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'It's like the Wild West with AK-47s'

Posted by By Katherine Houreld on 2006/08/28 | Views: 490 |

'It's like the Wild West with AK-47s'


Foreign workers in Nigeria's oil hub carpool with rifle-toting police officers on their morning commute. A night on the town can turn into a run from gunfire. And placemats at a popular bar advise:"Eat a lot. Fat people are harder to kidnap."

Port Harcourt - Foreign workers in Nigeria's oil hub carpool with rifle-toting police officers on their morning commute. A night on the town can turn into a run from gunfire. And placemats at a popular bar advise:"Eat a lot. Fat people are harder to kidnap."

Amid a rash of hostage-takings in the nation's violence-plagued south - including a daring raid on a nightclub in the centre of town - even some of Port Harcourt's most hardened oilmen are nervous.

But the dollars - and the danger - are a lure for many.

"It's fantastic to live here," said Steve, a Briton working for Royal Dutch Shell PLC. A solidly built man with soccer tattoos, he said he enjoys a freedom and standard of living that he would never have in Europe.

Steve has been taken hostage twice by machete-wielding gangs, but is quick to point out that he has never been held for more than a day.

"Once they took my car and I had to walk 10 miles out of the jungle to get back," he said with a smile. Like many oil workers, Steve would not give his full name because he is forbidden to speak to reporters.

The kidnappings and attacks on oil facilities have cut the flow of crude from Africa's largest producer by 25 percent and helped push up global prices.

But there's still a lot of money for oil companies to make in Nigeria, the fifth-largest supplier of crude to the United States and home to operations by Shell, Chevron. and Exxon Mobil.

Though the hundreds of foreign oil workers in Port Harcourt are only a tiny part of the population of the teeming city, they symbolise the economic engine of the region and their lifestyles make them a target.

Servants, luxurious houses, expensive cars and annual wage packets that can easily top six figures entice foreign workers to the oil jobs in the Niger Delta.

But they trade the salary for safety, as militants who say government officials and oil companies are growing rich off the oil while residents see little benefit use kidnapped workers as pawns to negotiate money or concessions from the corporations.

In the past three weeks, 19 foreigners have been kidnapped in the delta in six incidents. As of Friday, 16 had been released unharmed.

Last weekend, the Nigerian government declared a crackdown and arrested 160 people in two days.

John, an American oil worker, was inside the Goodfellas nightclub 10 days ago when six expatriates were taken hostage by men in military uniforms firing into the air.

He escaped by hiding under tables and chairs at the back of the room.

"I've been here since '92 and I've never experienced anything like that," he said.

John said the gunmen were disturbingly professional.

They blocked off the street with vehicles, firing into the air with machine guns and automatic rifles, then asked those inside their nationalities and employers before abducting six oil workers - an American boat captain, two hostages from Britain and one each from Poland, Ireland and Germany.

"It's an escalation," said CP, another worker who was at the nightclub during the raid.

"Before, we've had our cars attacked with sticks and machetes and stuff like that."

He and other oil workers - a mix of Americans, Norwegians and Britons - discussed the Goodfellas kidnapping over beers at a local bar.

Many oil companies have put severe security restrictions on their workers since the Goodfellas raid and the men were breaking company policy by venturing out of their heavily guarded compounds.

But not everyone is breaking the curfew. Though the bar is normally a heaving nightspot, the rest of the room was nearly empty.

One worker who wasn't venturing out said concern for his family has made him more careful.

"I've sent them away for the foreseeable future," Harry said in his empty living room.

"They've given enough warnings to the oil companies. (The militants) say they know everyone's wives, and their children's schools, and all the travel arrangements."

For some, the danger may be part of the attraction.

"It's like the Wild West with AK-47s," said one, who refused to give even his first name or the company he worked for.

But Harry, home alone with an open bottle of Chardonnay and a pile of DVDs, said he understands Nigerian frustration with underdevelopment and poverty, two of the recurrent complaints of many groups that take hostages.

Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the region generates in oil wealth, most local residents live on less than US$2 (about R14) a day.

At every stoplight, the cars of oil workers are besieged by the crippled, the blind and hungry children begging for change.

"But we're not trying to steal money or jobs from people. If there was a Nigerian qualified to do my job, he'd have it," Harry said.

"The militants don't think about what they put the families of their hostages through."

Others argue that the kidnappings have become more a money grab than a political statement.

"What you used to get was guys who couldn't get work," CP said of the kidnappers.

"But it's a business now. I don't think a lot of people doing it (taking hostages) would work if they could. They're making too much money."

CP, a hardened Nigeria hand, insisted he was not afraid and the attacks wouldn't change his lifestyle.

"You can't turn around and say I'm going to live my life in my hotel or my bedroom or something," he argued.

But moments later, when a tall Nigerian man in a black shirt walked into the bar, glanced around and walked out again, CP was visibly nervous.

"He's checking this place out," CP said.

"I'm outta here."

His half-full glass of beer sat abandoned on the table. - Sapa-AP

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.