

Gangs also sometimes sabotage company facilities in a bid to extort money from oil workers who come to clean up the mess. In April, sections of two major pipelines carrying crude from ChevronTexaco's Escravos oil terminal to two refineries were blown up and yet no one claimed responsibility. 

President Olusegun Obasanjo is supposedly reticent to order reprisals as a solution to the problem, fearing that it could encourage a cycle of fighting. Military sources claimed a proposed offensive was made to the president, who reportedly rejected it on the ground that he would be unable to justify it.

This may turn out to be a short-sighted approach to the situation. When the commander of the 7th Battalion told the Warri business community of a possible pending attack on May 6, commercial activity ground to a halt. Obasanjo might be playing a waiting game, trying to keep his military from being decisively committed while letting the oil companies take on the burden of solving the problem.

Striking Nigerian oil rig workers had held 100 foreign workers captive on the M.G. Hulme rig from April 16 until May 3, when a settlement was released. The Hulme is operated by Houston-based Transocean Inc. and on contract to the French firm TotalFinaElf.

However, shortly after the agreement was announced, two planes with former British special forces set off for Nigeria on what a Private Military Company said was a rescue mission at the four rigs. Andrew Williams, London director of private military company Northbridge Services told Reuters that the company had been contacted on on May 1, to obtain two C-130s and prepare them for action. Citing security reasons, Williams declined to name the teams' airfield of departure or the interim destination. 

Williams told the press that "we brought in a representative of the hostage takers and showed him the guys and their equipment waiting to go in. He got the message" and Northbridge's mission was aborted as the hostages were released without a shot being fired. 

However, forming a company (albeit of commandos) and moving them over 1,000 miles in the space of two days is hard enough to do with a standing Rapid Deployment Force like the 82nd Airborne, let alone private contractors. British diplomats in Nigeria and London also expressed shock at the rescue mission and a Transocean spokesman said his company was not involved with the British group.

So this leaves open several questions - was Northbridge just hired for this project too late and the press release a chimera designed to force a reaction from the strikers? Or was the oil rig strike simply an excuse for Obasanjo to allow the oil companies to pre-place some professional soldiers in Nigeria to solve the Ijaw problem? With all that profit being lost, the oil companies working in Nigeria have a lot to lose if they (or Obasanjo) do nothing. Stay tuned, this story might get weirder. - Adam Geibel


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