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The Wall Street Journal: PAGE ONE: DIRTY WORK

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In Nigeria’s Violent Delta,
Hostage Negotiators Thrive
Joshua Benamaisia
Helps Rescue Captives;
More Woes for Big Oil
By CHIP CUMMINS

June 7, 2007; Page A1

YENAGOA, Nigeria — In January, gunmen dynamited their way into the compound of a construction firm here, forced nine South Korean workers onto waiting boats, and sped off into the Niger River Delta’s maze of mangrove-lined creeks.

The next day, Joshua Benamaisia was on the case. A 44-year-old adviser to the local government, Mr. Benamaisia leads a band of state-sponsored vigilantes and plays another murky role: gumshoe and hostage negotiator. Mr. Benamaisia phoned an old friend who is a prominent militant leader, and two days later the Koreans walked out of the swamps unharmed.
 
WSJ’s Chip Cummins reports from Yenagoa, Nigeria on how bandits and corruption are plaguing Africa’s most populous nation.

With violence rising, Nigeria’s handful of unofficial middlemen like Mr. Benamaisia have become indispensable in this increasingly anarchic corner of the global oil patch. Moving easily among Nigerian officials, oil executives and foreign diplomats on one side and militants and criminals on the other, they have helped win the release of an estimated 100 kidnap victims in the Delta so far this year.

But the middleman role has a dark side. It underpins an unofficial kidnapping market that is emblematic of the lawlessness and failed governance plaguing Africa’s most populous nation. An ad-hoc system of shadowy go-betweens, threats and ransom payments has allowed hostage-taking to flourish into a lucrative industry that is roiling the global oil market.

The oil-rich Niger Delta is Nigeria’s wealthiest region and its most troubled. Its descent into chaos is having grave consequences on the outside world. In recent years, Nigeria had become a crucial supplier of low-sulfur crude, which is easier to process into the types of cleaner-burning fuels valued by the West.

Since January 2006, spooked oil companies have been closing fields and withdrawing workers, shuttering a quarter of the country’s pumping capacity. Nigeria can produce some three million barrels a day, or almost 4% of global demand, and the violence has stoked global oil prices.

Dozens of Nigerians have died in shootouts between kidnappers and security forces. And while foreign hostages usually emerge unscathed, late last year a British oil worker was killed in a bungled rescue attempt by the Nigerian military.
 
The violence is so bad Mr. Benamaisia, who once opposed the heavy-handed tactics of federal forces, is now lobbying the government to step up its security presence. “If we let these people keep doing what they’re doing, there will be nothing left,” he says.

The kidnapping of foreign workers has long been a feature of modern life in the Niger Delta, a mangrove swamp that extends some 20,000 square miles across the southern coast of Nigeria. For many years, the acts were primarily used to protest alleged oppression by federal authorities or slights by oil companies. But in the past few years, gangs of unemployed youth and well-organized criminal cells have joined in, motivated by payments increasingly doled out to win release of hostages.

Five years ago, a company buying kidnap insurance in Nigeria would need to shell out about $10,000 a year for $5 million in coverage, according to Willis Special Contingency Risks, a unit of insurance broker Willis Group Holdings Ltd. in London. Today, that same coverage goes for about $100,000.

Nigeria’s botched elections in April made things even worse. The country’s elections in years past have been marred by violence and voter intimidation. But the scale and audacity of irregularities in April’s votes led international observers to condemn them as tainted. After the election, hostage takings and other attacks dramatically escalated into a low-grade insurgency against the federal government, seated in the capital Abuja.

A week after the first round of voting, gunmen fought government forces in a running street battle here that federal officials say was a failed kidnapping attempt against the regional governor. A few weeks later, men shot their way into the governor’s home near here, killing a number of policemen before dynamiting the place, according to local press reports.
 
On May 1, a rebel group attacked a Chevron Corp. oil-export terminal in the offshore waters near here and kidnapped six workers — one American, one Croatian and four Italians. In an email to reporters, the group sent photos of the hostages, including one where the unshaven Chevron men sit glumly around an extinguished campfire. On May 25, area gunmen kidnapped at least seven more foreign workers, believed by local officials to have been working for a Nigerian oil-services firm. The group included three Americans and four Britons, U.S. and U.K. officials confirm.

Last weekend, the Chevron workers were released, but the group responsible threatened in an email to launch more kidnappings down the road. The other American and British hostages remain in captivity.

Clashes in recent weeks have been fiercest near Yenagoa, capital of the Nigerian state of Bayelsa in the central part of the Delta. High oil prices have swollen Bayelsa’s coffers, and Yenagoa’s elite are building an American-style suburb of large gated homes. But the state is also a showcase for Nigeria’s brazen brand of corruption. In late 2005, the former governor of the state was impeached as part of an anticorruption drive. He is now contesting the government’s corruption charges, which he and supporters say are trumped up and politically motivated.

The vast majority of the state’s 1.7 million residents, most of whom are members of the Ijaw ethnic group, live in deep poverty. Nestled in a steep shoulder below the town’s main road, Henry Ezeonye’s shop and home flood during the region’s frequent heavy rains because there are no sewers. His neighborhood gets reliable power one or two days a week. “What we need is roads, lights,” he says.
 
In early 2006 a new militant group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or Mend, started terrorizing the facilities of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and kidnapping workers. In emails to reporters, the group demanded the central government give the Niger Delta region more control of its oil resources and called for the release of two men, the former Bayelsa governor held on corruption charges and a prominent militant.

Gov. Goodluck Jonathan, who had taken over as head of Bayelsa state, reached out to an old friend from university days, a former Nigerian diplomat named Godknows Igali, to spearhead negotiations with Mend. The state also turned to Mr. Benamaisia.

The son of a civil servant, Mr. Benamaisia hails from Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city. In college, he was drawn toward Ijaw political movements, aimed at winning rights for one of Nigeria’s historically oppressed ethnic groups. While he defended an Ijaw neighborhood under attack from a rival ethnic group several years ago, Mr. Benamaisia and other community leaders say he’s otherwise limited himself to the peaceful side of the struggle.

After moving to Yenagoa in 2002, Mr. Benamaisia made his own fortune in a number of business ventures. His large and well-appointed home in Port Harcourt, a two-hour drive away from Yenagoa, has its own generator, and his new sport-utility vehicle is equipped with a small blue police siren that Mr. Benamaisia frequently relies on to bypass traffic jams. Including perks and allowances, Mr. Benamaisia’s take-home pay for his government job is over $5,000 a month, a handsome sum in a country where annual per-capita income is just $560.

Tough-talking and impatient, Mr. Benamaisia constantly juggles two cellphones, switching easily between English and a local dialect. He laughs readily, especially when talking about his dangerous work, and seems unfazed by the death threats he’s gotten since taking the job. “I told them I’ll get them before they get me,” he says.

From his days in Ijaw politics, Mr. Benamaisia has many contacts inside past militant movements. He and Mr. Igali soon teamed up with Ijaw elders and won the release of two batches of foreign hostages seized at Shell’s facilities. Mr. Benamaisia was then tapped to organize a militia to protect Bayelsa’s coastal villagers from pirates.

After hearing about the Korean kidnappings in January of this year, Mr. Benamaisia called up his militant friend, a prominent Mend leader. The Mend leader told him the rebel group wasn’t involved, but said he knew the hostage takers — local thugs out for ransom.
 
Mend was tired of being blamed for all the kidnapping in the region, Mr. Benamaisia says, so the friend used his influence to force the kidnappers to turn over the hostages, employees of South Korea’s Daewoo Engineering & Construction Co. In a press statement, Gov. Jonathan praised Mr. Benamaisia’s role in the release of the hostages.

In this case, money didn’t change hands, Mr. Benamaisia says. But ransom payments are commonplace, say officials, Western diplomats and company executives here. While Mr. Benamaisia and other government officials say they never pay ransom, they say other kinds of payments have become standard procedure.

For instance, they will reimburse militants and middlemen for “logistics” — anything from gasoline for motorboats to room and board for foreign hostages, who are often treated to expensive bottled water and air conditioning. “When a hostage is taken, money has to be spent” not only to identify the kidnappers, but also to reimburse them for feeding and caring for hostages, explains Mr. Igali, the Bayelsa official. Typical logistical costs can be as much as a million naira per incident, or about $7,800, he says.

Critics call the payments dressed-up ransom, and allege that officials are likely getting a cut of these transactions. “They themselves that are negotiating are negotiating for their own pockets,” says Nengi James, a local Ijaw activist who also consults for the state government.

Mr. Benamaisia and Mr. Igali deny taking a cut of the hostage settlements. They say the payments aren’t big enough to make kidnapping worth the effort, and the government has no choice if it wants to ensure the hostages’ safety.

On April 14, the day of the vote for local officials, many observers expected an uneventful election day in Yenagoa because Gov. Jonathan, head of Bayelsa, was running as the ruling party’s vice presidential candidate. Instead, it was a fiasco. Government officials failed to open many polling places until late and kept some shut all day, according to reports filed by outside monitors and interviews with residents. These observers allege the government did so to fix the vote, which the ruling party swept. The government’s foes in the region were outraged as the second round of voting, to choose the president, approached on April 21.

At dusk the day before polls opened, dozens of armed men in motor boats swarmed Yenagoa’s trash-strewn waterfront of lumber yards and sand lots. Peter Ogege, security supervisor for one of the city’s water-pumping stations, says he watched a half-dozen men scale the station’s wall. They planted dynamite behind one of the plant’s buildings and carefully spooled out wire. A minute later, Mr. Ogege and other workers say, the building exploded, raining down bits of concrete and corrugated metal roofing. “If I hadn’t been on the other side, I would have died that day,” Mr. Ogege says.

For several hours, gunfire and explosions rocked the city as government forces battled gunmen. Parker Osumawei says he huddled with his family on the lobby floor of the Parklane Hotel, which he owns, as machine-gun fire and loud explosions echoed outside. The blast knocked all the hotel’s doors out of their frames and sent the courtyard’s metal gate hurtling 50 yards into Mr. Osumawei’s car.

On April 21, the day of the presidential election, Abuja officials said the attacks were by militants trying to kidnap Gov. Jonathan in order to disrupt the voting. In an email to a local newspaper, a group claiming responsibility said the attack was to “warn the Nigerian government of the ballot injustice inflicted on the Ijaw and the entire Niger Delta.” Although Gov. Jonathan is Ijaw himself, he was viewed by some critics as a stooge of the ruling party establishment.

On May 1, the day Mend kidnapped the six Chevron workers, the paid militia run by Mr. Benamaisia took the law into its own hands, raiding a pirate camp suspected of stealing one of its boats. In a clash that followed, one pirate was killed, and another’s arm was severed. Called the “Bayelsa Volunteers,” the militia group is supposed to be unarmed.

On May 2, Mr. Benamaisia worked the phones from the plush couch in his living room, trying to find the Chevron hostages. When asked about the militia, Mr. Benamaisia said his men took up arms only in defense and the injured man confessed to the theft. “Probably he died on his way to the hospital,” he shrugged. “The boat was recovered.”

After several days of making calls, Mr. Benamaisia realized he wouldn’t be able to get the Chevron hostages released any sooner and he backed out of negotiations. After more than a month in captivity, the group was released last Saturday.

–Ian McDonald in London contributed to this article.

Write to Chip Cummins at [email protected]

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