“Can’t the C.I.A. and the Navy Solve This Problem?”
Around 9 p.m. on October 3, 2006, seven ExxonMobil contract workers—four Scotsmen, a Romanian, a Malaysian, and an Indonesian—sat drinking in Nancy’s Bar, a bush-hut pub inside the oil corporation’s walled compound in Eket, Nigeria, in Akwa Ibom State, on the eastern side of the Niger River Delta. The compound sat on a rise beside the wide, muddy Qua River in downtown Eket, a tumbledown town of market stalls, flophouses, water-streaked concrete buildings, and shacks with rusting corrugated metal roofs. Billboards, cell phone towers, palm trees, and church steeples protruded into the low skyline. Motorcycles and scooters poured out smoky exhaust as they swarmed like schools of fish through streets flanked by open drains. The stenciled names of small contracting businesses and places of worship (sometimes colocated) suggested the striving ambition of a faith-influenced oil hamlet: “Divine Hands Ventures,” “Mount Zion Lighthouse,” and “Success World.”
Nancy, the pub owner, was upstairs cooking. She was the Nigerian wife of George McLean, one of the Scotsmen at the bar, a British army veteran who had been settled in Eket for a dozen years, employed by the ExxonMobil contractor Oceaneering International. The three other Britons—Paul Smith, Sandy Cruden, and Graeme Buchan—were relative newcomers. They maintained cranes for Sparrows Offshore, which is based in Aberdeen, Scotland. About three hundred expatriates lived on the Eket compound, of whom about fifty were Americans. Their work supported one of the larger and more profitable oil and gas production operations in ExxonMobil’s global portfolio. In recent months, the corporation had brought on line two large, floating offshore production platforms in Nigerian deep water. These platforms lifted ExxonMobil’s production in Nigeria to a record 850,000 barrels per day, more than 15 percent of the corporation’s worldwide total. High royalties and taxes limited profits but Nigerian crude was of high, sweet quality and commanded premium prices. The country’s deep water beckoned with additional discoveries that might add to ExxonMobil’s booked reserves. In a global oil system constrained by rising nationalism in Venezuela, Russia, and the Middle East, West Africa appeared to be a locus of abundant supplies available for the most part on free-market terms.
Automatic gunfire and pistol shots jolted the men at Nancy’s. They heard shouts and cries at the ExxonMobil security gate. Eighteen young Nigerians burst into the bar. They wore head scarves and fired weapons in the air. They ordered African customers to lie down on the floor, and then they frog-marched the seven expatriates into the darkness. Two Nigerian security guards employed by ExxonMobil to protect the compound’s perimeter lay dying outside. “Run!” the kidnappers ordered. The prisoners jogged for about five minutes to a bridge, where two large speedboats stood ready. The armed boys loaded the foreigners aboard, and the engines roared. They weaved and raced for about eight hours until they reached remote Delta swamplands.
Within a day the kidnappers had issued their ransom demands to Sparrow Offshore and to the governor of Akwa Ibom State, a Christian politician named Victor Attah, who was a relatively effective governor by the Niger Delta region’s abysmal standards. The Delta suffered from what the writer Chinua Achebe called a culture of “political godfatherism.” The kidnappers demanded $10 million for the safe return of each of the four British ExxonMobil contract workers among the seven men abducted, or $40 million in total. The largest kidnapping in the corporation’s history was under way.
John Paul Chaplin oversaw ExxonMobil’s operations in Nigeria. The corporation maintained offices in Abuja, the purpose-built capital in the center of the country, and Lagos, the commercial hub on the Atlantic coast, nearer the oil. Dozens of government affairs lobbyists, public relations specialists, security officers, and corporate intelligence collectors reported to Chaplin along with the usual array of engineers, lawyers, and labor supervisors. Especially during the first years of his tenure in the country, Chaplin had taken a somewhat optimistic view of Nigeria’s oil potential. “It’s like the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s,” he told American diplomats privately. Nigeria’s gas reserves offshore could turn out to be the largest in the world, Chaplin thought. For all of its corruption and flaws, Nigeria’s government had a decent record, to date, of honoring contracts with the big oil corporations that fed the government so much revenue; the government favored Western corporations and resisted China. Nor had Nigeria’s rulers resorted to the sort of manipulated nationalism and populism roiling Venezuela. The centrality of Nigerian booked reserves and production to ExxonMobil’s corporate performance reflected the broader rise of West Africa as a critical oil supplier to the United States after 2000. Nigeria was on track to soon pass Venezuela as America’s fourth largest supplier of oil, after Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. The corporation produced about the same amount of oil in 2006 from Nigeria, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola as from the United States and Canada combined.
All this provided ample reason, Chaplin thought, for ExxonMobil to try to continue to adapt to what was, admittedly, one of the world’s roughest political and social environments among major producers. The corporation operated in joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and the N.N.P.C. was a mess, riddled with corruption and unable to keep up with necessary investments. When the government was not stealing outright, it operated at a hopelessly slow and inefficient pace; bureaucratic approvals that might take six months elsewhere took twice as long in Nigeria. Civil and political unrest swept the country in waves. Even before the raid on Nancy’s, Chaplin had found it increasingly difficult to persuade expatriate technical workers to come to Nigeria; if the problem of attracting talent worsened, it might threaten production.
Unlike Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, which ran many of their Nigerian oil wells onshore, in the midst of impoverished and politically disenfranchised Delta populations, most of ExxonMobil’s operations took place in ocean waters eleven to seventy-five miles offshore. The corporation’s onshore base in Akwa Ibom—a private airport and housing compound in Eket, and its nearby Qua Iboe Terminal on the Atlantic Ocean, where piped oil could be stored and loaded for transport—had not been greatly troubled during past phases of militancy and insurgency in the Niger Delta. Southern Nigeria’s most restive antigovernment ethnic groups, such as the Ijaws, had little local presence. These factors fed a tendency toward complacency about security threats in Nigeria back at headquarters, in Irving. But during the months leading up to the Eket kidnapping, it had become clear that ExxonMobil was coming under serious and unprecedented threat.
The surge in Nigeria’s importance to global oil markets seemed to inspire into action the political and criminal gangs in the Delta’s oil-endowed swamps. Northern ethnic elites had long dominated politics and wealth hoarding in Nigeria; across decades, they had exploited the Delta’s oil and left its people in poverty. The particular wave of violence that washed up at the ExxonMobil compound in Eket was only the latest manifestation of this conflict. In 2005, Nigeria’s democratically elected president, the retired general Olusegun Obasanjo, sought to amend the constitution to extend his rule beyond two four-year terms. The power struggle that ensued among parliamentarians, Delta governors, and supporters of the president led to an upsurge of violence by armed gangs of thugs, students, and legitimately aggrieved insurgents—in Nigeria, it was never easy to separate criminals from political dissenters.
Obasanjo established the Niger Delta Development Commission to invest in the neglected south and address the deprivation that fed crime and militancy. ExxonMobil contributed more than $100 million annually to the budget as part of its operating agreements. Yet the commission failed to deliver; Chaplin grew discouraged. He complained that ExxonMobil and other oil majors could not “continue to be the only entities that address communities’ needs because the companies simply are not equipped nor well suited to become quasi-governments.” Chaplin felt that “now is the time for Nigerians to hold their government accountable.”
The country’s incipient revolutionaries could be as nasty as the government kleptocrats they challenged, however. Delta gangs in early 2006 became newly audacious and ruthless. Kidnapping in the region had long been rampant, but in earlier eras, cases might be settled peaceably as kidnapper and victim sat together in a Port Harcourt bar, sipping beer and waiting for a final ransom to be determined—which they intended to divide between them. The region’s kidnapping markets were highly evolved. Expatriate workers were assessed by kidnapping gangs on a “potential-for-payment scale,” Royal Dutch Shell’s local executive explained to a visiting U.S. senator, “with hostages from the United States or Western Europe garnering the highest ransoms and Russian, Indian and Asians the least.” The oil majors tracked actual ransom settlements—Shell’s matrix showed that the most recent ransoms were running at about $120,000. By 2006, however, raids and abductions led regularly to murder. Shadowy groups issued political demands, not just requests for ransom, and they spoke of revolution. Insurgent and pirate gangs deployed speedboats and raided corporate platforms offshore that they had never reached before. Once-orderly ransom marketplaces yielded to price uncertainty. This devolution unfolded very quickly in late 2005 and early 2006. The United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands formed a consultative group, the Delta Working Group, based in their embassies in the capital of Abuja and in their consulates in the economic capital of Lagos, to evaluate the emerging crisis. “The question was,” recalled John Campbell, then the United States ambassador to Nigeria, “have things fundamentally changed?”
Campbell, an experienced career foreign service officer, believed they had. Insurgent groups in the Delta were issuing statements for the first time that threatened to shut down the country’s oil industry. Their language increasingly attacked the Nigerian state and challenged its legitimacy to rule in the Delta. “If you put all this together, we are far beyond where we have been,” Campbell argued to colleagues that early winter of 2006.
Nigerian military intelligence sources began to report specific threats against ExxonMobil in January. They said two groups, the Nigerian Ijaw Martyrs and the Ijaw Patriotic Front, had reportedly been handing out money to Akwa Ibom youths to join an attack on ExxonMobil’s Qua Iboe Terminal. Chaplin’s security team increased their alert status from Code Orange to Code Red, the highest possible level, at the targeted compound, but kept nearby Eket and other facilities at Orange. Threat upon threat followed.
On March 9, a militia group styling itself the Martyrs Brigade, which said it was acting on behalf of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or M.E.N.D., threatened to carry out “massive attacks” on ExxonMobil’s Nigerian affiliate unless the corporation paid new compensation to local communities, to make amends for a 1998 oil spill from one of its offshore pipelines. “ExxonMobil has continued to pay deaf ears [sic] to the pitiable plight of a now pained and severely exploited people,” the brigade said in a written statement. Along with “all other nationalist and freedom-fighting units in the Niger Delta, we hereby declare a 21-day grace period for ExxonMobil to honor its obligation to compensate every community that was affected by that catastrophic spillage.”
An ExxonMobil security officer joined the Delta Working Group on March 14 and reported that a militant known as Comrade Owei was behind the protests and threats. ExxonMobil had in fact paid between $25 million and $30 million in restitution for the 1998 spill, but the corporation had turned away demands for compensation from communities that it “does not believe were materially affected by the spill,” the officer said. The corporation felt that it was in a bind. It took the militant’s ultimatum “very seriously,” a second corporate official told the American embassy in Abuja, yet felt its options were limited. ExxonMobil depended primarily on a military command in the Delta, the Joint Task Force, and the notorious State Security Service for protection. Neither seemed prepared to confront the emerging threats. ExxonMobil reported that it had embarked on an advocacy campaign at all levels of Nigeria’s government, arguing that Nigeria “cannot afford to allow M.E.N.D. and other militant groups to creep into Akwa Ibom” and threaten ExxonMobil as they already threatened Shell and Chevron in neighboring states. “Were this to occur, the crisis would encompass virtually all of Nigeria’s oil producing coast.” Chaplin and some of his colleagues feared a step-by-step escalation that might lead Nigeria’s military-influenced government to unleash “a scorched earth policy, regardless of its impact on civilians,” which would only make a bad situation worse for the companies.
On April 29, a group of local youths, demanding entry-level jobs on offshore ExxonMobil platforms—cleaning, maintenance, and light construction jobs that typically went to foreign nationals recruited from India, the Philippines, or elsewhere—boarded speedboats and occupied a corporate barge twenty miles offshore. ExxonMobil’s Nigerian managers asked an Eket labor commissioner, Chief Samingo Etukakban, to help persuade the young men to leave.
Etukakban was angry with ExxonMobil because in previous talks over jobs for Akwa Ibom youths, he felt that the corporation’s public affairs officers had lied to him. Nonetheless, “we relented and went out to the barge” by corporate speedboat, he recalled. ExxonMobil expatriates were present, Etukakban said, trying to end the sit-in. A Nigerian navy warship soon turned up; ExxonMobil had summoned the navy for assistance. Nigerian officers and sailors—determined to prove that they could defend the property of international oil corporations—boarded the barge on May 1 and arrested everyone, including the mediators invited out by ExxonMobil. “We were detained in very terrible conditions—two people to one handcuff, lying on a concrete floor,” Etukakban recalled. He spent twenty-three days in custody before a National Assembly member secured his release. The next day more youths with machetes forced their way into ExxonMobil’s Qua Iboe Terminal and briefly held two expatriates hostage. The men escaped. Nigerian security forces fired on the demonstrators, killing two of them. ExxonMobil had been “lucky to operate in the most peaceful area of the Delta,” said Chief Nduese Essien, the parliamentarian who freed Etukakban. But after the barge incident, by the summer of 2006, its local standing was deteriorating. ExxonMobil executives seemed unaware about how low its position had deteriorated among some local politicians and their youthful supporters. The corporation repeatedly displayed a “lack of interest” in local issues and welfare, Essien believed. “Everyone in the Delta is fidgety, and militants may be looking for a pretext to expand their swath,” the American consulate in Lagos reported. ExxonMobil is “talking with local leaders” and yet, “even if we keep the professional militants out, [ExxonMobil] will still have a difficult time working with the local youth to resolve this situation.”
The abductions from Nancy’s Bar signaled just how much had changed. ExxonMobil had been warned.
The seven kidnapped ExxonMobil expatriate contract workers were threatened by their kidnappers but not beaten during their first ten days in captivity. They slept in a makeshift camp deep in the Delta’s palm-shrouded swamps, where muddy creeks and eddies snaked through thick, humid foliage. The kidnappers seemed to be heavy drug users and often preoccupied themselves by getting high. They fed their victims rice and water, but the men felt hot during the day, cold at night, and wet perpetually. They kept up their morale by talking about food and soccer. Their captors opened talks by cell phone with Sparrows’s chief executive and with Victor Attah, the Akwa Ibom governor, a full-faced man who espoused Christian principles, wore business suits, promoted grandiose shopping mall and golf course developments, and owned a luxury home in Lagos. Typically, governors were called in to mediate ransom agreements; it was presumed across the Delta that leading politicians and their security forces often took a piece of the action, although Attah himself had not presided over a kidnapping industry in Akwa Ibom.
In Lagos, ExxonMobil security officers and counterparts from the affected contractor companies formed a crisis management cell and met daily. ExxonMobil retained Controlled Risk Group, one of the major kidnapping management and security firms operating in the Delta. The consultants advised that it was important to “have only one channel of communication between the kidnappers and the government.” Typically, kidnappers would use their victims’ cell phones to reach out to family members to negotiate, issue threats, and raise pressure on the employers. Controlled Risk contacted the families of the victims, passed along cell phone numbers that might be used in this way, and urged the family members not to answer. The Exxon crisis cell also urged Governor Attah to persuade the kidnappers to allow a delivery of humanitarian supplies to the hostages.
The British Foreign Office took a leading role. Washington involved itself as well. After September 11, the State Department set up an enhanced interagency crisis response team that could rapidly deploy to help governments respond to hostage takings, particularly those involving Americans. By 2006 the team had drilled for just the sort of crisis that ExxonMobil now faced. But the idea that American and British intelligence and security officers might parachute into Nigeria to sort out hostage crises made the Nigerian government “uneasy,” as a State Department official involved put it. It did not thrill ExxonMobil, either. The corporation’s security officers were at times reluctant to share information about kidnappings-in-progress with the American government, fearing that sensitive details might be released under the Freedom of Information Act or otherwise leak to the media, compromising negotiations. “Unless serious injury is imminent, companies prefer to negotiate without Embassy intervention unless intervention could be discreet,” a cable to Washington from Abuja reported.
Ransom negotiations reached an impasse and the kidnappers panicked. They beat the four Scotsmen with sticks and slapped them around with machetes. They handed them cell phones and ordered them to tell their corporate bosses that they were “in danger of being shot.”
One morning, the kidnappers beat Graeme Buchan again and then handed him a cell phone. One of the youths threatened him with a loaded gun and instructed him to report, falsely, that his fellow captive, Paul Smith, a father of two, had died of malaria—and that the others were at risk of imminent death as well. “I’m afraid the gun at my head might have uncovered a talent for acting I didn’t know I had,” Buchan said later.
The kidnappers called Governor Attah to report that Paul Smith had died. Attah was furious, he recalled; the death of a British kidnapping victim snatched from ExxonMobil’s fenced compound would devastate Akwa Ibom’s reputation for business and development. “I do not talk to criminals,” he snapped, as he recalled it. He hung up and ordered an aide to send a message to the kidnapper who had telephoned: “Tell him I hope he knows the cost of transporting a corpse from wherever it is back to the man’s home country, because the man will want the body brought back to be buried.” The governor hoped, he said later, that he might unnerve and rattle the kidnappers with this hard-line attitude.
In Scotland, British police soon arrived at Paul Smith’s home to convey the news of his death to his twenty-eight-year-old wife, Paula. Their elder son, Jordan, who was four years old, “was suspicious” of why the police had turned up, and so that night, Paula, devastated, decided to tell the boy the truth. “Daddy is just like the Lion King,” she explained. “He’s gone to heaven now and you won’t see him again.”
The reported death did accelerate ransom negotiations. ExxonMobil maintained a firm public line against payments, but its declared policy could not constrain either its contracting corporations or the governor of Akwa Ibom. Attah recalled that he was besieged by calls from the American, British, Romanian, Malaysian, and Indonesian embassies—they pressed him so hard to resolve the kidnapping that he found it difficult to actually carry out the negotiations. In the end, he conceded, he authorized a ransom payment. It is not clear what advice ExxonMobil offered about this decision or whether it endorsed the payments or supplied funds. As to the kidnappers, Attah said, “They were some misguided boys from my state” who had “invited” and “escorted” elements of a more experienced, hard-core kidnapping gang from another Delta state to attack the ExxonMobil compound.
State Department officials working with major American oil companies found by 2006 that they “diverged in our paths” on the Delta kidnapping issue, the State official recalled. “They would pay ransoms, and then we felt that was just actually contributing to the problem.” Hostage negotiating teams led by State’s Diplomatic Security bureau did deploy to Nigeria, but then sat idle for lack of cooperation from the firms.
The kidnappers packed their hostages back into speedboats and drove them to a rendezvous point with officers of the State Security Service, or S.S.S., the principal national Nigerian police and intelligence force. Assured of their payment, they freed their captives. ExxonMobil helicopters lifted the men to Lagos, where they at last boarded planes for home.
Paul Smith telephoned his wife, Paula, to explain that he was not dead. “He was completely calm,” Paula recalled. “I was beside myself. All the family could hear me on the phone. . . . Everyone was jumping around all over the place.” Once back in Scotland, Paul Smith issued a declaration: “I won’t be going back to Nigeria.”
Influential scholarship documenting the resource curse emerged from the study of Venezuela’s oil-induced woes, but Nigeria offered perhaps the most striking case study. Nigeria possessed a talented, well-educated elite; fertile land; and, of course, oil revenue. The country’s earnings from oil and gas sales from the early 1970s to 2008 totaled about $400 billion. Yet nearly half a century after independence, the country’s population languished perpetually near the bottom of the United Nations’s human development index. Average Nigerian life expectancy remained only forty-six and one half years. Nine tenths of the population lived on two dollars a day or less. More than a third lacked sanitation and clean water, and the country’s infant mortality rates remained among the world’s highest. Such impoverished but less oil-burdened countries as Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe ranked higher than Nigeria on the human development scale.
Corruption, mismanagement, theft, and criminal violence were hallmarks of the government’s performance. During the 1990s, the military dictator General Sani Abacha stole an estimated $4 billion of government funds, in addition to that taken by cabinet officials, state governors, and their affiliated youth gangs. International oil and construction companies conspired in these crimes or tolerated them with see-no-evil policies. Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, agreed early in 2009 to pay $579 million in fines to settle charges related to their participation in a joint venture that systematically bribed Nigerian officials across a decade to secure more than $6 billion in construction contracts; Albert “Jack” Stanley, the chairman of K.B.R., named to his position by Halliburton chief executive Dick Cheney about two years before Cheney departed for the White House, pleaded guilty to criminal charges after personally authorizing a $23 million payment to a Gibraltar consultant to win Nigerian contracts.
In Abuja, “a tiny number of people have stolen a staggering amount of money,” a Western diplomat there observed. The diplomat’s work in liaison with Nigerian ministers routinely brought him into Abuja homes “that you would be embarrassed to build in Beverly Hills,” mansions decorated with “ostentation that is just jaw-dropping.” John Campbell, the American ambassador, referred to the capital’s better neighborhoods as “an example of Las Vegas baroque.” And this was what Nigeria’s political overlords felt comfortable displaying in their home country, where fellow citizens could see it; they funneled much of the rest of their wealth abroad, into properties in London, New York, and Los Angeles.
Poverty, disenfranchisement, and environmental degradation in the southern Niger Delta remained acute. Ken Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent protest movement in the Delta to seek redress during the 1990s; Abacha arrested and executed him. Saro-Wiwa’s idealism was exceptional in a resistance movement that increasingly migrated toward violence and crime. During elections in 2003, Delta political bosses armed youth gangs to compete for power; after the vote, the gangs moved into freelance rackets. They drew members, brand names, and cult practices from college campus fraternities: the Vikings, the Icelanders, the Outlaws, and their female counterparts, the Daughters of Jezebel, the Black Braziers, and the Viqueens. They dealt drugs; siphoned oil from pipelines, or stole it in conspiracy with government officials or military officers; and they kidnapped Nigerians and foreigners for ransom. Unemployment ran high among the Niger Delta’s young population; the criminal gangs were hiring, and if you could loll around the swamps, hold a gun, and occasionally take a few physical risks, you could have a paying job. As the gangs raised their political sights and economic ambition after 2006, their picaresque criminality—their head scarves, bandoliers, and speedboats; their bank robbery techniques, which included using massive charges of dynamite to blast away reinforced steel doors—seemed increasingly inspired by Hollywood.
This was the ethos from which the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta arose. M.E.N.D. became, after 2006, the dominant Delta insurgent brand. Central Intelligence Agency reporting from Nigeria during the period of ExxonMobil’s Eket kidnapping episode described M.E.N.D. not as an organization with any true leader or hierarchy, but as “a label—at best an umbrella group or an umbrella label,” as a consumer of the agency’s reporting, who found the C.I.A.’s analysis credible, put it. To avoid being targeted, M.E.N.D. lacked a central council that could declare who was an authorized commander and who was not. Its notional leader, Henry Okah, was an arms dealer who seemed to spend much of his time outside Nigeria; his supposed role as a supremo served as a convenience for a movement that was, in fact, made up of semiautonomous, extortionate gangs of varied strength and character. Consumers of M.E.N.D.’s press releases and Facebook videos might imagine a tight-knit band of swamp guerrillas fighting for justice against cold-blooded international oil corporations. There was some of that, but the private security analysts who advised ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and other corporations on kidnappings and safety described M.E.N.D. more as a loose collection of armed young men, mainly from the Ijaw ethnic group, who used laptop computers to create an appearance of formidable coherence.
M.E.N.D. activists or those using their brand name fought at times with Nigerian security services, but they also collaborated with the Nigerian navy in massive thefts of Delta oil from barges and pipelines—“bunkering,” as it was known, a racket that independent analysts estimated generated between $4.5 billion and $6 billion in total thefts during 2008 alone.
In Irving, the global political mapping exercise revised annually by Rosemarie Forsythe, ExxonMobil’s chief political risk analyst, painted Nigeria as a bright red “transitional” country (as opposed to blue “democracies” and yellow “authoritarian” regimes), a category marked by internal instability. Forsythe had also developed maps showing where all the world’s instances of piracy and similar crimes took place; Nigeria stood near the top of that chart, too. As Rex Tillerson settled into office and assessed the greatest global risks to ExxonMobil’s oil and gas portfolio, Nigeria looked unstable; it was getting worse; it was increasingly influenced by pirates; and yet its oil exports were central to the corporation’s business model. Nigerian violence also stoked volatility in global oil prices and raised questions anew about America’s energy security. ExxonMobil and the United States government, in alignment but each in its sovereign sphere, found themselves adapting after 2006, often in an atmosphere of confusion and argument, to the world that M.E.N.D. had created.
Tillerson was perhaps not ideally suited to assess Nigeria’s moral swamps. His feel for political economies in poor countries was limited. Even during his rise within ExxonMobil’s international divisions, he had never lived outside the United States. In any event, managing ExxonMobil’s position in Nigeria in the post-Aceh era of the Voluntary Principles, heavy media scrutiny, and potential lawsuits would have been challenging even if Tillerson had been an anthropological expert.
In September 2005, on the cusp of taking power in Irving, Tillerson had flown into Abuja. President Obasanjo had been making noise about forcing Western oil companies in Nigeria to move beyond pumping crude and into the refining of gasoline and other products for local consumption. ExxonMobil had steered clear of Obasanjo because “he tended to pound tables” and make demands. Nigeria was about the last place in the world Lee Raymond wanted to spend time. Tillerson decided to engage, however. He met with the Nigerian president, flew down to Lagos, where he stayed in the corporation’s Waterfront Guest House, traveled by helicopter to a few production sites, and departed. The corporation’s message to American diplomats in the country was that they should “encourage deregulation” and work on “improving the investment climate.”
Tillerson remained hopeful—if not in a state of denial—about ExxonMobil’s place in the hearts and minds of Akwa Ibom’s population. After the Eket kidnapping, local insurgents took periodic potshots at ExxonMobil transport vans. Speedboat pirates menaced the corporation’s offshore platforms. Still, Tillerson believed that ExxonMobil remained “largely . . . insulated” from the worst Delta violence and political dysfunction. In Akwa Ibom, Tillerson boasted, the “community in effect protects us when militants from outside . . . try to create problems. . . . We have good relations down there. That is because we made some good decisions at the beginning. And we look to that as a model.”
The trouble the corporation endured as M.E.N.D. rose was “criminal in nature,” Tillerson believed. He was “mindful of the security situation,” but felt nonetheless that ExxonMobil had a winning formula for obtaining community allegiance in Akwa Ibom. This strategy was rooted, Tillerson thought, in firmness. He sought to imbue in locals the expectation that ExxonMobil knew “how you say no” and that the corporation “could not be intimidated and would act consistently.”
Exxon had inherited its operations in the Niger Delta from Mobil. The corporation’s subsidiary, Mobil Exploration Nigeria, Inc., won its first license to explore for oil offshore of Akwa Ibom State in 1961; the first wells flowed later that decade. By the time of the merger, Mobil was on the way to becoming the second-largest international producer in Nigeria, after Royal Dutch Shell. Large volumes and the light, sweet quality of the oil made its Nigerian offshore properties exceptionally valuable.
Mobil and then ExxonMobil recruited, paid, supplied, and managed sections of the Nigerian military and police assigned to protect the Eket compound, the roads that led from there to the Qua Iboe Terminal on the Atlantic, and the roads around Akwa Ibom’s state capital of Uyo, a fume-choked city that housed the outsize development projects of Victor Attah. These included the shopping centers Mountain of Fire and Miracles Plaza and, after 2007, the equally ambitious, divinity-inflected construction projects of his successor, Godswill Akpabio. (Akpabio enjoyed a fortunate name for a career in politics in a faithful state; he handed out T-shirts to his youth gangs with slogans such as “Stop Social Vices” and “Support Godswill.”)
The Mobil Police, as they were known locally, carried automatic rifles and wore black shirts emblazoned with a white arm patch that displayed the Mobil red Pegasus flying horse symbol first adopted in 1931 as a trademark by Mobil predecessor Standard Oil Company of New York. After the upsurge of violence in 2006, ExxonMobil’s Chaplin reported, militants often stripped the Mobil Police of their weapons and “many officers have taken to removing their uniforms at the slightest hint of militant activity.” The corporation’s police established layered checkpoints, spaced every kilometer or so, on the major roads to and from ExxonMobil properties. “ExxonMobil: Take Ownership” declared the sign at the Qua Iboe Terminal entrance, surrounded by warnings posted by Mobil Police squadrons: “Military Zone,” “No Stopping,” and “No Waiting.” The Nigerian military deployed a mechanized battalion to reinforce security in the state, but most of the Nigerian government’s support for the Mobil Police came from the S.S.S. ExxonMobil’s Global Security unit in Nigeria appointed liaison officers to joint security task forces to coordinate convoy protection, perimeter security at ExxonMobil installations, and executive protection services. In addition to the Mobil Police, ExxonMobil hired and supervised an eight-hundred-man unarmed unit of the “supernumerary” or “spy” police in Akwa Ibom. The scope of their duties is unclear. The spy police carried corporate identity cards even while technically in the employ of their own government. At one stage, the supernumerary unit in Eket sued ExxonMobil for employment benefits. They argued that they were, in effect, corporate employees, not government police officers.
Prior to the merger, Mobil had operated a successful program of community relations in Akwa Ibom, at least as local politicians perceived it. The corporation funded a soccer club, community buildings, water projects, and road building. Nigerian and expatriate Mobil executives curried favor with local political leaders. The corporation acted as “a neighbor and a brother,” recalled Esseme Eyiboh, who represented Eket in the Nigerian House of Representatives. After the merger with Exxon, it became a “purely commercial drive.” The corporation withdrew from a memorandum of understanding that Mobil had negotiated with local leaders and produced a new program, which they wanted “the community to accept . . . without making any inputs,” said Nduese Essien, who negotiated with the corporation after the merger.
With Mobil, Victor Attah recalled, political liaison was “a lot less mechanical,” but with ExxonMobil, “it became a lot more rigid.” He pleaded with the corporation to build a power plant, but its managers refused, declaring that such projects were “not their core area of business.” Under ExxonMobil’s rules, Nigerian politicians could not ride corporate airplanes unless it was strictly for oil business; special projects of the sort Mobil had accommodated before the merger were refused; the soccer club and local athletic programs were abandoned; and the corporation issued a new list of local projects it would support. “They have been operating on their diktats,” said Essien.
“You have to be willing to say, ‘No, we aren’t going to do it that way, we are going to do it this way; if we can’t do it this way, we won’t be here,’” Tillerson explained, speaking specifically about ExxonMobil’s strategy in the Niger Delta. “This is the way my company has operated throughout the world throughout my entire career. We will walk away if we don’t have an acceptable situation on the ground. That doesn’t mean it’s not tough, it doesn’t mean we don’t have problems. We manage it, but it can be done in a way that the local community benefits tremendously—and the Akwa Ibom state has benefited enormously. That is why we enjoy good relations.”
Tillerson’s opinions echoed those of Governor Akpabio, who promoted a slogan, “Akwa Ibom Ado Okay!” or “Akwa Ibom Is Okay!” He sought to protect ExxonMobil. At a “gala night” to honor Chaplin, the governor declared, “Akwa Ibom cannot be safe for criminals; they will soon know that the state is not safe for kidnappers. Let oil companies and other firms know that the state is safe for them.” In fact, Akpabio’s supporters were engaged increasingly in a complex war with rival gangs, played out through tit-for-tat kidnappings. Nigerian-born ExxonMobil managers and employees, with their attractive salaries, were not immune. Governor Akpabio “has strong cult connections,” said a U.S. official who tracked the governor’s activities. “I’m told that many of the attacks on the roads . . . are being carried out by his militia—whether because he orders it or because they don’t feel they are getting enough money is not clear.” As Eyiboh put it: “We are an inch from insurgency.”
If the corporation enjoyed a measure of periodic stability in comparison with Shell and Chevron, it was hardly the result of its corporate strategy; it was because most of its oil production was offshore and therefore harder to steal or disrupt. Harder, but not impossible: M.E.N.D.-branded pirates were a determined lot.
In September 2006, President Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 50, outlining American security strategy in Africa. The directive’s stated objectives included building African capacity to govern and deliver social services, consolidating democracies on the continent, and bolstering fragile states. On November 15, 2006, about a month after the Eket kidnapping of ExxonMobil contract workers, Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, spoke at a maritime security conference in West Africa organized by the United States Navy. The conference was meant to rally regional governments into partnership with the Pentagon to improve maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, as the Atlantic Ocean waters off Nigeria were known. “Achieving coastal security in the Gulf of Guinea is key to America’s trade and investment opportunities in Africa, to our energy security, and to stem transnational threats,” Frazer said. She continued: “Let us consider oil.” If African governments protected oil commerce, they could prosper. But they required the goodwill of international oil giants. “If kidnapping of their workers and attacks on their facilities continue,” those companies were unlikely to stay.
African politicians, scarred by a century of resource-driven European colonialism, feared that the Bush administration viewed their oil as analogous to the oil of the Persian Gulf: as a vital American interest, one that might warrant military intervention, at least in extremis. Bush officials imagined themselves striking a more nuanced, postcolonial posture, one that emphasized encouraging African states to modernize and to rise from poverty. When an American official stood at a lectern flanked by U.S. Navy flags and spoke about oil security, however, the message was unavoidable: West Africa mattered to the United States in part because it possessed critical supplies of energy, and the American military stood ready to ensure oil flowed.
Would a U.S. military response to the Gulf of Guinea’s struggles with piracy and insurgency serve ExxonMobil’s interests? Before the M.E.N.D. uprising of early 2006, the major American oil corporations in Nigeria preferred to handle their own security problems in the region. Bunkering exacerbated corruption, militia violence, and inequality, but it was not necessarily a problem for ExxonMobil, because its contracts were written to absolve it from the costs of any thefts, and it was not necessarily a problem for global oil supply, because the stolen oil ultimately reached international markets. (As a practical matter, there was nothing to be done with stolen Nigerian crude but sell it.) Connie Newman, Jendayi Frazer’s predecessor at State, recalled that in 2004 and 2005, as the trouble in the Delta first began to bubble, oil representatives seemed to have little interest in sharing intelligence or otherwise taking on the problem in partnership with the Bush administration. State officials who visited Nigeria flew over the Delta in Chevron or ExxonMobil helicopters, from which their guides would point out barges of the type routinely used in oil thefts, as if such larceny were part of the natural landscape. “You guys know about this bunkering—the militants don’t have tankers,” Newman argued when oil company liaisons visited her at Foggy Bottom. “I’m not saying you’re doing it—but you know who’s doing it, and you could share that information with us.” But the companies demurred.
The kidnapping and offshore piracy of 2006 started to alter their attitudes. “The cooperation of the oil companies turned one hundred eighty degrees,” recalled a U.S. official in Nigeria at the time. The companies offered new levels of “coordination and information sharing.”
The kidnapping surge was not the only new challenge to ExxonMobil. The corporation had begun to tow into Nigeria’s deep water, one after another, massive offshore production vessels known as F.P.S.O.s, which stood for floating, production, storage, and offloading. These were oil production platforms in the form of enormous ships that hovered above oil fields, obviating the need to build pylons and platforms in such deep ocean water. The vessels were so huge and economically important, however, that they presented “a significant terrorist target,” a U.S. government assessment concluded. The question facing Chaplin, ExxonMobil Global Security, and Tillerson was how to protect this investment. The corporation projected that by 2010 it would have one of the world’s largest fleets of F.P.S.O.s floating off the Delta, some of them away from Akwa Ibom and in territory more accessible by Nigeria’s most aggressive speedboat militants. Each vessel would produce 100,000 to 250,000 barrels a day of oil and other liquid products. Among other things, they were potentially combustible.
As trouble rose in Akwa Ibom, Chaplin had been reluctant to militarize ExxonMobil’s response or to encourage Nigeria’s government to do so. ExxonMobil initially decided against asking the Nigerian navy to protect its offshore fleet. Chaplin saw the navy as “amateurish with broken boats and no fuel,” and some of its officers were probably involved with the militants in oil theft rings, as everyone in the Nigerian officer corps “retires with money.” As for encouraging the Nigerian army to enter the Delta and attack the militants operating there, “The military was not an option that ExxonMobil hoped for,” Chaplin said, because an incursion “would aggravate the problem by antagonizing local communities.”
The corporation “has decided to go light on security out of concern that the presence of security would not function as a deterrent, but would be seen as a challenge to the militants to attack the facility,” the Lagos consulate reported. “That a company would have to engage in these types of calculations for an investment of this magnitude demonstrates the extent to which the security environment for oil companies has descended.”
It got worse. M.E.N.D. and similar units attacked ExxonMobil supply boats as they moved through narrow channels and river ways. The corporation organized its supply ships into convoys for greater protection but Chaplin found the Nigerian forces were not willing or able to supply adequate security. The country’s wealth depended upon coastal oil production but it lacked the basics of a coast guard.
In Washington, recalled a State Department official involved as the attacks worsened, “the oil companies kept telling us, ‘Goddamnit, can’t the C.I.A. and the navy solve this problem? We’ll tell you where they [the militants] are. . . . Why can’t you fix this swampy corner? It’s a bunch of pirates. Why can’t you just send the navy in there and fix this?’”
The Pentagon had been reviewing that very question since at least 2004. At that time, Africa fell to the European Command, headquartered in Germany. That was an example of how tacked-on and neglected Africa policy often had been. September 11 had galvanized attention to the threat of Al Qaeda–inspired terrorists taking root in ungoverned spaces, of which Africa had many. With Taliban-inspired militias forming in northern Nigeria and M.E.N.D.-inspired oil insurgents and criminals rising in the south of the country, Nigeria “has the possibility of becoming the next Pakistan within twenty-five years,” Johnnie Carson, then the Bush administration’s national intelligence officer for Africa, noted. The growing share of oil imported into the United States from West Africa by American companies, particularly from Nigeria and Angola, gradually attracted the Pentagon’s attention. A proposal to form a distinct Africa Command at the U.S. Department of Defense, a command that would be hived off from the European Command, had surfaced within the Pentagon as far back as the late 1990s, but it was not until Delta militancy exploded after 2005 that the plan gained support from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The command began initial operations in October 2007, headquartered at Stuttgart, Germany.
America’s response when confronted with a problem such as Nigeria’s security services was, as N.S.P.D. 50 outlined, to build local capacity. This was a mantra of postcolonial liberalism in the developing world, shaped by the belief that sovereign local governments should take the lead and not have Western solutions imposed upon them. When applied by Africa Command to the particular problem of piracy and kidnapping in the Gulf of Guinea, the philosophy produced plans to strengthen the capacity of the Nigerian navy, so the navy could control its own coastal waters and challenge seaborne M.E.N.D. gangs. The problem, noted an American official involved, was that “it was their admirals that were stealing the damn oil. And then they hired the M.E.N.D. to protect their theft, and they had to cut the M.E.N.D. in.” Since the Nigerian navy collaborated with pirates, a corporate oil security analyst noted, did it really make sense to have the U.S. Navy train Nigerian navy officers in the most sophisticated techniques for, say, the storming and boarding of ships? Wouldn’t that just ultimately create more skilled Nigerian pirates?
The Pentagon’s Africa policy office viewed the Niger Delta as “the perfect storm of political bosses mixing in with disgruntled populations, and Mafioso kind of enterprise that reached quite high in the Nigerian government,” as a U.S. Defense Department official put it. The Pentagon’s advice to Nigeria’s government, nonetheless, was that “number one, they needed to improve their situational awareness” of what was happening from hour to hour on Delta swamp rivers and open Gulf of Guinea waters. Theresa Whelan’s office shepherded the transfer to the Nigerian navy of excess U.S. Navy sixty-foot “buoy tender” vessels, for coastal patrolling. The Pentagon also spent $16 million to provide Nigeria with a “suite of sensors,” as Whelan described them, tied into a command and control center installed in Lagos by the United States. The command center was designed to provide Nigerian navy officers with a real-time radar-enhanced picture of authorized and unauthorized sea traffic off the Delta coastline. The problem remained that Nigerian admirals did not actually wish to intervene in much of the unauthorized activity because it represented income to them.
From Europe, the U.S. Navy initiated the Africa Partnership Station, a program of periodic U.S. Navy patrols in the Gulf of Guinea, coupled with exercises and shore visits, that were designed to build up the Nigerian navy and the navies and coast guards of smaller neighboring countries. The program found traction in better-organized nations, such as Ghana, but its sponsors struggled in Abuja. The United States Navy had “never really come across an organization that behaves” like the Nigerian navy, said a U.S. official involved. American military officers “come in here and they see a navy with all the trappings, the ranks, the uniforms, and so on, and they think it’s a real navy—poor, but earnest. But it’s not that at all.” It was not obvious what policies the Americans could bring to bear on a sister service that was mainly a criminal enterprise dressed up in epaulets. “It’s hard to get used to the fact that Nigerian officials will lie to you straight up,” the American official continued. “The chief of navy staff told us, ‘There has been no incidence of piracy. You have been misinformed.’” In fact, American diplomatic and intelligence analysts documented nearly four hundred incidents of piracy in Nigerian waters between 2006 and 2009. ExxonMobil itself was struck in some seasons as often as three times per month. Arguably, the effect of American military assistance to the Nigerian navy had been to abet attacks on the property of America’s largest oil corporation.
Kidnapped, robbed, and suffering from steadily declining oil production volumes, as well as soaring maritime insurance rates, American and British oil executives grew restless after 2006. Around the Horn of Africa, where piracy was about equally bad, statistically, the U.S. Navy led international coalitions to battle Somali pirates. Why not do the same in the Gulf of Guinea?
Nigeria’s navy was down to two boats it could use to escort oil service ships to defend them from attacks. Nigerian oil output fell because of militant attacks and world oil prices rose toward record highs. Daily news stories of fresh M.E.N.D. attacks caused spot prices to gyrate wildly, pinching the world economy. Mark Ward, Chaplin’s deputy, believed it was time to “help the [Nigerian government] rapidly increase its capacity to provide security” on the routes through the Bonny Channel used by supply ships servicing offshore production. “Any help” the United States could provide to Nigeria “for river training” would be “very good,” Chaplin agreed. The corporation resisted Nigerian requests for special funds to buy more boats and equipment, but ExxonMobil did supply its own boats to the navy for use on rivers near corporate facilities and housing.
In Washington, these suggestions generated brainstorming and war gaming about American options. “We were constantly beating off bad ideas” to provide training, supply equipment, and conduct joint exercises with Nigerian military units in the Delta, proposals that originated with the international oil firms, said a State Department official. The Pentagon and the economic bureau at State, which liaised with the large oil corporations and channeled many of these ideas, brought forward scenarios and war games that contemplated direct American military intervention in the Niger Delta, or high-profile exercises that might intimidate the kidnappers. “These were the guys in whose ears ExxonMobil was whispering,” the State official recalled. “They wanted to persuade us, but it was never clear what they had in mind.” M.E.N.D. challenged the viability of the Exxon way, and the corporation turned to the Pentagon. At Africa Command, Army colonels and navy captains rotated into Germany on short tours, the official continued, and they would declare, “‘Let’s have a Nigeria strategy.’ They were constantly running war games in which Nigeria was the example. . . . ‘What do we do if the marines have to seize the oil facilities?’”
A second American official in Nigeria recalled the prevalence, after 2006, of largely speculative “ideas that floated around” for deploying U.S. Marines in the Delta to address M.E.N.D. militancy and piracy.
The Pentagon proposed joint “riverine training exercises” to Nigeria, of the type suggested by ExxonMobil, but “they had no interest,” a Defense Department official recalled. “There was talk about large force deployments in the Delta,” the Defense official continued, but “we certainly never encouraged or validated that. . . . The Delta could easily suck up 100,000 [American] troops and you’d still not have it covered.” The war games and troop proposals were more “just throwing out ideas,” not action plans for an American military intervention, the official said. The very existence and repetitive recurrence of the Pentagon’s tabletop exercises, however, struck some State officials as a discouraging example of the militarization of American foreign policy in Africa.
Loose talk about riverine exercises and marine training packages made Nigerian commanders very nervous. The launch of Africa Command as a formal enterprise in 2008 (during its initial operations, it had remained subordinate to European Command) happened to coincide with another wave of violence in the Delta. Nigerian foreign minister Ojo Maduekwe pointedly complained of a “lack of conceptual clarity” about the Pentagon’s intentions in the Gulf of Guinea. Beset by questions and criticisms from African capitals, Theresa Whelan felt compelled to declare publicly, “We have no intention of using Africa Command to try and control oil resources.”
What, then, was the true connection between the Pentagon’s program to build up the Nigerian and other regional navies in the Gulf of Guinea, and the reality that about 25 percent of America’s imported oil flowed through those waters?
“It is a fact that the United States government does not own any oil companies,” Air Force major general Michael Snodgrass, the deputy commander of Africa Command, said at the Africa command’s headquarters in Stuttgart. “And if the United States decided to take over any country because of its oil, who would then exploit the oil? It’s up to the free market to do that.”
What, then, is the American military’s message to ExxonMobil or Chevron if they point out that they are suffering attacks in the Niger Delta and offshore?
“Our message is nothing, unless the president of the United States directs us to go do something like that,” Snodgrass answered. “It is not the mission of this command to provide the security. And we have no intention of going into an African nation and helping an industry, whatever the industry may be—be it the fishing industry, the oil industry, the textile industry, the fake African elephant industry—be protected within the confines of a sovereign nation. That’s not our role. . . . So my response to those companies is, ‘You need to work out the arrangement with that sovereign nation to your satisfaction. And if you can’t, you might want to reconsider your investment.’ We are not the guarantor of their security.”
Nigerian piracy presented the first major test of ExxonMobil’s decision to adopt the Voluntary Principles governing corporate conduct in defense, security, and human rights. After ExxonMobil’s fiasco in Aceh, Irving did not want to be placed in a position where security guards had to shoot at Nigerian pirates. By implementing the Voluntary Principles after 2005, ExxonMobil had effectively adopted a different approach to security: passive defense, enhanced by surveillance and partnership with local Nigerian forces, however flawed they might be. That meant, as a practical matter, given the weakness of the Nigerian navy and the reluctance of the United States to intervene directly, that the safety of ExxonMobil’s offshore platform workers and managers depended increasingly on a defense strategy that seemed inspired by the 2002 Jodie Foster movie, Panic Room, in which a New York divorcée and her daughter lock themselves in a sealed room in their apartment as burglars assault them unremittingly.
In general, the Voluntary Principles regime discouraged the direct use by private corporations of offensive tactics or military technology, such as the deployment of military radar on offshore oil facilities, which might make the platforms appear to be legitimate military targets. ExxonMobil Global Security did deploy patrol boats with unarmed observers in the Gulf of Guinea; the security boats motored out in forward sweeps, seeking to detect, as early in an assault as possible, armed attackers who might be en route to ExxonMobil facilities. If pirates were seen approaching, defense protocols kicked in: broadcasted alerts, lockdowns, the disablement of equipment, and retreat into interior safe rooms. Intelligence collection, threat mapping, and surveillance were about as far as ExxonMobil was now willing to go. The corporation’s security officers used Google Earth satellite photography to create graphic maps overlaid with the locations and dates of recent attacks, and the sites of militant camps in Akwa Ibom. They worked human sources and tried to understand who was who inside the camps.
ExxonMobil security officers called Africa Command in Germany as attacks unfolded on the open ocean. “They call me a lot,” a military officer there said, “mostly to give me situational awareness. Most of the time we’re not in a position to respond—that’s part of what I tell them. It’s not unlike what the Coast Guard tells lots of people in the maritime industry in the United States. . . . ‘You own the first two hours,’” meaning that self-defense would be required for at least that long.
The oil corporations were “wary of what they share and how much” with the Nigerian navy, a Pentagon official said, because the navy was so transparently part of the crime problem. Even when ExxonMobil summoned the Nigerian navy in desperation, while under attack, said a third American official, “they won’t come. They have no will.” ExxonMobil therefore had little choice but to “go into lockdown . . . hunker down and hope for the best.”
This was not a conventional portrait of the powers of the largest publicly traded corporation in the most powerful military nation in the world. It was, nonetheless, the reality ExxonMobil employees stationed offshore of West Africa endured in an age of uncontrolled piracy, massive corruption, and the covenants of corporate responsibility won by international human rights groups.
Rex Tillerson might boast that ExxonMobil did business on its own terms around the world and walked away when conditions were unacceptable, but ExxonMobil determined that it could not afford to abandon its booked reserves in Nigeria, even as M.E.N.D.’s provocations deepened. After 2006, ExxonMobil relocated many of its Nigerian managers to a secure headquarters building on Victoria Island in Lagos, and reinforced its passive defense systems offshore. Periodically, after kidnappings and speedboat raids of particular virulence, the corporation evaluated whether the Delta’s violence had crossed a threshold that might argue for the corporation’s total withdrawal. None of the ExxonMobil reviews reached such a radical conclusion, however. “Where are they going to go?” asked an American official who worked with the company’s managers. “They don’t want these reserves off their balance sheets. . . . They need the reserves.”