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Sunday Herald (Scotland): Oil firms urged to tackle wave of kidnappings

By John Bynorth
Solicitor’s call comes as Briton held to ransom

A LEADING adviser to the oil industry in Nigeria has demanded that British firms based in the country work more closely with the government and local communities to end the constant threat of kidnappings.

Solicitor Leon Moller, who provides legal and practical advice to workers and firms overseas, spoke out after British worker Dave Worth was snatched in the Niger Delta’s oil capital Port Harcourt on Friday – where four died yesterday after gun battles between rival gangs.

Worth is one of more than 200 people, including 34 Britons and a three year-old-girl, to have been held to ransom by militants in the troubled region since the start of 2006. Most have been released unharmed after their demands were met by the oil companies.

Moller said firms must work more closely with the country’s officials, who themselves need to help develop better infrastructure in the country – the fourth largest oil-producing nation in the world.

Locals who fear their resources are being corruptly plundered have suffered an upsurge in militant activity, causing production to fall by as much as 25%. Criminal gangs have exploited the political instability by hijacking platforms, sabotaging equipment, blowing up pipelines and fighting vicious turf wars over bootlegged oil.

While oil staff live in heavily guarded compounds, only 27% of local households have access to safe drinking water and 130,000 people share one doctor.

Moller, an oil and gas solicitor with Aberdeen-based Shepherd and Wedderburn, told the Sunday Herald: “Local people saw these companies come in and take their resources and not develop the infrastructure. They got frustrated and unfortunately some of the militant groups have taken that issue on board and kidnapped people under that banner. It is now a political cause.

“Companies such as Shell are quite prominent in the Niger Delta, and have networking arrangements with the local communities. But the problem in Nigeria over the years is the infrastructure has been neglected. It’s a poor area and the delta has many different interest groups. The local communities feel that they are not sharing in their oil wealth and instead the little oil money that is being spent locally has had a negative effect in their region.

“The oil companies should be more open in their dealings with government and the local communities. They should consider ways to contribute to local development projects, support civil society and they should introduce tougher health, safety and environmental standards.”

Moller welcomed promises from Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, to tackle corruption and press ahead with the Niger Delta Regional Development Master Plan to improve infrastructure. Yar’Adua also endorsed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – which aims to make payments between the oil industry, governments and communities more transparent – and has set up an anti-corruption commission.

The British High Commission said it had been in touch with Worth’s family and were seeking a “swift and peaceful resolution of the incident”. Four other oil workers are currently being held by various armed group.

On Wednesday, an unnamed Briton and his Bulgarian colleague were freed unharmed, although their firm Exprotech denied that a ransom had been paid. The consultants had been working on a production barge when gunman came aboard in Calabar on July 8, the same day Margaret Hill, the daughter of contractor Mike Hill, from County Durham, was handed back to her family after three days in captivity.

The past week’s death toll from gangs fighting turf wars in Port Harcourt rose to from six to 10 yesterday. Security forces set up roadblocks to catch the killers and increased patrols after the violence, which also saw one of the city’s large fuel-pumping stations attacked.

Moller said: “The oil discoveries in Nigeria are described as elephants’ compared with the resources left in the North Sea. It’s in the oil companies’ interests to work out a solution and include all the parties, different interests, in the delta. However, companies will still be in Nigeria despite all these problems.”

http://www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.1612345.0.oil_firms_urged_to_tackle_wave_of_kidnappings.php

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