Violence in Nigeria: No Shortage of Usual Suspects

3 MINS READMay 11, 2006 | 23:01 GMT
Gunmen abducted at least two foreign nationals employed by the Italian oil company Saipem in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on May 11, one day after a lone gunman killed a manager of U.S. petroleum equipment company Baker Hughes in the same southern oil city. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the most prominent militant group in the region, has denied involvement in either incident, and Nigerian authorities and diplomatic and industry sources in the country support the claim. Militants, however, are only one of the many threats to multinational corporations in Nigeria.
The Saipem employees, including at least one Italian citizen, were abducted from their sport utility vehicle as they drove through Port Harcourt — their police escort apparently having been either neutralized or taken completely off guard. The gunmen hustled the foreigners into nearby boats and disappeared into the maze of streams and rivers in the Niger Delta region. The Baker Hughes employee, a U.S. citizen, was killed in his car by a lone gunman riding by on a motorcycle. The victim was not a company executive but a midlevel manager who was there negotiating a labor agreement with the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG), one of Nigeria's two most powerful unions. Foreign oil workers are often kidnapped in Nigeria, though they are usually released upon payment of a ransom. Oil companies, knowing their employees and facilities are at constant risk in the region, often make protection payments to local officials, tribal leaders and even the militant groups. MEND has been behind many of the recent abductions in the Niger Delta, as well as attacks against oil industry-related facilities. Rather than attribute the latest kidnappings to MEND, however, local authorities are calling it a "community problem," likely referring to a gang from a local tribe that aims to ransom the foreigners. In the past, local tribes, including the Ijaw, have attacked oil companies in the region, using hostages or threats of further attacks to gain concessions for their communities or to pressure the Nigerian government to release jailed tribe members. Criminal gangs are also are active in the region, and are motivated purely by money. The killing of the U.S. oil worker, according to Nigerian authorities, is another case entirely. They believe someone affiliated with NUPENG carried out the attack as a "warning" to the oil company to soften its position in the labor negotiations. MEND attacks are primarily political in nature, generally aimed at preventing Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo — who is essentially the chief bribe distributor in the country — from running for a third term. It is possible, however, that a MEND splinter group has gone into business for itself. If MEND is one of the groups receiving protection money, the renegade members could be among those who are not getting a cut. There are also other groups with economic motive to commit acts against multinationals in Nigeria. Militants, criminal gangs and tribal gangs — not to mention corrupt government and union officials — all contribute to the current instability in Nigeria. With oil markets already jumpy over the situations in Iraq and Iran, concerns over instability in one of the world's major oil-producing countries could further impact the global energy market.

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