International Papers

Hostages for Oil

Papers are reporting a tense showdown off the coast of Nigeria, where about 100 foreign workers—including 35 Britons and 17 Americans—are facing a third week trapped by disgruntled laborers on four oil rigs. Talks to end the blockade are underway, but Nigerian and European papers reported that the recent deployment of Nigeria’s navy spurred fears of a forced evacuation spiraling into violence. According to the Times of London,one British captive said in an e-mail message, “Make no mistake of the danger we’re in. If they have lost everything then they will make sure we lose everything. And that means our lives.”

The strikers launched their protest over working conditions April 19 and intensified their fight after the firing of five colleagues accused of theft and corruption. The protesters reportedly insist their demands must be met before they will free the trapped workers. Strikers are blocking sea and air access to the rigs, preventing crew changes and food supply to oil workers. Britain’s Guardian reported that the strikers have blocked access to the rigs even to labor union leaders, who are communicating with the workers by fax. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo initiated fresh talks Friday, after negotiations broke down earlier this week. (For more on the background to the strike, see this Q and A from the Times.)

Nigeria’s This Day reportedthat while the parties are seeking a peaceful resolution, the Nigerian navy has been authorized to use force if necessary. A spokesman said, “The navy is in the area. Our men will move to take control of the rigs.” Nigeria’s Guardian noted, “Asked what the navy would do if it encountered resistance, [a navy spokesman] replied: ‘What action would you expect military men to take?’ ” But papers reported that talk of a possible military takeover sent strikers into a rage. Vanguard ran a diary one of the trapped foreign workers sent to relatives and colleagues by e-mail. With word of the navy deployment, the worker wrote, “[T]here was shouting, emotions were vented, some crew members started running around the rig with a fire axe.”

Papers reported that such accounts from expatriate workers are trickling out to their families via e-mail and satellite telephone. According to Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper, one e-mail said, “The strikers had threatened to blow up the oil rigs if their demands were not met.” But the Times reported that Houston-based Transocean, the rig owner, is dismissing accounts of serious menaces, insisting that the situation on the rigs remains calm.

Calm is not the mood portrayed in Britain’s Guardian, which gave an alarmingaccount of conditions on the rig based on e-mail messages. “Several captives have allegedly been put in containers and dangled by cranes over the sea and others threatened with death in an apparent attempt by striking Nigerian workers to intimidate managers.” The paper said food and water supplies are dwindling and two captives are said to have suffered nervous breakdowns. “Armed with axes and claiming to have explosives, the strikers have prevented boats docking and placed oil barrels on helipads to block helicopters, effectively turning the rigs into floating jails 25 miles from shore.”

Labor leaders, Transocean, and some newspapers have avoided calling the captives “hostages.” But not Scotland’s Press and Journal, which titled an article, “We fear for our lives, say Nigeria rig hostages.” The paper said, “Industrial unrest and lawlessness are a fact of life in the Nigerian oil industry, but union leaders in Aberdeen say they are alarmed that the crisis appears to be escalating.”

Such sieges are apparently common in the oil-rich Niger delta. Labor protests and ethnic violence in the region have disrupted Nigeria’s oil production (about 2.2 billion barrels a day) on several occasions, and similar showdowns have ended without harm to captives. Papers report that unrest in Nigeria—among the world’s top oil exporters—is among the global factors driving up the cost of crude oil. Even if the captives are released unharmed, the dispute threatens Nigeria’s already battered economy. Vanguard reported that union leaders “threatened to paralyse Africa’s biggest oil industry with an industry-wide strike if the Navy carries through with moves to retake the platforms and dislodge the protesters.”

Update: Reuters is reporting that two plane loads of British special forces are headed to Nigeria to “rescue” the foreign hostages. Reports from Nigeria also suggest the hostages may be freed Friday.